Every year around this time I start composing an article about how to get by in college with just an iPad. But in past years, once I get into it I realize that using your iPad as your only computer through college is like strapping a jet engine to your Chevrolet; you can do it, and it’s a fun experiment, but it’s not very practical.
There are some coming features in iOS 8, however, that may help students get more work done on just an iPad.
Current limitations in iOS7
While there are many reasons an iPad probably won’t work well as your main device in college — your major might have specific programs you need to learn, for instance — Apple’s current app sandboxing practice makes it very difficult to share data between apps.
Regardless of your major, you will need to write a research paper, cite your sources, and submit it. iOS7 makes completing all of these difficult. You can use Pages or Word to compose your research paper and reference your citations, and citation management tools like EasyBib and EndNote to manage your citations, but there’s still a lot of cutting and pasting to get your bibliography into your paper.
Lastly, there’s the seemingly simple part of actually submitting your paper. If your instructor wants you to email it, you’re golden; just use the Mail app. Most colleges, though, use an online courseware program like Blackboard for grading and submission. Unfortunately, the iPad app for Blackboard only works with Dropbox and Google Drive. That’s great if you created your paper in Google Docs; not so good if you used Word or Pages because neither of those programs natively save to those services.
Extensions (hopefully) could make things easier
Extensions in iOS8 will either dramatically move the platform forward or be a half-baked solution that doesn’t work nearly as well as I hope. While my money is on the former, I also remember thinking iCloud Documents were going to work a lot different than they actually did. That said, it does seem like iCloud Disk is a big step in the right direction.
Back to the citation management issue. On my Mac, I’d use either Endnote’s integration with Pages, or Office 2011’s built-in citation management tools and use the cite-while-you-write feature to add in my references as I went along. You can’t currently do this on the iPad. I can see this working with an extension, however. At the least, I’d hope a bibliography could have the ability to insert a citation into Pages and auto-add the bibliography. Actually, I’d like to see Pages and Word support citations natively, but that’s for another wish list.
What I also hope is extensions and iCloud Drive make it easier for programs like Blackboard to support all cloud services.
What roadblocks lie ahead?
Extensions could be a big help to students who want to either go solo with an iPad, or at the least be able to be more productive on it, but the harsh reality is the app needs to be updated to use these new features. If its possible to handle citations through extensions, I’d expect to see the citation management apps receive updates quickly.
The Blackboard app illustrates another problem I have with iOS in general. Even with everything Apple showed off at WWDC, there is still no easy way to upload a file with Safari. While you can use an app like Puffin to upload from Dropbox, I’d still like to be able to do this right from Safari. Maybe in iOS9?
How would I use the iPad in school?
I completed my last degree in 2011 (Technical Communications). The iPad had just come out the year before and the app library wasn’t as strong as it is now. So, three years ago my use of the iPad was minimal: I’d take notes with it and load it full of reference materials, but other than some Chemistry apps, I couldn’t get much done with it.
Three years later, I could see myself using the iPad more. I was a night student, and I think overall the iPad with a keyboard was a better way for me to take notes than on my laptop. I would also use the camera to take pictures of the instructor’s notes on the board. Submitting papers to Blackboard I would probably still just do from my Mac. it would be easier to access the files in Safari.
Even with iOS8, I think the iPad will make a great complementary device for students. My recommendation would be an iMac as your main computer in your residence, and the iPad as your mobile device for school and the library. In price, the 11″ MacBook Air is close in price to an iPad, but I think the 11″ screen is too small for OS X. While the screen on the iPad is smaller than the air, I think the design of apps and the iOS interface work better.
Feature photo courtesy of Shutterstock user Losevsky Photo and Video