Mid-year musings on the iPad
Well, it’s that time of year again: Winter Term is over and we’re all about to have a regular course load’s work for the first time in almost two months. Get excited. In the meantime, this week marks the halfway point for Elon’s Writing with Thumbs program. Through this program, I’ve been able to spend the last five months exploring and reviewing iPad apps, and learning how other Elon students use the iPad as an academic tool.
I’m glad to take this moment to reflect on the first half of my Writing with Thumbs experience—especially since I’ve spent the last three solid weeks thinking almost exclusively about Economics. If there are things in this world other than supply and demand curves, I will have surely forgotten them by January 27th.
So, before I take up temporary residence in the library to study for my final, let’s talk iPads, shall we?
Last semester I decided to review Keynote presentation software and a couple of different PDF organizer apps, including Mendeley and iAnnotate. The most frequently asked question from my followers (read: my parents) is whether I’ve continued to use the apps I reviewed. I’m happy to report that I still use Keynote for both my diagramming and presentation-giving needs. Hand draw the supply and demand curves for that Econ paper? Please. My Keynote graph-making game has never been stronger. These days I have Keynote open almost constantly as I craft a conference presentation, anyway.
I haven’t used iAnnotate nearly as much since my review on PDF organizers, but that’s mainly because my Christmas break was utterly devoid of research papers (thank god). However, with my thesis proposal right around the corner, I fully expect to become reacquainted with iAnnotate in the coming months.
It would be pretty wasteful if the only iPad apps I ever used were the ones I’ve reviewed. Admittedly, a few of my most frequently used apps are the self-indulgent ones, like Netflix and The New York Times Crossword, or the pragmatic but less fun ones, like the Fifth Third bank app my mom made me download. But one app I’ve found particularly useful for school, that seems too simplistic for the topic of a full-fledged review, is Chegg’s Flashcards+. I guess I’ll just have to gush about it here.
Okay, so I’m a huge fan of flashcards—which I realize is probably the lamest thing you’ve ever read on this blog, but bear with me. Flashcards are my go-to study technique, especially for vocabulary. I’ve used a couple of flashcard websites to study for tests before, but being someone who tends to lose track of passwords, I’ve never really kept up with any of these accounts. This means I often resort to using a lot of index cards (if you saw my PDF organizer post, you already know I’m not a very eco-friendly learner).
I originally downloaded Flashcards+ last semester to help me pick up some Klingon vocabulary words. Okay, that might be the lamest thing you’ve ever read on this blog, but in my defense, I was doing a research paper on the language for my linguistics course. It was all very academic, definitely not just an outburst of Trekkie fanaticism. No way. The point is: I found it convenient to have all my flashcards in one place. Adding cards proved quick and simple (as opposed to all the hoops they make you jump through to create a new stack on FlashcardMachine.com), and best of all, no new passwords to remember or internet access needed. The app’s been a lifesaver this Winter Term, when each class heralds a plethora of new, unfamiliar Econ terms to learn.
Using the iPad as a student
For the first half of fall semester, the iPad was just a secondary tool to my laptop. Most of the apps I used for classwork on a regular basis, like Word, Google Docs, and Keynote, were accessible on the computer I’d been using for schoolwork since sophomore year of high school. Unfortunately, that computer broke a few weeks before exams, as per Murphy’s Law, leaving the iPad as my main academic tool.
I quickly realized one of the perks of carrying an iPad to class instead of a laptop could be appreciated without even turning it on. Namely, an iPad is much lighter than a Macbook Pro, or several textbooks, if you’ve got an app for that (thank you, Yuzu).
I also appreciated the versatility of the iPad for note taking. I’m a slow writer by hand, so if I can take notes for a class on a computer, I do. This becomes a bit difficult in lectures that involve sketching a lot of diagrams or jotting down equations. Being able to both type on the iPad and write on screen with a stylus made the note taking process easier.
Still, the bulk of the work I was doing on the iPad could be done on a laptop. When I got a new computer for Christmas, I thought I would continue primarily using the iPad, but a few days later, I was mostly using my computer again. I suppose I’m just a sucker for that kind of comfortable familiarity. (This is how you know you’re a millennial—when being “stuck in your ways” means the inability to forsake your computer for a tablet.)
One of the major drawbacks I’ve found in writing on the iPad is being limited to looking at one window at a time—and in the word applications, looking at one document at a time. My writing process is a bit like quilting: cut a piece or two from this document, paste it into that document, rearrange the whole thing, which might end up in another document…you get the idea. It’s all a bit messy, with an obscene number of open and minimized windows. I don’t like only seeing one document on the iPad screen, and generally I have my laptop open next to me with everything else pulled up.
On the plus side, this restriction does help me focus if I’m just trying to brainstorm or pound out a rough draft. I’ve found that only seeing one document is more conducive to the writing process under these circumstances, since it a) contains my word-vomit to one place, and b) prevents me from getting distracted by Facebook and iMessages notifications elsewhere on screen. So if I’m in a crunch and need to get words on a page, I’ll reach for my iPad.
There are also a myriad of apps for aspiring writers to organize their ideas and stories. I’ve just started using A Novel Idea, which is helpful for those scatter-brained writers like me who have multiple stories going at once. I’ll further discuss this app in a review this spring.
It’s worth noting that I wouldn’t get nearly as much writing done on my iPad if I didn’t have a physical keyboard attached to the case. For a participant in the Writing with Thumbs program, I am remarkably inept at literal writing with thumbs (I’ve been known to respond to texts with voice calls simply because I lack the patience to type out a response). Maybe I’ve just got sub-par thumb coordination, but for students like myself, who type long pieces of writing frequently, I’d definitely recommend purchasing the “traditional,” off-screen keyboard. I find it more comfortable, and you can see more of what you’ve written when there’s not a keyboard taking up half your screen.
Participating in the Writing with Thumbs program this past semester has been an absolute pleasure. I’ve gotten the chance to learn a lot about myself as a writer, and what learning technologies do and don’t work for me. I’m looking forward to checking out some new apps and accessories this spring, and sharing my experiences with you all. Until then, blog community!