Throw a Tablet at It!

Libraries and academic institutions have been flooded with mobile devices over the past few years. We lend iPads, rove on our reference shifts, write tutorials on connecting to wireless networks in a dozen different operating systems, and perhaps even preside over one-to-one student-to-device programs.

However, there still seems to be confusion over what exactly tablets are good for. Amidst all the hype, I feel like we’re throwing them at some problems without answering fundamental questions first. What problems do they solve? Why would one choose a tablet over another type of computer? Some of these answers are straightforward, obvious even. Tablets have good battery life, they’re easier to carry around campus all day, especially if they can save you a textbook or two. They have great cameras. Most come with intuitive sharing facilities, making it easy to distribute materials in class.

But sometimes the affordances of a touch interface aren’t enough. So we add an USB keyboard, we add a mouse, we put the tablet in a cover to protect its exposed screen. And pretty soon we’ve got ourselves a laptop. A laptop with unpluggable parts, but a laptop nonetheless.

What’s Really Good

So what are good uses for tablets in the classroom? In my eyes, they center around two things: mobility and multimedia.

Tablets are clearly more mobile than laptops, even the lightest of which tend to be heavier and simply not designed for use on the go. Walking around campus with a Macbook Air and flipping it open every time you need to talk a picture with the webcam is not as easy as using a tablet with a camera on the backside. Most tablet operating systems are also getting better at hands-free usage, responding to voice input with technology like Siri and Google Now.

The applications of mobility in an educational setting are manifold. Starting with the obvious, many libraries have “scavenger hunt” activities which involve moving about the library and learning about different collections, service points, and study areas. Even if you don’t use an app like SCVNGR to run the activity, having a device with geolocation and a camera makes it easy to move from point-to-point and document progress. Given how labyrinthine many academic libraries are, particularly those with large stacks, a tablet could really help make a scavenger hunt less intimidating and more engaging.

At a community college, many of our courses are vocational in nature. These courses do not typically involve sitting in a lecture hall listening to your instructor, they are naturally suited to hands-on work in the field. Courses as varied as auto mechanics, criminal justice, ecology, and nursing could all benefit from mobile devices. Even typical uses, which don’t utilize purchased apps or unique hardware, could be easier with a lightweight computer, such as taking notes and looking up reference materials online.

Students in an ecology course can research local flora, looking up plant species while they’re far from campus. Criminal justice majors can document and investigate a fake crime scene. Nurses can refer to and ask for feedback on their treatment plans while making their rounds. Those latter two examples point to further advantages of tablets: they have great audio-video recording facilities and make sharing content very easy. Beyond just being mobile, tablet devices can help students create multimedia projects and share them to social media. They’re better suited to demonstrating metaliteracy.

This is Not a Pro-Tablets Post

Tablet computers have their uses in education. They are not, however, a panacea. There are many problems which they do not solve, and some which they exacerbate.

One of the most common, traditional uses of computers in academia is to create research papers. Unfortunately, tablets aren’t great for writing and researching in large quantities. Can they produce research papers? Absolutely, but long-form writing is one of the situations where one begins to turn a tablet into a laptop by adding a keyboard. One fights the tablet’s form rather than working with it.

While there are plenty of word processing apps available, they may not always work well with a school’s learning environment. Our instructors, for instance, mostly require papers in .rtf or .doc formats, which are only readily available on Windows tablets. This isn’t the tablets’ fault, but the uneven pace of technological development in academia (some professors leaping wholesale into multimedia assignments, others sticking with decades-old file formats) disadvantages newer devices. Vendor databases are also variable in how well they support smaller screens and touch-based interfaces.1 Finally, actually submitting an assignment to a Learning Management System is often difficult on mobile devices. Our LMS, which is quite modern in most respects, does not allow web uploads in Mobile Safari or Android Browser. It does have apps for both iOS and Android, but the app was read-only until recently and even now permits submissions only with the assistance of Dropbox.2

In sum, research papers present numerous obstacle for tablet devices. While none are insurmountable, the devices simply aren’t intended to produce research papers, at least not as much as traditional (laptop and desktop) computers. This isn’t a killer issue, and one which will no doubt improve over time. But tablet devices also pose larger questions about technology and learning which we need to at least be thinking about.

Human Rights

Mobile operating systems are remarkably stable. It’s perhaps sad that the first thing that really impressed me about iOS is that it just kept running. Open apps, leave them open, whatever, it doesn’t matter. The OS churns on.

But this stability comes at the cost of a lot of customizability. The reason why my Linux laptop occasionally become erratic is because I’ve told it to. I’ve installed a development version of the kernel, I’ve entered contradictory window manager configurations, I’ve deleted all my hardware drivers somehow. I have the freedom to be foolish.

Such complete control over a device, in the right hands, can offer privacy, a privacy that might be otherwise impossible to obtain. With companies like Apple and Google being complicit with the NSA’s survelliance, this poses a problem to libraries and other privacy advocates. Do we offer access to devices that are known to report their actions back to a corporate or governmental body? Or do we let users boot up a Tails instance and stay private? While surveillance may be unavoidable, Cory Doctorow is right to point out that this is a human rights issue. In an age where we do almost everything on our computers, locked-down devices offer some assurances at the expense of others. They run stable operating systems, but limit our ability to verify they haven’t been tampered with.

Starting people on devices whose only applications come from a corporate-controlled “app store” sets a precedent. If this is how people are first introduced to computers, it’s how many will assume they work. Apple has already tried to port its app store to the desktop, including setting a default to allow only apps installed from it. This may seem, ultimately, like a trite complaint. But Doctorow is right to extrapolate to equipment like cochlear implants; what happens when we don’t control the firmware on devices embedded in our own bodies? If a device matters to you, you should care about controlling what’s installed on it.

“But Android is open source!” And indeed, it is, though that somehow hasn’t stopped it from relying on multiple app stores with subtly different offerings (Google Play vs. Amazon Appstore on the Kindle Fire…why are there two corporate-controlled app stores for the same OS?). I feel like Android has been an open source OS that’s easy to corporations to customize on the locked-down devices they sell, but not so easy for users to truly takeover. Still, there’s hope here. CyanogenMod is a non-corporate version of Android which gives users far greater control than is available on other mobile operating systems. And rather recently, a CyanogenMod Installer appeared in the Google Play store, indicating that Google isn’t entirely opposed to giving users more freedom. Update: Google removed the CyanogenMod Installer app. So maybe they are opposed to giving users more freedom.

Too Easy to be True

I also can’t help but wonder: are we limiting people by providing all-too-easy devices? I cringe as I ask the question, because it recalls the ludicrous “discovery layers make research too easy and it should be hard” argument. Humor me a bit longer, however.

Much of my hesitancy with easy, touch-based devices comes from my own history with computers, where the deeper I’ve delved the more rewarded I’ve felt. I love the command line, an interface even less beginner-friendly than graphical desktop operating systems. I love the keyboard, too. Some keyboard shortcuts and a little muscle memory make me faster than any elaborate set of swipes could be. In fact, the lack of keyboard shortcuts and a command line is a big reason why I’m not a regular tablet user.3 I’ve grown to rely on it so much that going without just doesn’t make sense to me.

The point is: sometimes these difficult-to-learn interfaces have enormous power hidden beneath them. We’re sacrificing something by moving to an easier option, one which doesn’t offer power users a way around its limitations. Then again, just because a user employs a tablet for one activity doesn’t mean they’ll eschew laptops or desktops for everything else.4 The issue is more when tablets are presented as a replacement for more powerful computers; it’s valuable to make users understand that, in some circumstances, the level of control and customizability of a desktop OS is essential.

There’s No App for Futurity

The availability of apps is often cited as an advantage of mobile operating systems. But many apps offer no unique advantages over desktop computers; they perform the same functions but on a different device. Rather than monolithic desktop software packages like Microsoft Office or Creative Suite, consumers have a plethora of smaller, cheaper, more focused applications. The apps which do achieve things genuinely impossible or difficult on a desktop tend to engage with the two advantages of tablets I highlighted earlier, namely mobility (e.g. Foursquare, SCVNGR) and multimedia (video/audio recorders, from Vine to native Camera apps).

A recent LITA listserv discussion5 highlights the strawman “apps” argument. A few people noted the availability of apps on tablet computers, then proceeded to name a few common applications which are available on every major desktop operating system (not to mention free on the web). How does a dictionary or calculator suddenly become a competitive advantage when it’s on a tablet?

Take Evernote for example. Often cited as a must-have app, I feel like its primary appeal is solving a problem device ubiquity created. Taking notes and saving bits of content wasn’t much of a struggle before it involving syncing between so many devices. Evernote’s seamless cross-platform availability is what makes it so appealing, not that it reinvented annotation. Is it a great app for our modern age? Yes. Is it a killer app that makes you need an iPad? No. It’s an app you need if you have an iPad, not the other way around. Full disclosure: I never got into using Evernote, so this is an outsider’s take.

The distinction about which need comes first, tablet or app, is pivotal: mobile devices create needs even as they solve them. To return to keyboards again, why do we need them? To type on our tablets. Why did we need the tablets? So we can type everywhere we go. The cycle continues.

Folders

One metaphor that’s persisted since the dawn of graphical operating systems is that computer hard drives are like your filing cabinet: they have folders, inside those folders are files, files of different types.6 It’s very strange to me, having grown up thoroughly immersed in this metaphor, that mobile operating systems dispense with it. There are no more folders. There aren’t even files. There are only apps. The apps may conspire together, you may take a photo in one and edit it in another, but you may never interact with the photo itself outside of an app.

There is nothing essential about the filing cabinet metaphor. A different one could have become ubiquitous. It’s already verging on anachronism as digital “folders” overtake physical ones. So why do I feel like people should know what a folder is, and how to rename one, how to move it, how to organize one’s files? These are basic skills I instruct students on every day, yet perhaps they’ve simply grown unnecessary. Am I an old fogey for thinking that people need to understand file management? Does it matter anymore when we’ve outsourced our file systems to the cloud?

The Access Rainbow

Tablets aren’t bad devices. They’re easy to pick up, so easy a baby can do it. Their touch interfaces are not only novel but in some cases simply brilliant. Problems arise when we consider the tablet as a full-featured replacement for our other computers. And maybe they can be, but those are the scenarios where we start fighting the nature of the machine itself (attaching a keyboard, jailbreaking or rooting the device).

I’m giving a presentation at my college soon and one slide is devoted to “The Access Rainbow” mentioned in Andrew Clement and Leslie Shade’s chapter in an old Community Informatics textbook.7 The rainbow is rather like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, in that it works from base, material needs to more sophisticated, social ones. Once we have network infrastructure in place, we can get devices. Once we have devices, we can put software on them. Once we have software, we can work. Once we can work, we can build things, we can connect with each other, we can affect governance.

The problem is when our devices limit the colors of the rainbow that are even visible. The upper tiers of the rainbow, the tiers that really matter, are foreclosed. We cannot participate in the governance of information and communication technologies when we buy devices that only install the software which Apple or Google approves. And can we be fully digitally literate if we can’t experiment and break things on our devices? We can’t break things on an iPad; the iPad has outlet covers on all its electrical sockets when what we really need is a shock.

I worry I’ve already grown old and stodgy. “The kids with their touchy screens and electronic throat tattoos,” I mutter, madly typing abbreviations into a bash prompt. Will we be OK with easy devices? Do we need to break things, to change the permissions on a file, to code to be digitally literate? I don’t know.

Notes

  1. Responsive interfaces for databases is one area which has seen massive improvement over the last couple years and probably won’t be a concern too much longer. With web-scale discovery systems, many libraries are just now becoming able to abstract the differences between databases into a single search platform. Then the discovery system just needs to be responsive, rather than each of the dozens of different vendor interfaces.
  2. So what if students need Dropbox, as long as it works? Well, forcing students into a particular cloud storage system is problematic. What if they prefer SpiderOak, Google Drive, SkyDrive, etc.? The lack of true file system access really hampers mobile devices in some situations, a point I’ll elaborate on further below.
  3. One of the interesting aspects of Microsoft tablets is that they do come with a command line; you can swipe around all you want, but then open up PowerShell and mess with the Windows Registry to your heart’s content. It’s interesting and has great potential. I know Android also has some terminal simulator apps.
  4. Hat-tip to fellow Tech Connect blogger Meghan Frazer for calling me out on this.
  5. “Classroom iPads” on 11/1/13. It’s worth noting that plenty of people in this discussion touched on precisely the topic of this post, that the advantages of tablets seems to be misunderstood.
  6. My wife points out that this isn’t a metaphor, that filesystems are literally that, filesystems. I can’t refute that claim. It’s either correct or an indication of just how ingrained the metaphor is.
  7. Despite being from 1999, Community Informatics by Michael Gurstein is still incredibly relevant. It blew my mind during my first semester of library school and validated my decision to attend. It’s probably the best textbook I’ve ever read, which isn’t high praise but it is praise.


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