Learning on the iPad

Split-screen iPad

If the iPad had been around when I was a college student, I think I would’ve been a better student.

Because I don’t have enough things to learn (Python, Swift, Puppet, Salt, more Bash, Go), I decided to take on yet another learning project. To be fair, this one is more in line with the classes I used to take as a Poli Sci major in college (which I never finished).

I found two classes, one on Udemy, which is this remarkable mix of just absolutely fantastic tutorials and dumpster-fire classes (and it’s up to you to decide which is which – though the ratings do help sometimes). It’s called Statistics for Data Science and Business Analysis, and seems to be decent enough so far. The other is from Rice University via Coursera, and it’s a much more comprehensive track called Business Statistics and Analysis Specialization.

While the question of whether I finish either one is still very much up in the air, I wanted to at least try and get into this stuff. Data Science is absolutely fascinating to me; I’ve been interested in it since I was in college and wanted to dive into trying to use data to parse through open-source news articles and come up with an algorithm to predict potential political and economic hotspots around the world. I even had a name for this system. It was called “Flashpoint”.

That was more than 20 years ago and my career went in a very different direction. Still, Data Science has at least a tangential relationship to my current career as an IT person, so I thought I’d dive into the basics of it. Which, to me, meant understanding the very fundamentals of the space, starting with Statistics.

Here’s the deal. I failed stats in college. The class was called Scope and Methods of Political Science and it was boring, despite the brilliant professor who taught it. I was a shitty student, too; I enjoyed the experience of going to class, listening to smart professors lecture, and then went home. But that’s not how you learn.

Studying, taking notes, revising, writing down questions to ask later, these are some of the ways good students do well in college (or so I’m told). Even for classes I was super interested in, I didn’t do that, trusting in my ability to wing it during exams to get me through. Spoiler alert: It very often was not enough.

Still, I loved being a student. I still do. But this time, I decided that I wasn’t going to just watch the tutorials as background noise.

So I made a plan. I looked up effective note-taking, which led me the Cornell Notes system. I looked into the best note-taking apps for iPad because I’d be darned if I was going to trust pen-and-paper which have no backup, aren’t searchable, and are not cross-platform. Goodnotes 5 was the answer to my searching; it even had the Cornell Notes page as a template.

And then I started learning.

I’m just a day into the course now, and I already feel like I’m retaining more, and enjoying the process of learning. I split the screen in half and put the class on the left, and my Goodnotes app on the right and took notes as I watched. When something warranted it, I took screenshots, dropped them into the middle of my notes, and annotated them.

Two hours into my first attempt at learning and I realized that I’d already gone longer than most class sessions lasted in college, without actually getting bored, needing to rewind the class other than for more clarification or to hear something repeated so I can note it down. There’s another blog post somewhere in this experience about how colleges can make the transition to a different form of education in a post-COVID world, but for now, I’m absolutely enraptured by this experience.

The technology here is simple, off-the-shelf. Part of it is that the Udemy class actually makes effective use of animations and slides. Part is that Goodnotes is a fantastic app with plenty of writing tools (and I do handwrite because it helps me retain things). I can write, erase, highlight, cut and move handwriting, even convert handwriting to text with surprising accuracy.

The new 2020 iPad Pro 12.9” is my device of choice here, coupled with the Apple Pencil and, occasionally, the Magic Keyboard. During “class”, the keyboard is detached and put aside as I’m not typing notes, but it’s handy to have nearby.

There’s something utterly magical about this combo. Being able to watch the class, take notes, look up reference material, all without losing the tactility of the single pane of glass under my fingertips, it’s satisfying in a way doing this on a laptop just isn’t. For part of this evening’s class, I actually went outside and enjoyed the sun in my front yard as I learned.

Technology constantly evolves and each subsequent generation of school-goers have access to different tools. When I was in college, I had the best tools anyone could ask for; a PowerBook G3 with WiFi, a portable CD-RW drive I could burn assignments onto and hand in (and in one case even a final exam!), and even a Palm M500. I was more technologically connected than many other students in my cohort (this was back in 2000-2003, y’all).

Of course it all pales in terms of hardware specs when compared to this iPad. I expected that. But new technology doesn’t always mean that the experience gets better or that learning becomes easier or more fun. I’d argue that the 16” MacBook Pro from this year is no different in terms of learning experience than the PowerBook G3 was in 2001. The software is different and certainly UIs are much nicer, but it’s still a keyboard attached to a screen.

The iPad? Now that’s something else entirely.

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  1. Pingback: Above Avalon: Don’t Feel Bad for the iPad – Inside Voice

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