Now touch me, baby

Walking past the round-the-block lines for the iPad 2 prompted me to reflect on the long-term educational significance of the tablet. The futurists who predicted the rise of mobile will most likely claim that these tablets fulfill their vision. Tech pundits insist that this new form-factor goes beyond superficial cosmetics and represents a transformation in computing. What should we make of the hype?

The 2011 Horizon Report predicts both mobile and ebook/ereader adoption within the next year:

"For more involved web browsing, reading, watching videos, or to use any of the tens of thousands of Internet productivity and lifestyle applications, the tablet provides just enough extra space to enable comfortable use over longer periods of time."

At CCNMTL we've begun exploring the deployment of applications on tablets. We recently launched two behavioral interventions that are being used in the field - MySmileBuddy and MedER. These applications are hybrids of data collection and multimedia educational material and are being administered by social workers making housecalls and researchers on-site in the pediatric emergency room.

These applications are designed to be used by two or three people in natural settings, without workstations. The tablet is poised to take the place of the clipboard in a variety of interactive contexts. A smartphone screen is too small for this usage, and a laptop is too awkward for this use.

Other educational technology groups have also been exploring the purposeful use of tablets in teaching, learning, and research. Duke University has been experimenting with the iPad as a fieldwork research tool. Their efforts have focused on assembling a useful suite of existing applications, rather than developing any custom applications.

Our early projects with touchscreen interfaces have taught us how different the user experiences are on these devices. Clicking, dragging, scrolling, and paging all need to be rethought for a quality tablet experience. Our technical strategy for developing these applications has been to follow a standards-based, HTML5/JavaScript/CSS approach. This approach matches our existing culture, workflows, and processes, and is compatible with our long-term belief in the web browser and general purpose computing. 37signals, the patron saints of the Ruby on Rails framework, is taking a similar approach with its new Basecamp Mobile application (the underlying mobile framework will soon be released under an open-source license).

In upcoming posts we will share some of the lessons and implementation details of an HTML5 multimedia iPad application that can be used both on and off line. The spin machines have kicked into overdrive around these new devices, but the excitement is not all hype, as mobile tablet computing does offer a wide range of innovative approaches to content delivery, interactive mobile applications, and data collection.