Asset or distraction: Is the iPad cool for back to school?

Welcome to Thrifty Tech, a new Money College weekly column about technology options on a college budget. This week, we take a look at the iPad and the negative aspects of using the device in a learning environment.

It's no secret that we think the world of the iPad. As a gaming device, as a reference tool, as a utility, as an e-reader, and as a web browser, it's incredible. So yes, we drink the Kool-Aid -- we think it's magic. Upon its arrival, people hailed it as a savior of learning technology, with its e-reader and computing capabilities, which isn't too far off-point.

But with its thousands of whistles and bells, it's also one of the world's greatest distractions. As CNN reported, it very well may cause trouble with sleep patterns if you're reading the iPad before bed. But when it's time to study, what if you want to watch a movie or TV show? The Netflix, ABC and Hulu apps are all right there. Want to play pinball? Geometry Wars? Plants vs. Zombies? Again, it's a menu button and touch away. So ultimately, when the choice comes to touch the little book application, will students instead opt for the hugely entertaining distractions right around the corner?

It's not a new problem. With the advent of home entertainment came simple distractions from working -- radio, television, video games, computers, various forms of stereo equipment, etc. Time to study for the big final? It's tough to read when there's a marathon of Sanford and Son (or whatever) on in the background. The iPad just amplifies those problems, because all of those things (radio, television, video games, web browsing) are shoved onto one machine.

In a recent story about e-readers in the classroom, USA Today's Mary Beth Marklein talked to a student who said it's harder to concentrate when YouTube and Facebook are right there.

Marklein also notes that analysts suggest electronics impede the studying process. The company Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions found that when it was time to study, students would put e-readers, cell phones, and laptops away to keep distractions to a minimum.

And of course, there's the argument of "it's harder on the eyes to read from a screen."

There's also the issue of the books available via the iBooks app. While there are textbooks on the iPad, it certainly isn't a robust collection. As Engadget reported, there are a handful of textbook publishing companies that have announced textbook and study guide apps for the iPad. And sure, there are quite a few study guide apps and some educational books in the iBookstore. Unfortunately, there's not a convenient way to find any of the textbooks currently available in the iBookstore (and when you search things like "Introduction to" or the name of the subject, you'll likely find one of the many "for Dummies" books available). And if the iPad only has a few selected textbooks available and a college is requiring iPads in the classroom, doesn't that put the burden on teachers and colleges to make texts available on PDFs if their text of choice isn't in the iBookstore?

Of course, for every negative, there about 20 positives with the iPad. It's easy to carry around, it's a great web browser (so, feasibly, a lot of information found in textbooks could be found in the Safari app), and it's going to be hugely popular with students. But teachers, don't act surprised when your students aren't "reading the textbook" while you're lecturing. And students, be responsible with that machine -- if your college gives you an iPad, put out the effort to use it for class.

Evan Minsker's Thrifty Tech appears Tuesdays. Got a hot, cheap-tech tip, question or comment? Write to Evan via our e-mail address,
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