Documentary Writing, Fall 2011: The iPad as a Creative Tool

Duncan Murrell is a Writer in Residence at Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies.  During the Fall 2011 semester, he used iPads with his students in DOCST 111S – Documentary Writing.  He details the experience that he and his students had in the following guest blog post:

Our class was a writing class, specifically a seminar in the reading and writing of long-form narrative, documentary nonfiction. In a typical semester, students read several books-worth of long magazine articles and write more than 60 pages of drafts and stories. Secondarily, students often gather documentation, in the form of photographs and recordings, to supplement their written work. It’s an intense class.

We began our semester with iPads (Fall 2011) with high hopes of using them to both consume (read, edit, make notes) writing and to create works of narrative nonfiction. In practice, the iPad proved to be very useful for the distribution and reading of work, and not very useful at all for the making of new work.

We used the iPads to distribute the readings, by pdf, to each student once a week. That worked very, very well, and the students liked it. We used Dropbox for this.

We also used Dropbox for the submission of one of their papers, which were received by me on my own iPad via Dropbox. To edit and revise the papers, I used Goodreader via import from Dropbox. I found the process of editing on Goodreader interesting and nifty, but ultimately too slow. The stylus works OK, but it’s really not fine enough for detailed writing and marking. When editing with Goodreader, most of the time I used the line-drawing and commenting functions instead of the free-hand function; these were nice, too, but it’s still a lot of clicking and awfully slow. I estimated that grading and commenting on a paper takes me at least twice as long on the iPad, using Goodreader, than it does when I take a pencil to paper. Also:  this system required that students submit their papers as pdfs, which was hard to get students to remember to do. If they weren’t submitted as pdfs, I’d have to take a half dozen extra steps to convert to pdf using another app. It was a bit of a pain.

Obviously, the consumption of text and other media works really well on the iPad. The device is perfectly built for reading, watching film clips and looking at photographs. It’s a different story when it comes to making recordings or taking photographs. The camera isn’t great, and when photos are enlarged  on the iPad the resolution is, there’s no way to get around this, pretty awful. Audio and video recordings are OK, but no better (and usually worse) than what we get on our lowest-end recording equipment here at CDS, or on the other equipment available for circulation at The Link. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a situation in which a student, journalist, or documentarian would prefer to use the iPad for photographing or recording, when some other piece of equipment was available. In my experience, even an iPhone or similar smartphone is a far, far better solution for fieldwork:  it’s small, unobtrusive, and easy to manipulate. The third-party equipment available for the smartphones (microphones, stands, etc) are far better. For doing fieldwork, it’s been my impression that the iPad would be a choice of last resort — it’s clunky, and doesn’t do the job as well as other cheaper pieces of equipment.

I would tend to say the same thing about writing on the iPad, except:   the experience of using the iPad with a separate, full-sized keyboard is amazing. (I had the chance to do this a couple times.) Without the separate keyboard, typing is a real drag;  but with the keyboard and a good app, especially the brilliant Phraseology, the portability and total immersion in the writing environment made working on the iPad a real pleasure.  I’d say the experience of using an iPad with an external keyboard is equivalent to using a MacBook Air (or equivalent), and somewhat more versatile.

In short, our experience of the iPad in the classroom was that it was good for reading and watching and distributing class materials, excellent for writing if you have an external keyboard, and not terribly good for photography or recording. I believe my students would also say it’s got some pretty sweet games, too. I wouldn’t know anything about that, of course.