My Academic iPad
Archon Fung
December 31, 2010
(revised April 15, 2012: the New iPad (2012))

Santa gave iPads to many of my friends. I thought that I’d share some of the ways in which my iPad fits into my work-flow.

I. The Functional Cloud

Dropbox: Files

This application really improved my computing experience. Basically, you download the application and install it on all of your computers. Works for pc or mac, iphone or pad. DropBox creates a folder on your each computer into which you can drop any document or folder. DropBox syncs those files with its server in the background.

So, if you edit a document (that is located in the DropBox folder) on you computer at home, drive to the office, and then open the same document on your computer at the office, all of the changes will be reflected. Your office computer will have the most recent version of the document.

I've put nearly all of my documents and folders on DropBox. One major benefit is that all of the most recent documents are available on my iPad - all completely up to date (as long as I have an Internet connection).

If you click on this
referral link to sign up, you’ll get a bit of extra free storage and so will I.

Google: Calendar and Contacts

I keep my address book and appointment calendar on Google Calendar and Contacts. I never look at calendar or contact information from the Google web interface, though. Instead, I sync that data to Apple’s desktop apps (Cal, Address Book), iPhone, and iPad. The advantage of storing this information on Google is that any change made on any device will be reflected on all of the others.

DropBox and Google really serve many functions, which is why I put them up front. The rest of this note is organized according to activities.

II. Reviewing and Filing Papers

Like every academic, I spend a lot of time reading, marking up, and filing journal articles. These articles are usually in PDF format and come from the web or on-line databases.

I like to keep track of PDFs, as well as bibliographic information on books and manuscripts, in a program called
Bookends on my desktop (a mac). The program isn’t perfect, but it does do a very good job of organizing PDFs; its like iTunes for articles. Bookends stores all pdfs in an “Attachments” folder which I keep on DropBox. This allows me to have access to all filed pdfs from any device, including iPhone and iPad.

For the actual work of reading and marking up PDFs, I use
GoodReader. It was a little late to add PDF markup functionality (underlining, highlighting, margin notes), but those features work quite well in GoodReader. I am terrible with paper documents, and so I don’t print documents out if I can help it. Once I’ve marked up a document, I file it (or re-file it) with Bookends so that I’ll have the marked up version of the document on file.

GoodReader has improved its file synchronization services dramatically over several releases. Now, you can synchronize contents of designated folders in dropbox. Now, I have a dropbox folder called “aaReadReview.” I keep many files and sub-folders in there - conference info (plane, hotel, agenda, papers for panels there), papers that I need to comment on, course materials). I just drop files that I may need into this folder when I’m working on a desktop or laptop. Then, once in a while, I just hit the “sync” button on GoodReader and the “aaReadReview” folder sync auto-magically between the GoodReader iPad app and DropBox. This feature has really improved my workflow.

III. Composition and Taking Notes

I rarely try to compose or edit long documents (articles, talks, even recommendation letters) on a iPad — the keyboard is just too slow. However, I do take notes at meetings and talks on my iPad.

Usually, I use
NoteTaker HD with a Pogo Sketch Stylus. NoteTaker HD allows free-hand note taking (but it does not digitize text through optical character recognition). It basically replaces the time-tested yellow pad. I like it because, as I said, I’m terrible with paper.

I also sometimes use the Apple
Pages program to take notes and make small changes to documents (typescript of talks, for example) that I have prepared on a word processor.

IV. Dictation (iPad 2012, or The New IPad)

An iPad (2012) arrived at my door on March 16. I love it. As many reviewers have said, the screen is beautiful. The doubled resolution makes text sharp, and Apple greatly increased color accuracy. The LTE radio also screams.

However, for my professional workflow, the biggest change for me is the addition of dictation. Anywhere you can type, you can also dictate on the new iPad. Simply hit the microphone key on the keyboard, speak your piece, hit the microphone key again, and then the iPad will attempt to transcribe what you’ve said. I’ve found the transcription to be very accurate. Since the voice-to-text processing happens in the cloud, somewhere in Apple’s server farms, you need to be connected to the Internet for this to work.

I use the iPad’s dictation functionality in three ways: email, taking margin notes, and composing text in documents.

When I write email messages on my iPad these days, I mostly use the dictation function. It takes some getting used to, and some hand editing, but I find it faster and less tiring to compose email messages with voice than with the iPad keypad.

I also use the dictation function to write margin notes when I mark up manuscripts or read pdfs. Per section II above, I typically use GoodReader to read papers and articles. GoodReader allows you to add margin notes to the pdf (those notes are preserved when you move the file to a desktop or laptop file system). Before dictation, it was a pain — compared to scrawling in the margin of a book with a pen — to create the note and then type your thought on the keypad. But now, it’s a breeze to create the note, and then just speak your thought. As a consequence, I take many more margin notes.

Finally, I’m beginning to use dictation in long-form documents. The key here is to dictate into the Pages app. I got a great suggestion from my friend
Meira Levinson: use the dictation function for grading by dictating comments about student papers into a word processor. This has worked very well for me. Since dictation is fast, students get more feedback than they would if I were typing the comments.

Another technique is to store your Pages files on iCloud. That way, you can very quickly and seamlessly share files between your iPhone and iPad (both have versions of the Pages app). You can begin to dictate a memo (or entry in your research journal) on the iPad. If you think of something in the grocery store line, just open the same file on your iPhone 4S and continue to dictate. The file will be updated and synced automagically, so long as you have network connectivity.

If you decide to use the dictation function, I suggest you keep a pair of earbuds with built-in mic in your briefcase. I’ve noticed that the accuracy of transcription drops without the microphone when I’m in a room with screaming kids, in a cafe, or airport waiting area. It gets better with the headphone mic.

V. Getting Things Done

I’ve never really managed to master David Allen’s
Getting Things Done method, but I’m still trying hard. The main application that I use to track my to-do list and projects is OmniFocus. I run OmniFocus on all my devices — iPad, desktop, laptop, iPhone. They are synchronized through a WebDAV server.

Whenever I remember that I need to do something (buy milk, review a book manuscript), I put it in OmniFocus to track it. When iI receive an email message that requires some action, I try to put the task in OmniFocus.

I got this next idea from my friend
Eric Beerbohm (who reports that he got the idea from Nancy Rosenblum, who probably had a pencil-and-folder version in mind). I also use OmniFocus to track article and book ideas. Whenever I have an idea for an article or book, I create a folder in OmniFocus for it. I throw materials (ideas, outlines, clippings, citations, notes, and so on) into that folder. Any particular folder may or may not become an article, but at least I don’t loose the thoughts.

The learning curve for OmniFocus is a bit steep, but worth it. Here’s a useful
white paper on using the application to Get Things Done.

VI. Media Consumption

The apps that I use most often for media consumption are:

  • Safari
  • the New York Times iPad application (it was unstable until the most recent release, but now I find it rock solid and very nice to use).
  • FlipBoard. This application won Apple’s iPad application of the year award for good reason. It really makes FaceBook updates, Twitter feeds, and RSS feeds (I use it to read Crooked Timber and the Guardian) much more pleasant to read.
  • Zite. Like FlipBoard, this app creates a personalized newspaper or magazine based on your interests. However, it draws — directly at any rate — from a larger array of sources than FlipBoard. As you read stories, you can give them a thumbs up or thumbs down. Zite is supposed to learn about your tastes and interests and feed you stories that are more and more to your liking over time. For me, its been pretty good.
  • Instapaper. Use this to save web pages for later, off-line, reading and reference.

VII. Presentations

Most of my teaching and even seminar presentations are fairly simple (I’ve met
Larry Lessig, and I’m no Larry Lessig). I prepare them using Keynote on my Mac, but then I usually deliver them using Keynote on my iPad and a VGA dongle.

Below is diagram that represents how I use these applications (made using NoteTaker HD):

Why am I telling you about how I use my iPad instead of writing a paper or grading exams? See Professor John Perry’s brilliant essay on “structured procrastination.”