Few gadgets released to the public have garnered as much anticipation as Apple's iPad. Since its late January release, few devices have triggered so much praise (and in some cases, so much scorn). But the early buzz on how the device might be used for workplace learning has been much lower than expected.

The cost of the unit itself - $499 to $829 - won't deter organizations with deep pockets. For those with long memories of the early days of e-learning technology, this will seem quite reasonable, if not inexpensive.

"The iPad is here. After all the hype, which it didn't quite live up to, there was a lot of commentary web-wide on whether it's suitable for e-learning, or a specific type of learning," writes Abhijit Kadle in the Upside Learning Solutions Blog. "Here at Upside our camp is divided. There are iPad lovers, and there are iPad baiters. The lovers are typically Apple fanboys who are crazy about anything Apple, so their devotion to any technology that Steve Jobs throws into the market is taken for granted. The baiters are mostly alternate technology lovers who will hate pretty much anything that Apple develops, simply because of Apple's 'captive or lock-in users' business model.

"I am the fence sitter. I'll be the first to admit that Apple doesn't just make a product, it creates a user experience, and there is much to learn from Jobs and company. On the other hand, Apple's business practices aren't the ones I find inspiring. So given that I'm not a lover or baiter of Apple, I'm trying to take an objective view of what the iPad might be able to do for workplace learning. Some or all of these may seem evident. It remains to be seen how successful the iPad will be, and how it will actually end up being used in the workplace."

But learning technology expert Clark Quinn sees the device as unique, even if its uses are somewhat limited at this point. "The iPad, specifically, has a different relationship to learners than the average smartphone or a laptop; it's somewhere in between," Quinn explains. It's not like a smartphone or PDA in the original 'Zen of palm' sense, in that it's not accessed a lot during a day but for short periods of time. It has a more persistent usage pattern typically. However, it's also not like a laptop in that it's not a workhorse where you sit down and do everything on it."

Quinn refers to the iPad as mostly a "consumption device." He says, "It's a content consumption device mostly for watching movies, reading books, or accessing the web. It is also finding use, however, as a content creation device, using the iWork apps or others not to produce final documents by-and-large, but to capture ideas, thoughts, and more for later processing."

Obvious uses

More than one wag has suggested that the iPad will probably see its greatest use as a learning tool in two key areas: shared collaborative environments and the honing of psychomotor skills. Using the device as a scaled down whiteboard in a learning venue seems natural, especially given its two-way or tribe-enabling design. Teaching via repetitive movements (such as medical procedures before moving on to human subjects) might be possible as well with the iPad or future tablets.

A number of visionaries see the iPad or its ilk as the great game changer in the area of textbooks. The idea of a living textbook - a resource that can change on the fly to reflect the material it covers - has a number of writers predicting massive changes. Constantly updating text in some fields makes perfect sense; in others, such as art history, maybe less so. But the topic opens up the floodgates on the pricing of this intellectual capital. That in itself is fueling a number of debates. But no one questions the potential of such devices to keep subject matter as current as it can be uploaded.

Of the more than 150,000 new applications for the iPad, several have been identified by a number of bloggers as indicative of where workplace learning needs might drive its use. The Elements: A Visual Exploration, an e-book app, takes learners through the periodic table. It features a compelling graphic representation of each element in a platform that has been described as "captivating." Another application provides access to the popular Hello-Hello Spanish program. This app connects users to the Hello-Hello.com Spanish course, where students can chat on social networking sites with other students who speak the language they are studying.

Quinn thinks the power of the iPad may be found in the user's ability to post content for others and to other sites. "Co-creating will become a real natural use as well," he suggests. "Going forward, I see it being used as tablets are - to present data (like patient info) and capture data. That is, quick capture of information in an easier interface than a phone."

But Bloomberg BusinessWeek Online suggests that to truly succeed, the iPad has to do much more. "For business users and others looking for a new productivity tool, the pound-and-a-half iPad offers a marriage of the always-connected ultra-portability of a wireless phone with the power and flexibility of a laptop or even a desktop PC. For the iPad to be truly revolutionary - Steve Jobs's word - it'll have to do a lot more than be a better e-book reader. The real promise of the device is that it has a chance to redefine what we think of as personal computing."