Welcome to this week’s educationally-themed edition of iPhone + iPad Gems! Some of the applications featured in this roundup are amongst the most exciting teaching tools we’ve seen for the iPad since Apple announced the tablet this year—two are book apps for older kids or college-aged students, while two others are phonics and letter-learning applications for young children.
All of the applications below merited at least our general recommendation. Read on for all the details.
Standard Nine’s Inkling (Free, version 1.0) is by far the most conceptually impressive application we look at here—a next-generation digital textbook player backed by a very smart bookstore concept—but it’s also the most in need of additional content to exploit its capabilities. Unlike virtually all of the book-reading applications we’ve previously covered, Inkling goes beyond merely replicating old-fashioned books in glorified text file format, offering all of the benefits of traditional educational textbooks plus significant enhancements. The reader receives a digital book that is professionally laid out with colored pages and text that can be comfortably scrolled through with swipes, or skipped through in landscape mode with taps of section headers; interactive elements such as pop-up text, author-specified definitions for key terms, and seemingly simple 3-D objects can be included within the pages. Font sizes and page—not screen—brightness can be changed within the application to make reading easier while preserving the flow and colors of graphic elements.
It’s worth briefly mentioning that Inkling’s sample pages are modified from William Strunk, Jr.‘s classic The Elements of Style, now including an amusing appendix with “Commonly Used Internet Chat and Text Messaging Acronyms.” The pages are illustrated, updated with modern turns of phrase, and used to coach first-time Inkling users in the app’s features; this turns out to be a charming and smart way to simultaneously teach readers about grammar and the software.
Though the Inkling application offers a great reading experience, some of its best features are the thoughtful touches it includes for educational textbooks. Even though it doesn’t force users into a traditional page-turning model with correspondingly limited layouts, it also doesn’t dispense with page numbers as completely as most of the eReaders out there: if a teacher says “turn to page 22,” a button lets you enter that number and go to the section of a digital textbook that matches printed page 22. When tables/figures are referenced on a page, they’re hyperlinked for immediate one-touch access, and commonly pinch-zoomable if you want to see the graphics in additional detail. Note-taking is included, extremely easy to see on the page as in-line post-it notes, and collaborative—students sharing the same book can see notes from approved contacts, and share their own notes if contacts are following them. Consequently, however, highlighting is limited to a single color for now, displaying your highlights and notes as yellow with contacts’ markings in separate colors; law students amongst other prodigious multi-colored highlighters may find this to be a problem.
That’s assuming, of course, that Inkling actually secures the support of law book publishers—and others. For now, the Inkling Store is surprisingly bare, with only four books available for sale and a handful of others promised as “Coming Soon.” McGraw-Hill appears to be the sole publisher, offering discounts in the 30% range off of the regular textbook prices. Better yet, Inkling plans to do for textbooks what iTunes did for albums, offering individual chapters for purchase as an alternative to buying an entire book. Professors who have struggled for years to choose only one textbook for a given subject—or find ways to replicate source materials from numerous tomes—will suddenly gain the ability to offer their favorite materials digitally on a chapter by chapter basis, with students paying for what they need. That’s if, and only if, Inkling takes off. It deserves to do so: despite the limited catalog, which is impossible to ignore when considering a proper rating for this app, there’s no doubt that Inkling has taken most of the steps to properly evolve eBook readers to address many of the needs of both textbook users and publishers. Apple should incorporate this application into iBooks and provide it with the support that it needs to become the next big publishing standard. iLounge Rating: B+.
Featured by Apple as the iPad application of the week, Pedlar Lady ($5, version 1.01) is an iPad-only, standalone book written by Jacqueline Rogers and developed by Moving Tales, featuring a novel combination of traditional text with fully animated multimedia content. While the book is rated “4+” by Apple, the story is written at a somewhat older literacy level—one that would require plenty of explanation for even kindergarteners—and the largely grayscale visual style will appeal as much or more to adults as it might to kids of various ages. English and Spanish translations of both the on-screen text and optional voiceover are offered, pausing when the book is turned on its side, letters tumbling off to the side of the page.
Unlike so many of the other standalone interactive book applications we’ve seen in the App Store, Pedlar Lady fully earns its $5 asking price by delivering a story with enough pages and content to justify the purchase. There are 26 pages, notably including the cover and three flat text pages, but most of the pages are fully animated scenes with narration, stylish cell-shaded graphics, and realistic character and background motions—sometimes presented from alternate angles that reveal the scenes to be polygonally rendered. They’re just plain impressive, even where the actual quantity of animation on a given page is limited or subtle. A page is typically a single-screen frame, complete with light ambient background sound effects, but one is a dramatic and color-shifting pan across a landscape with as much style as a Gorillaz music video—only with music that’s more melancholy in tone. The app can be set up to read itself and turn pages automatically, or to move at your chosen pace.
It goes without saying that Pedlar Lady could not exist as a traditional book within Apple’s iBooks, and frankly, that most of the authors of books past and present could not conceive of publishing something that is more compelling due to the impact of its multimedia content than its story. But they should—this format bridges the gap between a classic printed edition and a full-fledged movie, requiring more work than the former but less than the latter. It is a far more impressive evolution of the traditional book form than Atomic Antelope’s nearly twice as expensive Alice for the iPad, and should serve as a greater inspiration on both the development and pricing sides to the next generation of iPad book developers. iLounge Rating: A-.
As parents of young children, we’ve been waiting with bated breath for the iPad/iPhone/iPod universal app Intro to Letters, by Montessorium ($5, version 1.0) since the moment we learned that it would follow the previously-reviewed Intro to Math into the App Store. The good news: Intro to Letters is every bit as cleanly designed and educational as its predecessor, starting with phonic pronunciation and tracing of individual lower-case letters, moving up to two-letter phonogram combinations, and then teaching the transition from phonics to naming and tracing upper-case letters. A fifth mode lets you record and play back your own phonics, phonograms, or names. As with Intro to Math, colored wood textures are used as backdrops for bright characters—a nice contrast—while significant instructional voice sampling offsets simple chime-like sound effects. The infrastructure of this application is solid.
The core educational content could use a little extra work. Unlike Intro to Math, which let kids progress through heavily guided swipes and taps, Intro to Letters consists very largely of letter-tracing exercises that are supplemented heavily by the voiceovers as repeated reinforcement: “guh,” “guh,” “now it’s your turn,” “trace guh,” appears before you trace “g,” with one final “guh” if you succeed. If you can’t trace a letter, you can’t move along in most of the activities.
But the actual tracing engine isn’t as polished as ones we’ve seen in letter apps such as iWriteWords, producing paths that will be more difficult for younger children to follow and occasionally generating really weird lines as a result of multi-touch input. Really young kids may only benefit from the app’s third mode, which merely shows both lower- and upper-case letters, pronouncing the phonic and name before moving to the next with a swipe of the finger. Intro to Letters has the look and most of the feel of a $5 app; with some extra polish, it will be fully worthy of that asking price. iLounge Rating: B.
By comparison, the similarly universal app abc PocketPhonics ($1, version 1.8.1) by Apps in My Pocket costs one-fifth the price and offers two modes: a “letter sounds and writing” section that lets kids tap on phonic and phonogram dots, hear their sounds, and then trace their letters, plus a “word game” section that has kids touch dots to match each sound that’s been said, building words in the process. While abc PocketPhonics doesn’t teach letter names, upper-case letters, or have the visual polish of Intro to Letters, it has a comparable letter tracing system—here focused on cursive letters—plus equivalent spoken guidance and phonic pronunciations, and cute images corresponding to words constructed through the word game. It’s thus a very solid phonics tool at a highly attractive price. That said, Montessorium’s app is more complete and has more to offer really young kids due to its recording, letter-swiping, and letter naming modes. iLounge Rating: B.