Over the past few days I’ve received several phone calls from parents wondering what kind of keyboard to purchase for their children. While there are lots of options available, I find myself wondering if a keyboard really necessary and what is the driving force behind the “need” to have one?” I think decisions such as these are often made based upon perception or personal experience. Further, as adults I think we assume that our children can’t possibly “type” as well using a touch pad as they could on a keyboard, partly because of our own challenges with touchpads.
This controversy has been swirling around for a long time, so I recently posed the keyboard vs. touchpad question to Dr. Ruben Puentedura, a consultant to the MLTI project since its inception, asking if he is aware of any research which indicates that one is better than the other. Here’s what he’s found:
The research to date is pretty clear-cut: there is little to no significant difference between using a physical keyboard and a virtual keyboard, particularly as users become more experienced in the use of the iPad. Here are some relevant recent references:
Brady Cline did a nice small-scale study with students in grades 3-6, which showed no significant benefit to using the physical keyboard.
Some people criticized that study, saying that none of the students were particularly fast typists. So, it's worthwhile seeing how well an adult who is a reasonably experienced typist performs with the iPad. A 2010 study by Chaparro et al. (when the iPad had just been introduced) showed that people who had never typed on an iPad performed at around 45 words per minute (wpm) right off the bat. The same people typed about 15wpm faster on a netbook keyboard – but they had a higher error rate on the physical keyboard, and overall reported higher typing satisfaction on the iPad. A 2013 followup study by Chaparro et al., this time using a dedicated external keyboard on the Microsoft Surface, confirmed these results.
Needless to say, practice improves iPad keyboarding speeds. I don't know of any study that has final numbers on improvement, but light regular use is reported to get you to about 54wpm, and there are multiple videos on YouTube and elsewhere of people typing 60wpm to over 100wpm on an iPad without breaking a sweat.
One of the major advantages to using the iPad is that it’s so easy to use it on the go. Dr. Puentedura continues:
There are some very interesting studies coming out on using the iPad “on the go” (Trudeau et al., 2013), where using a regular keyboard is difficult or impossible. As you might expect, typing speed goes down in these scenarios (to about 23wpm on a split keyboard layout, 25wpm on a regular layout), but the split keyboard layout (mostly thumb typing) was found to be considerably more comfortable. Given that in these scenarios the physical keyboard performs at about 0wpm, I would consider those numbers quite respectable.
My personal belief is that whether they use a touchpad or a more traditional keyboard, kids have an uncanny ability to adapt. My advice is if you’re looking at purchasing a keyboard, ask your child why they think they need one, how it will make things better for them and suggest that they borrow one from the AMS library for a week or two to try it out.