Understudy for iPad review: Mentored learning goes mobile

Understudy for iPad lets you not only learn a book but gain invaluable insight from someone who's already read and understood the material. If that sounds like mentoring, it is. But it's been reimagined for the iPad age. With the tap of a button you can join a FaceTime-like call where you can not only see each other and learn and communicate one-to-one, you can also share a whiteboard that updates in real time, allowing you to fully describe and comprehend the problems and solutions being discussed.

There are two books available at launch, MIT's famed Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs and Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. One science, one art. Once you pick your book you enter your email address and Understudy will let you know when there's someone further along than you are to talk to. Read a section of the book on your own during the week then present it to your mentor at the end of the week and use the face-to-face time and whiteboard to really hash it out. When you've progressed about a fifth of the way through you become eligible to mentor someone else.

While I haven't taught in academia, I have led workshops and I've learned and taught martial arts for decades. That involved a tremendous amount of master/apprentice style instruction where you learn material, get guided through it, and then attain an even greater understanding by learning how to teach it to others. It's something that's sorely lacking in most modern educational systems. Tutoring is its last refuge and it should come as no surprise how much a tutor and tutee can both teach and learn from each other.

You can use Understudy for free for up to two hours of talking a month. Anything more than that is just $5 a month. If you refer a friend, you both get a month for free. Understudy understands they'll need a network and some momentum to make this work and they're willing to offer some incentives to achieve it.

The brain-child of former Apple engineers Ken Ferry and Bridger Maxwell, there's a real sense here of wanting not only to make a great product but of wanting to make a real difference in education. The design, which includes a terrific ghost (invisible ink) button by Dave Wiskus and rainbow background, among many other things, by Neale van Fleet is clean and clear, marrying the blur effects of iOS 7 with the aforementioned whimsy all its own.

All of that said, all of that potential aside, Understudy is a version 1 product right now. The books are extremely limited and the network will take time and effort to build. The app itself will likely continue to evolve as well. I say that not to discourage anyone from trying it, but to do the exact opposite. This is the type of app that needs and deserves at least a look from as many people as possible. When it's on version 2 or 3 and there are dozens of books and thousands of mentors, Understudy could be truly transformative. But it'll take a community of help to get there.

If you have any interest in learning the basics of programming or to develop artistic talent you might never have know you had, but need a little bit of help to get there, give Understudy a shot.

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