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Is the iPad really what students need?

April 3, 2010, 6:07 am

Dave Caolo believes that students are one of the four groups of people who will make the iPad huge, because:

Students are on a fixed budget, and e-books are typically cheaper than their paper-based counterparts. Also, consider all of the money publishers lose when students buy used books from the campus bookstores. Additionally, Apple can distribute textbooks through iTunes U — an established and proven system that students, faculty and staff already know how to use.

Suddenly the iPad is a device that follows a student from his/her freshman year of high school all the way through graduate school. Why buy a laptop when every student has a device that can be a textbook, reference tool, Internet appliance and whatever else the imaginations of developers can dream up?

I do believe that the iPad’s success will be closely tied to its success in the EDU sector, but Caolo’s analysis misses some important points about students and their educational computing needs.

  1. The argument about used books explains precisely why students, and conscientious faculty, will resist textbooks on an iPad. Already textbook companies charge full (and overly high) price for products that are speciously “revised” every couple of years, even though the revisions are virtually identical to the prior versions. If using the iPad as a sort of universal textbook locks students in to using only the most recent version at the highest possible price, then how is this a step forward? Students would be better off purchasing used versions of textbooks.  (One way to ameliorate this problem is for textbook companies to take my advice and give away previous versions of their textbooks whenever a new revision comes out.)
  2. Students need more from their computers than just email clients, ebook readers, and web access. They need to be able to run spreadsheets and word processors simultaneously. They need to be able to run sophisticated scientific computing software. They need to be able to install and run legacy software that their universities may have purchased — or even developed in-house — decades ago. (For example, in our math courses alone at my college, we use Minitab, Winplot, and even Derive. The chances of these being ported to the iPad are basically zero.) They need to be able to do video chats with Skype. These are just a few of the things that the iPad cannot do right now.
  3. The above argument assumes that textbooks are the center of a student’s education. I would argue that the best thing about an iPad in education is that it provides a great platform for getting away from textbooks as the center and focusing on existing, web-based information sources instead. Why invent a whole new class of technology only to have it perpetuate a rapidly-outmoded means of instruction?

I think the iPad is a neat-looking device, and it does have the capacity to change the entire landscape of computing from a user interface point of view. The next time I’m up for an upgrade to my work machine (in 2014, sadly) I fully expect to be getting an Apple device that has all the guts and power of my new Macbook Pro but with a sleek form factor and intuitive touch interface like the iPad (apparently) has. This kind of device is probably what students need. The first-generation iPad, not so much, not right now at least. Although I am sure students will buy it.

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