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Is the iPad Ready To Replace the Printed Textbook?

After trying out the Apple iPad for a short period--about three weeks--three out of four college freshmen said they'd be willing to purchase an Apple iPad personally if at least half of the textbooks they used during their college career were available digitally, according to the results of a classroom poll at Abilene Christian University. According to Scott Perkins, coordinator of mobile learning research in the Adams Center for Teaching and Learning at the Texas university, a similar willingness to purchase the devices was borne out among participants in semester-long pilots, which included both graduate and undergraduate students.

A majority of students who had the chance to work on the devices within their classes reported that reading on the iPad was "more convenient" than reading from traditional paper textbooks. But they also rated paper texts as "easier" when asked to compare the two.

Abilene Christian has been at the forefront of running mobile experiments in its programs. In 2008 the university began handing out Apple iPhones and iPods to incoming freshman, funded through a student technology fee. Last year, the institution received a $1.8 million grant from AT&T to support three programs that were part of a mobile learning initiative. Very early in the 2010 fall semester, the school purchased 100 iPad devices. Thirty-two of those, Perkins said, have been distributed for short experiments in various classes, many of which have been reported on through the university's site. The remainder went into semester-long courses. In both cases, however, the devices were returned to the school once the pilot or course was over.

"We know it works better if [the device] becomes yours and you get to use it and keep it," Perkins said. "We know it works better if you have access to information at any time. On an iPad that means a 3G chip, so you don't have to be in a wireless network range."

Perkins is working with others to compile a number of research findings based on the latest academic year's iPad pilots. Over the last year, researchers have begun specifically to investigate student perceptions of both the iPad and the digital materials available on it. Access to those digital materials came as part of a university partnership with publisher McGraw-Hill and Inkling, a company that works with textbook publishers to convert their materials to the iPad platform. McGraw-Hill is an investor in Inkling, as is textbook competitor Pearson.

Among recent findings: Students in a microeconomics course used iPads for two full semesters with a digital-only version of their course text. Some expressed frustration at losing personal annotations and highlighting when they updated the reading application. However, both students and faculty indicated they believed usage of the device increased class participation, involvement, and interest, as well as increased contact between students and professors. Students also enjoyed being able to collaborate on research activities at any time, from any location. They said the iPad and its application in the classroom modeled the use of mobile devices in the professional world, helping prepare them for their careers.

Students in a senior-level marketing course also used iPads for one semester with a digital-only version of their course materials. These participants rated the overall experience positively. Most said they could read and study as well or better with the iPad than with a traditional textbook. When comparing types of digital textbook formatting, these students preferred side-to-side page turning, which mirrors a printed textbook experience, over the up-down page scrolling used in some reading applications.

In spite of these positive experiences, though, Perkins emphasized that he doesn't believe the university is ready to add the iPad to the college shopping list for incoming students.

"In my opinion, there are [several] things we're still waiting to have happen. One is that we really need to see a greater preponderance of digital textbooks available. When it's one introductory psychology book from one publisher, that's not enough for the psychology faculty member who's used to picking the book they want out of 20--and maybe there's six that they look at. If you think about a goal of 50 percent of the textbooks over a student's career, there are many fewer books available for junior- and senior-level classes than there are for those introductory classes. The publishers are doing the introductory class books first. So 50 percent isn't really in the window of reality yet.

"The second issue is cost. Until those digital textbooks are equal to or more cost-efficient than the print textbook, there's not much motivation to spend the money on technology--and I don't mean just for [our school], but in general, for faculty, for students, for universities. If textbooks are going to be just as expensive, then why would we spend $500 to $700 on a reader platform?"

Perkins noted that he expects digital textbooks to come down in cost. "It should be more cost efficient. You don't have to cut down trees, print, bind, and store and ship, and so on. But so far we've not seen that movement."

Third, he added, the digital books need to be "truly media rich." In one of the institution's pilots, the publisher actually limited the platform developer by stipulating that the book had to have exactly the same text content and be priced the same as the print book. That stance softened a little bit later on, he said, but "it's another major issue. The digital textbooks have to be something more than just the words available on a tablet device. Why can't you have video, audio, media-rich textbooks?"

Also, Perkins said, most participants involved in the move of printed materials to digital are still stuck in the mindset of using the book as the "right metaphor." "Why does it have to be a book?" he said. "When we think about these academics of the future available on these cool tablet devices, why are we talking about a book? Why can't it be more like a game or interactive learning series of activities?"

Pointing out that the university already spends $200 to $300 to supply each student with an iPhone or iPod touch versus $500-plus for an iPad, Perkins said Abilene Christian U isn't "ready to quit doing what we've been doing." So the current focus is to push for getting iPad 2s into the hands of faculty for the next academic year. That will enable them to be ready the following year, "when we think we might have more textbooks for students and we can try to launch something bigger."

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