Is the iPad really what students need?

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.



Filed under Apple, Education, Educational technology, Higher ed, Technology, Textbook-free, Textbooks

6 responses to “Is the iPad really what students need?

  1. Good points on 1 and 3, but do most students really need to run locally-developed or out-dated stuff?

    Math departments are different. And computer science. And a half dozen others. But the minority, no?

    And aren’t most locally-based programs “for all” going or already gone?

    Jonathan, who remembers being in a series of twisty passages, all alike

    • At colleges where the budgets for software purchases are minimal — which would include many small colleges and mid-sized state universities — the answer is definitely “yes”, students still need to run outdated software. The money for keeping licenses constantly up to date is simply not there.

      And in many cases the faculty lack the time or inclination to learn updated or new software even if the money were available, due to the heavy and heavily diversified demands of the job. (I.e., when you’re not only teaching four different courses a semester but also on 2-3 different committees and responsible for 1-3 student organizations and 12-20 academic advisees, updating your Mathematica skills cannot possibly become a top priority.)

      I have a colleague who has not taken the time to sit down and incorporate Winplot — a dead-simple and free-as-in-beer software package — into his courses, preferring instead to use an ancient version of Derive, simply because that’s what he knows. So his students must follow suit.

  2. At the very least, I would expect math “textbooks” to have interactive applets rather than static diagrams. (The online Euclid’s Elements is close to what I’m talking about.)

    I don’t see why they couldn’t also be set up so only the exercises / text the teacher chooses shows up. (Don’t want to confuse your student with a particular proof, and want to substitute your own? Check the box that causes it to be left off of their text and links to your new proof.)

  3. While you bring up some good points, I think that the iPad is *precisely* the type of device that is needed for general student use. Granted, my experience comes from 15+ years on the end-user support side of the higher-ed house, along with being a gadget/gear-head & Apple fanboy, so my perspective is just a touch different than yours, Robert…

    Re: point #1, what the iPad brings to the part for textbooks is the integration with searching, linking, & interactivity, esp. for examples. Many of the textbook publishers have been putting their content online & in their own CMS-like systems; if Apple can co-opt that, & leverage the iPad into the mix, then the student has a very compelling device at their fingertips. Also compelling is the promise of app developers to write apps that allow students to interact during classtime, as well as hooking into CMSes in intuitive new ways.

    Re: point #2 – *Some* students need computers that bring high-horsepower functionality to the table. All students need textbooks, communications, CMS, etc. Certain disciplines need specialized subsets of high-horsepower computing power (e.g., design, programming/engineering, scientific modeling, etc…). However, discipline-specific requirements have always been the case, so such being the case now shouldn’t be held against the iPad as a solution for the wider issue. The iPad is not, and never has been, positioned as a replacement for “full-blown” computers – i.e., it’s not meant to do all things well; rather, it’s meant to do a narrow subset of things very well. In the ed market, it looks like that subset will include: content delivery, communications, & TBD (depending on app development)…

    Re: point #3 – I agree. I think the iPad will help the transition/move away from static textbooks.

    Re: Budgets & software “currency” – this is something I deal with on a daily basis (part of the day job is running campus software licensing & provisioning the academic software load…). Budgeting to keep things current is definitely a challenge (almost as challenging as keeping everything playing together nicely is for my techs!). Honestly, though, what keeps us running “outdated” software more often than not, is the fact that textbooks tend to lag behind a bit (or, at least, my faculty’s adoption of new textbooks lags behind… ;^) ).

    A last point to keep in mind, re: the iPad’s place, esp. wrt the question of “Is it a replacement for a ‘real’ computer?”. In order to get a new iPad up & running after buying it, you need to connect it to a computer running iTunes. Iow, it’s not positioned in the market as someone’s only computer; rather, it’s a low(er) cost device that is meant to augment one’s work/school/overall life by doing certain tasks in new, efficient, effective, and fun ways.

    And that’s pretty cool!

  4. @Glen, with the reveal of multitasking for iPhone OS 4.0, some of my doubts about iPads have been solved. A basic need of students using technology is the ability not only to run applications but to make different applications work with each other simultaneously, e.g. making a chart in Excel/Numbers and then copying over into Word/Pages without having to exit one app and enter another. Without multitasking I don’t think that’s possible. Sounds like Apple realized some version of this fact.

    I still maintain that the existence of legacy or niche software is a strike against the iPad. This software is not always “outdated”. I mentioned Winplot; this is a regularly-updated piece of software that performs very well for us, but it’s maintained by a community of users and freely distributed to the world, and it will probably never make it onto the iPad. And there’s a lot of software out there, stuff that is up-to-date and in regular use but porting it to the iPad is not on the radar screens of the developers. Somebody’s going to have to account for that fact if they want iPhone OS stuff to be widely accepted by the EDU market.

  5. Will Farris

    I bought a Toshiba fold-over Tablet PC in Dec 2005 and tried really hard to like it and adapt to electronic ink. I just wound up using it as an ordinary laptop, as the learning curve and hassle factor were just too much for me, but I think looking back, it was the artificial feel of writing on a glass screen. There was no frictional “tooth” on the surface, a feedback feel, to the screen – writing on glass is so unnatural. And the slates were ridiculously expensive to be of risky utility.

    I just bought an iPad and I love it! It is so right. It is the way ahead. I take it everywhere. So many books (with Kindle app), so many songs, so many apps, and it just feels right. It will only get better with all the immediate uptake to encourage and fund new efforts. Other brands will proliferate and standards will eventually emerge. I bet the student arsenal next fall will be thus: cheap desktop PC or pricier iMac for the dorm room, netbook PC for the run-around which will quickly loose ground to the iPad as apps and computing power increase, and of course, an iPhone or other cellphone with camera to round out things. I am already seeing them blooming in the university library and cafe’s just like the dogwoods and azaleas around here. (It helps to have 2 Apple stores in a 1 mile radius.) Why fight yet another shift in ways of doing things? It is simply just another huge jump in portability. All those other hardware pieces will still be hanging around.