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Will the iPad Revolutionize Higher Education?

The iPad is fun to play with, but Apple’s latest gadget might also be a valuable resource for students looking to save on textbooks.

There’s a futuristic scene in the movie The Time Machine in which an elementary school, circa 2030, is on a field trip to the New York Public Library. The students aren’t carrying pad and paper though, or even one of those audio devices for guided tours. Instead, each has what looks like a glass pane (we’re told later it’s really a “microscanner”) strapped over his or her shoulder roughly the same size of…well, of an iPad.

The impact that Apple’s latest gizmo will have on education is yet to be seen. But barely two weeks since its release, it’s clear that the iPad has the potential to fundamentally change how students attend college.

The concept behind the device has been tried before, with little to no success. Other computer companies introduced swiveling tablet PCs years ago, targeting the college market with features meant to make note taking and other academic endeavors easier. But none of them took hold.

Apple’s foray into the market is different. For starters, it’s Apple. The company’s younger, loyal fan base and aggressive marketing of college students is what led to their line of laptops becoming as omnipresent as Frisbees and Obama stickers on our nation’s quads.

The iPad also benefits from incredible technology. I don’t know enough about microprocessors and megawatts and gigawhatevers to speak authoritatively about the technical aspects of the iPad, but had firsthand experience with one for weeks now, I can report that it feels fast, is easy to use and can do just about everything I need it to do in a classroom.

Universities are quickly adjusting to the new market of tablet devices as well, and they are taking a wide range of approaches. Princeton made headlines when it publically banned the iPad within its ivy gates, citing potential issues with their wireless network. Seton Hill University in Pennsylvania will be handing out iPads to their entire incoming freshman class this fall, and George Fox University will give students an option between a Macbook and an iPad for their freshmen.

Both schools express hope that devices like the iPad will reduce the number of textbooks needed by students and make other common academic necessities—PDF files, PowerPoint presentations, online components like Blackboard—available all in one place.

The textbook question is probably the most uncertain. If there is going to be a killer app on collegiate iPads, it is going to be whether the largest producers of textbooks embrace the new format.

So far, the process has been slow. Barnes & Noble, the biggest seller of textbooks in the world, runs many of the nation’s largest university bookstores on college campuses, including here at Stony Brook. They have offered digital textbooks since before the rise of digital eReaders like Amazon’s Kindle or the Sony eReader.

“We have sold digital textbooks since the early 2000s,” says Jade Roth, the vice president of books at Barnes & Noble College Booksellers. “But there has not been a great deal of sales.”

The percentage of digital sales in the textbook arena is still in the low single digits, according to Roth. With the growing number of devices capable of displaying digital books though, that number could shoot up.

“[Digital sales] has been growing each term, but remains a small percentage of total sales,” adds Roth.

And total sales are doing quite well. According to the National Association of Collegiate Stores, students spent over $5 billion on textbooks in the last academic year alone.

The annual cost of textbooks for an individual student can easily top $1000, especially at a school like Stony Brook University, where the hard sciences are among the most popular majors. Multiply that by four years and suddenly even the books necessary to succeed in college are financially unrealistic for millions of families, never mind tuition costs.

But at a base price of $500, the iPad has the potential to reduce that figure substantially. Yes, many digital textbooks can run for a pretty penny as well, but the rise of digital readers coincides with the emergence of the open-source market for books. Google is undergoing an ambitious project of digitizing millions of books, WikiMedia has Wikibooks, and even the biggest textbook companies are beginning to embrace much cheaper digital versions of some popular titles.

Exactly how, or even if, the textbook industry will be impacted by the iPad and its spinoffs is hard to predict this early, says Richard Reeder, the Chief Information Officer at Stony Brook University.

“It’s still too early to see just how the iPad will change anything,” he says.

Others think that the potential for change rests not in the device itself but in its software.

Take the iPod, argues David Parry, an assistant professor of emerging media and communications at the University of Texas-Dallas.

“Where the real revolution took place was at the level of the iTunes store,” he writes in a piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Imagine, he continues, if the iTunes model for music were applied to textbooks. Students buying individual chapters at a time rather than the full book. Students renting textbooks for a few weeks as necessary. Those innovations were what revolutionized the music industry in iTunes. Can the same be done for textbooks?

For its part, Barnes & Noble is planning to launch its own iPad app in early May, according to Roth.

“We believe the role of the bookseller is to provide books…to go onto whatever device that students choose to use,” she says.

For the meantime, Stony Brook University is prepared for an influx of mobile devices. According to Reeder, the recent introduction of WolfieNet, the wireless network available in most of the residential buildings on campus, gives Stony Brook one of the best campus broadband networks in the country. The upgrade cost $2 million, and plans are to expand it even further by having it replace the outdated AirNet system currently available throughout the rest of the campus.

iPad sales have been robust since its April 3 release. Reviews have been mostly stellar. But on college campuses, at least for now, it remains much more bells and whistles and much less pomp and circumstance.

This article originally appeared in Think Magazine, part of the Campus Progress Journalism Network.

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