Tablet May Help E-Textbook Market, Publishers Hope

Guests play with Apple's new iPad at an event announcing its debut in San Francisco. At least one college is considering giving iPads to new students, but the jury on whether the device will revolutionize learning will be out for a while.
January 31, 2010

Tablet-style computers could be game-changers for colleges, pushing the adoption of electronic textbooks over a tipping point and bringing in a new era of classroom collaboration. Last week's announcement by Apple Inc. of the iPad tablet has major textbook publishers rejoicing, some education watchers predicting a wave of student purchases, and at least one college saying it will consider giving them to all incoming students.

But wait—it might be time to take a deep breath to let the excitement of the sales pitch fade. Tablets have been tried before, with similar fanfare, and have fallen flat. And so far e-textbook sales are growing more slowly than expected. So even Apple doesn't always hit big with new products (the Newton personal organizer being its most famous flop).

Even the institution considering a giveaway, Abilene Christian University, said it will have to play around with the devices before making a decision. "We didn't want to jump blindly into something we don't know about," said William Rankin, director of educational innovation at the university.

So it's worth taking a careful look at whether the company will once again create a new category of device that makes waves in education—as it did with personal computers, digital music players, and smartphones—or whether the iPad and other tablets might be doomed to remain a niche offering.

First, though, here's what Apple announced. For those who somehow missed the specs despite the hype, the iPad looks like an iPhone on steroids. It is about the size of a book, with a 9.7-inch screen, and is just half an inch thick. It weighs just a pound and a half, meaning that it would be easy to throw in a backpack and carry anywhere on campus. It runs most applications built for the iPhone or iPod Touch, and the interface is much the same as in those popular devices. And it is designed as an e-book reader that will compete with Amazon's Kindle and other e-book devices. Apple announced the creation of its own online bookstore, and an application called iBooks to store and display those titles on the iPad. Prices for the iPad range from $499 to $829, with the more expensive units including cellular modems that give users the option to buy Internet access from AT&T for a monthly fee.

Apple's leader and chief pitchman, Steve Jobs, listed plenty of uses for the new gadget at an event announcing the iPad in San Francisco, which some bloggers streamed online—but a vision of their use in education was not explicitly outlined. Mr. Jobs did mention iTunesU twice when listing the kinds of content that could be viewed on the iPad, referring to the company's partnership with many colleges to offer them free space for multimedia content like lecture recordings. But he otherwise focused on consumer uses—watching movies, viewing photos, sending e-mail messages, and reading novels published by five trade publishers mentioned at the event. That does not mean that the company won't later promote the iPad's use on campuses, though, since it waited until after iPods and iPhones were established before beginning to work more heavily with colleges to promote those in education.

The biggest impact of the iPad would be in the textbook market, said several officials interviewed by The Chronicle.

Publishers had hoped this academic year would be a big one for e-textbooks, now that a critical mass of titles is available in electronic form. But according to a recent survey by the research group Student Monitor, only 2 percent of students said they bought an e-textbook this past fall semester. One reason is that students do not know about the option, said Eric Weil, of Student Monitor. "We still have a relatively low level of awareness that there's such a thing as the e-textbook," he said.

So those selling electronic textbooks have taken unusual steps to market them: Follett Corporation, which operates hundreds of campus bookstores, added a new option to its CafeScribe online textbook store that lets students "try now, buy later" to give them a chance to back out.

"There is this hesitance of, Is this right for me? Is this a good value? and Is my faculty member OK with it?" said Isabella Hinds, director of digital content for Follett.

Ms. Hinds sees Apple's cachet and "cool" factor as being another lure that will get students to try e-textbooks. "They are market-makers," she said of Apple. "And higher education is ready for some game-changing."

Rumors flew earlier last week that Apple would announce an e-textbook deal, after reports that McGraw Hill had recently spoken with Apple executives, and after an executive of the publishing group, in an interview on CNBC, talked about the device as if he had seen it. But there was no such deal, and Rik Kranenburg, the publisher's president for higher education, professional, and international publishing, said that McGraw Hill routinely meets with Apple over a longstanding project dealing with content for iTunes. "Some reporters interpreted long-standing relationships as something that's more specific to this announcement," he added.

Even without a direct partnership, though, most textbook publishers already make their titles available in a form that could be easily purchased and read on the iPad.

CourseSmart, for example, recently released an iPhone app for its store, which sells more than 8,800 titles from the largest textbook publishers.

Frank Lyman, an executive vice president at CourseSmart, said he is excited about the iPad and other tablet-style computers because they may fit a student's lifestyle better than laptops do. He said data from publishers show that students do not carry their laptops with them to class, even though they are touted as portable. "They might do that with this kind of device because it's smaller," he said. "At the end of the day, it comes down to not just can I take it with me, but am I happy to take it with me?"

Many colleges are hoping that e-textbooks will catch on, too, because they generally cost half the price of a printed version and can save students money. The City University of New York, for instance, is looking closely at encouraging e-textbooks as part of an effort to lower student costs. "At end of the day, it's how do you drive savings for our students, who are feeling a great economic impact," said Brian Cohen, CUNY's chief information officer.

Mr. Cohen said he hoped that the textbook market evolves so that publishers make their works available for any platform, and that more devices like the iPad, that can drive awareness of e-books, would help.

Teaching Tool?

If students do buy the new gadgets and begin to carry them around campus, they could be a more powerful educational tool than laptop computers.

That's the view of Mr. Rankin, of Abilene Christian, which for several years has given free iPhones or iPod Touch devices to every first-year student, so that nearly every student on the campus has one. The iPad offers many of the same features, but with a larger screen that could make more classroom uses possible, he said. "We're very excited about this device," he said, because it's big enough and robust enough to create content, not just consume it.

He said the college was devoted to its mobile project. Officials would test the new devices and were seriously considering giving away iPads rather than iPods in the future, he said. "We'll see what happens."

In the short term, the university last week announced an effort by the student newspaper, The Optimist, to design an edition for the iPad. The plan is to mix audio, video, and text in ways "unseen even since the advent of laptops and smartphones," according to a news release issued moments after the iPad was announced.

Not every campus technology official is sold on the iPad in education, though.

Jim Groom, an instructional technologist at the University of Mary Washington, expressed weariness with all the hype around the Apple announcement. He said he was concerned about Apple's policies of requiring all applications to be approved by the company before being allowed in its store, just as it does with the iPhone. And he said Apple's strategy was to make the Web more commercial, rather than an open frontier. "It offers a real threat to the Web," he said.

He also pointed out that several PC manufacturers have sold tablet computers before, which have been tried enthusiastically in classrooms.

One promise of the tablet format is that it makes it easy for professors to walk around classrooms while holding the computer, while allowing them to wirelessly project information to a screen at the front of the room. But despite initial hype, very few tablet PC's are being used in college classrooms. But Mr. Groom said the Apple product offers innovations, like a more powerful touch-screen interface, that make it more attractive than previous efforts.

Now that Apple's long-awaited secret is out, the harder questions might be whether the iPad is the long-awaited education computer.