The iPad and Higher Education

[This is a guest post by David Parry, assistant professor of emerging media and communications at the University of Texas, Dallas. What you'll find below is different than the things we usually publish. After all, each of our authors tends to focus on strategies or tools with which they've acquired some experience in order to address the relative strengths and weaknesses. By contrast, the iPad hasn't even gone on sale yet! However, Dave has a well-deserved reputation as a provocative and thoughtful writer when it comes to technology and higher education, and because this post engages the broader issues of higher ed economics, publishing, and what we do (or don't) want in our digital tools, we believe it will be of interest to ProfHacker readers. --GHW]

I own a MacBook Pro, before that a MacBook, and before that a PowerBook. Perhaps the technology item I could least live without is my iPhone, I have had one since the Edge network non-GPS days. I have been accused of being an Apple FanBoy.

I will not be buying an iPad.

What is more, I am going to make the case that you shouldn’t either, or at least if you are in education you shouldn’t be lying awake at night trying to think of a way to convince your Dean that these need to be purchased for you or your students.

Much has already been made of the possible impact of the iPad. Indeed, even before anyone in higher education even saw the official specs, much less held one in their hands the iPad was being heralded as the next great revolution in technology and education. Before Steve Jobs was even finished speaking during the event announcing the iPad, some were suggesting that this new device would make the backpack obsolete. Or even before the iPad was announced Apple speculators and rumor peddlers were insisting that the iPad would change education, and thus the iPad would be one of Jobs’s most significant contributions. Sadly, I don’t think this is true, and what’s worse is that the iPad might be bad for education. Allow me to make the case (or, don’t allow me, and just close this tab and instead get your iCredit Card and surf on over to and pre-order . . . )

The limits of the iPad have already been much discussed and debated by far more tech savvy minds than myself, arguments which furthermore I don’t really have time to rehash here. But if you want to know how I feel about the iPad in general, read Alex Payne’s claim that the iPad is a deeply cynical device, this pretty much sums up my general take. And it is along the lines of Payne’s analysis that I want to highlight the problems of the iPad in an educational context.

If you look at many science fiction representations of education we see children in vaguely educational looking buildings all with their own tablet like devices with multi-touch screens. The iPad seems to fullfill the desire for these imagined future educational devices. The iPad as portable, interactive, beautiful screen that allows us to shed all of our old educational devices and merge them into this one gorgeous piece of multi-media hardware, designed to consume any media the students need.

The “iPad will change education” argument’s principle point seems to be that Apple will do for the textbook what it did for music. That is, that music is to the iPod as textbooks are to the iPad. As the Wall Street Journal outlines textbook manufacturers are already gearing up for this change. Indeed as the, only midly, techno-utopian comment by Rik Krannenburg from McGraw Hill in this article claims, the iPad finally signals the change in technology and education we have been waiting for, the iPad as the future device we have always wanted.

But herein lies the first major problem for education: the iPad is designed with textbook makers in mind. (What they should have instead imagined was what kind of computer students without textbooks need.) During development of the iPad Apple was in contact with/negotiations with major publishers, most notably McGraw-Hill (which was the first company to publicly, albeit accidently, confirm the existence of the iPad). Here is the thing, the iPod was not the real revolution in music. There are lots of mp3 players out there, many different models, and say what you will about how good the iPod is, ultimately as a piece of technology it is not fundamentally different than its competitors. Where the real revolution took place was at the level of the iTunes store. Suddenly the consumptition and distribution of music changed as songs were purchased individually, playlists became easy to construct not because of the hardware, or even software, but rather because of the opportunity to purchase individual songs. Likewise, if the textbook market is to change, and change in a way that will transform education, this transformation will come at the level of the economics of distribution, not the means of presentation.

But, you could object, the iPad bookstore will open up access to educational markets in the way that iTunes did. . . .

Except you would be wrong. In the first instance the iPad bookstore could change individual consumption of books, how the latest James Patterson is sold, or your ability to distribute your book outside the machinations of the publishing industry. However, when it comes to the textbook market, one which is bound to political interests, where textbooks are purchased in bulk for large population segments, the marketing and distribution is unlikely to change. Indeed the profit to be made here probably increases. Thus the likelihood that we will see the market continuously dominated by the big textbook publishers remains large. Without changing the system of copyright, licensing, or even the idea that the textbook is central to educational experience, I would suggest that little will be changed. In fact quite the opposite, the big textbook manufactures will gain more purchase in this realm. What is worse, is that all indications from Apple seem to be that this will strengthen DRM and copyright.

Yes it is true that the iPad could lead to a reorganization of the textbook market. By allowing school districts or Universities to pick and choose chapters, mixing and matching textbooks to get the ones which they want, or even at the most hopeful iTextbook could lead to a robust textbook rental market, changing the way textbooks are purchased, but the $5.5 billion textbook industry isn’t going to go away just because we have the iPad. There is a lot of money to be made there and Apple, like Amazon, is looking to carve out part of this market. But let’s be clear: they aren’t looking to make this market free. Schools might save money here on textbook rental, or cheaper books, but I am skeptical that this will be the large savings institutions want and need, or that students deserve. Peer-to-peer music file sharing decreased on university campuses largely, I would argue, because students felt that $.99 was a fair price to pay for a song. And in many cases legally purchasing music tracks was easier than learning to use Bit-Torrent clients successfully. But given the choice between a $50.00 textbook and torrenting a copy, what is the student going to chose? How low will the price have to go for the trade-off to be worth it for the student? The truly transformative educational move would be, something that would kill the textbook market, end it in the way the internet ended newspapers, perhaps something like Connexions.

Here is my advice, instead of convincing the powers that be to buy iPads for your school, spend the money on investing in and writing an open source textbook, now that would be good for education.

Furthermore I think the economics of this thing are not going to shake out in ways that we would want or desire. Rich school districts are more apt to be able to purchase iPads and push to have the regional districts purchase or make available the digital versions of the textbooks, while those districts which are less than flush with funds are going to be left negotiating only for books which have digital versions they will never use, or worse yet stuck using outdated books as new content is produced and purchased in the form of iTextbooks.

And yes, it is true that an iTextbook could contain rich media, allowing students to not only read about the fall of the Berlin Wall, but watch the video of the event as well (hint: you can already do this). And yes, it is true that at least in terms of means of presentation the students will be allowed a wider array of media types. But the structure will still be fundamentally that of the textbook, a centralized information source, which is produced by a team of experts.

For me, this is the real crux of the matter with the iPad: it is designed as a beautiful, wonderful, easy to use media consumption device. But I don’t want my students to be only media consumers. To be successful engaged citizens with control over their own life path, they need to be critical consumers and creators of media, not passive consumers. This device is designed for passive consumption. No camera? No microphone? (Correction: There is, in fact, a microphone. Thanks, Justin M.) And the thing can’t multitask!

But, you object, surely someone will write cool, neat, inventive, shiny applications for the iPad that will help me teach calculus. Maybe, but is this really different from Math Blaster? It is just a smaller interface with a nice touch screen. But let’s be clear: these are locked devices… educational appliances, not educational computers. They are designed to teach you how to consume media. As Dan Gillmor tweeted (I think it was him), the iPad treats the read-write web as a read-only web. And this is what really scares me, that educational institutions will be lulled into buying iPads because they are “revolutionary” educational devices, only to realize that what makes them revolutionary is that they are in fact a step backwards from the way that the web has operated.

An iPad is a glorified web kiosk. A student who interacts with the web and the network on these things experiences a markedly different web than one who uses a computer that isn’t an appliance. I don’t want my students to passively consume an article on the Berlin Wall and then watch a video. I want them to Google it, look at it on Wikipedia, find online museums that have archived the event, look for personal testimonies and archives that aren’t part of the “institutional or textbook record” and ultimately participate in the knowledge formation rather than just consume it.

Why didn’t Apple put a fully functioning OS on the iPad? We could come up with many reasons (performance, integration with existing stores, mimicking the iPhone experience), but ultimately I think it boils down to the fact that Apple did market research and figured out people want this type of locked down, non multi-tasking, “safe” computer experience. And what is more, my guess is that “educational professionals” said they want this type of device as well. It is so much easier to lock down students’ web experience on a device like this, easy to ban Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia, YouTube, or anything else they determine to be distracting or detrimental.

What education really needs is tech savvy teachers, engaged with helping students develop 21st century literacies, not disciplined and controlled digital experiences. But, when you can’t even find someone to teach digital literacy, is the problem really that you don’t have a portable touch screen interface?

That’s a rhetorical question.

[Creative Commons licensed flickr photo by badlogik]

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