Will Apple's newest gadget change the way we attend college?

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 we got our hands on a device, its clear that the iPad has the potential to fundamentally change how students attend college.

The concept behind the iPad 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 having used one for two weeks now I can report that it feels fast, its 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 are taking a wide range of approaches. Princeton University made headlines when they 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 have expressed 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,” said Jade Roth, the Vice President of Books at Barnes & Noble College Booksellers. “But there has not been a great deal of sales.”

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