If there is anything that I have learned in the course of using an iPad, it is how much I love my computer.
Two years ago I wrote a column for Inside Higher Ed entitled “The iPad for Academics.” Now, two years and two new models of iPad later, it seems time to revisit some of that original column: How well does it stand up, how did my predictions turn out, and what have I learned since then? The answers are, roughly, "good" "O.K." and "a lot."
When I wrote my column, no one was sure what the future held for the iPad, and there was serious skepticism about the more apocalyptic predictions. In fact, somewhat boringly, Apple's release of the iPad did what most Apple products do -- change the world, sell millions of units, and alter our information ecosystem irrevocably -- but it didn’t end the world.
In the two years that I’ve had the device, it has indeed become indispensable to me. It’s become my alarm clock, my radio, my television, my crossword puzzle, and above all (as I said in my original column) my reading device. I use it to read and read and read. It creates opportunities for reading I didn’t have before. In fact, I use it to read my own work -- the dreaded rush to print up conference papers finished moments before my panel has been replaced with a casual saunter to the podium, glowing digital copy of my paper in hand.
My iPad has excelled in forums where paper used to hold sway, and having it (or my iPod Touch) with me at all times means that I’ve discovered new times and places to do work. It’s great.
But it’s not a laptop, and it never will be.
As I and many other people have noted, the thing is for consumption, not production. I’ve tried using it to write and take notes -- using a Bluetooth keyboard with it, even using one of those cases with a keyboard built in, ridiculous little styluses, etc. There’s no way to get around the fact that the human body is not evolved to interact with a pane of glass. I can type faster than the keyboard can buffer, creating strings of illegible characters. At other times Apple’s pathetic spell checker stops me in my tracks.
And then there’s the interface. I suppose for some people the iPad’s interface works just fine. But once you’ve tasted the power of a multi-windowed environment with fully customizable keybindings, the iPad feels like a small, padded room. You can’t have two windows open at once in an iPad. Who can do serious academic work one window at a time? Not me, not any more -- and I’m not going back.
Perhaps I am one of the old generation who will someday be put to shame by nimble-fingered young’uns tapping expertly away on their nanometer-thick iPad 7s, but I don’t think so. People may get used to the limitations of the device, but that doesn’t mean that it’s better than what came before.
In fact, I see this as one of the dangers of the iPad. I see them everywhere on campus, and I wonder to myself: Are my students really getting through college without a laptop? Frankly, the idea seems horrifying to me. I don’t doubt that they can do it -- I worry what skills they are not learning because of the smallness (in every sense of that word) of the devices they learn on.
I don’t have a problem with students bringing their iPads to class, and there are times in some of my smaller seminars when we are all reading the text from our iPads. But even this consumption is starting to worry me. Does anyone really believe that digital textbooks are going to improve life for anyone except the textbook manufacturers? Like some mid-nineties wet dream of the content industry, digital textbooks have all of the DRM and none of the shareability of paper textbooks. And despite the potential of multimedia presentation, it’s not clear to me that they will prove to be anything more than a regular textbook with a few YouTube clips thrown in.
And the low prices? Remember when ATMs were first introduced and there was no fee for using them? Yeah, I don’t either -- it was so long ago the idea that improved service for free seems like a distant memory. The future the digital textbook market has planned for students is not, in my mind, a very bright one.
Two years down the road I’m glad that iPads exist, and I’m happy that most of the hype about them has been more or less borne out. It has a valuable place in our information ecosystem. The danger comes when the iPad becomes a replacement for other technologies that preceded our ubiquitous flat friend -- and still do their job better than it can.
Alex Golub is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has issued guidelines to help countries promote open access to research findings. While the guidelines are not binding on member nations, they suggest that countries take a consistent and broad approach to assuring free access to research findings. The report with the guidelines also rejects the idea that because partial access is available or even full access to some work in some countries, that these issues have been resolved. "There is a problem of accessibility to scientific information everywhere," the report says. "Levels of open access vary by discipline, and some disciplines lag behind considerably, making the effort to achieve open access even more urgent. Access problems are accentuated in developing, emerging and transition countries. There are some schemes to alleviate access problems in the poorest countries but although these provide access, they do not provide open access: they are not permanent, they provide access only to a proportion of the literature, and they do not make the literature open to all but only to specific institutions."
If textbook affordability is the Holy Grail, then those of us who work in higher education are careening Monty Python-like as we search for it, stirring up unnecessary obstacles for ourselves all along the way.
Consider the dual paths we are taking. First, there’s the all-encompassing push to “go digital,” as if somehow the output format of a book, whether it is electronic or print, is the sole determinant of cost.
That is the wrong way of thinking. Input – the price of content – is much more important to the total cost of course materials than output – the format in which those materials are ultimately consumed by the student.
Then, there’s the push to “go open.” In recent years, as concern over textbook affordability has grown, this idea has received much attention, with “open educational resources” -- or “OER” materials, as they are often called -- leading the charge.
This too, seems attractive, but we are a long way from having OER content dominate the learning landscape, even if much of it is free. The creation of content by academic publishers is part of our literary and reporting traditions, and any system for delivering content to students should take both “free and open” and commercially produced materials into account.
In fact, the best chance to make an immediate and meaningful impact on the price of textbooks is to facilitate the merging of traditional and free content, allowing instructors to include exactly what is necessary, and freeing students from the rigid and expensive traditional offerings from academic publishers. In this model, “book” costs are lowered regardless of output format.
If we are cognizant of ways of merging different types of content in order to get the biggest academic bang for the buck, we must also be mindful of methods to access this content; to break it apart, to “disaggregate” it from the traditional bounds of textbooks and to present it to students in an effective manner.
Indeed, the main benefit of new technologies in education should be to provide more choice to instructors, and ultimately to students. If a professor can mix open content with chapters from relevant textbooks, timely journal articles, and up-to-the-minute news reporting, then he or she can truly provide a unique “book” to students, untethered from the rigidity of the traditional offerings from academic publishers.
Textbook affordability has been a hot topic for at least a decade, but it has grown even hotter since the 2008 market meltdown, which greatly affected Americans’ spending power at the same time that the cost of college – already rising – began to skyrocket. Various Band-Aid solutions have emerged in response to textbook costs, with rentals the “in” solution for awhile and even the longstanding “gray market” of purchasing textbooks on international versions of websites, where the cost of some books in Europe can be materially lower than those in the U.S.
More and more students, at least anecdotally, are taking the route of “book sharing,” mixing and matching content among themselves rather than paying the significant freight asked of them by the colleges and universities they attend. That behavior is, in itself, a form of disaggregation, for it is breaking the traditional one-to-one relationship between student and assigned book.
But the disaggregated model I foresee is the one that we have been building for the past year at AcademicPub. It allows the professor to comb for the very best content in his or her discipline, mix and match that content into a consistently presented and compelling narrative or set of chapters, and to deliver the completed product to students in the format that the student prefers -– print or digital, whichever method leads to the best learning result for that student.
By all means let’s aspire to make the materials we assign our students more affordable, but we mustn’t fall victim to any “magic bullet” scenarios. Actions which fail to account for the cost of content will fall short. Failure to account for the value and ubiquity of existing texts from leading scholars through traditional publishers won’t cut it either. Going digital alone won’t lower the cost of textbooks, but disaggregating content just might work.
Caroline Vanderlip is CEO of SharedBook, Inc., which launched AcademicPub (TM), in April 2011.
Professors at the University of Ottawa, in Canada, want the right to bar laptops from their classrooms, CTV Ottawa News reported. Marcel Turcotte, one of the professors pushing the idea, said of his students: "They are distracted and we are competing with that for their attention.... You see one student who is really not listening, would be watching the video and then it's kind of contagious." A faculty vote is planned for May.
The National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and other federal agencies plan to announce today a major new research program focused on big data computing, The New York Times reported. The agencies will pledge $200 million for the effort.