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Awaiting the Tablet

Awaiting the Tablet
January 27, 2010

It has many names — the iTablet, the iSlate, the iTab, the iGuide — but if there is one thing people seem to agree on regarding Apple’s new computing tablet, expected to be unveiled today in San Francisco, it’s that it will change the way people consume media. And many observers believe the impact will be particularly notable on college campuses.

Media prognosticators have been buzzing for months about how higher education might be affected by the arrival of the Apple tablet, which is reported to have a 10-inch color display — about the same size as the screen on Apple’s smallest laptop and larger than the screens of the three-and-half-inch iPhone and iPod touch, the six-inch Amazon Kindle, or the five- to seven-inch Sony Reader.

Ars Technica writer Jeff Smykil recently wrote that the addition of e-textbooks to the iTunes Store could precipitate new ways of supplying students with course materials, possibly based on selling subscriptions and bundling books and other resources by major. Joshua Kim, a senior learning technologist at Dartmouth College and Inside Higher Ed technology blogger, posited that the tablet could combine course materials and collaboration tools, bringing the futuristic vision of a “cloud-based, disaggregated, open educational experience” one step closer to realization. Brand expert Brian Phipps put it more bluntly, writing that the tablet “could replace the conventional classroom.”

Of course, most people won’t know until later today what the tablet can do; and they won’t know what it will do to traditional higher education for a long time after that. “At the moment we’re just sort of reading digital tea leaves,” said Kenneth C. Green, director of the campus computing project.

A Boost for E-Books?

Electronic textbook publishers, for one, are hoping that the release and anticipated popularity of the tablet will be a windfall for e-textbooks — which, though they have been available for several years, so far have failed to catch on with students. E-textbooks accounted for only 2 percent of total textbook sales last fall, according to data from the market research firm Student Monitor.

CourseSmart, a consortium of five major textbook publishers (at least one of which has been talking to Apple), made a video in anticipation of the tablet’s release, in which it superimposes its iPhone application on a tablet-like device and touts the many ways it could make students' lives easier. Frank Lyman, the consortium’s president, has said the tablet offers features far beyond what is offered by the Kindle and the Sony Reader, including color graphics, video, and other media.

In an interview yesterday with Inside Higher Ed, Lyman said he believes the Apple product will give e-textbooks a boost by combining a brand that is widely popular among college students with a platform that is oriented to reading. “At the level of general enthusiasm and interest for e-textbooks, it has sort of captured the imagination of another part of the market,” he said.

Eric Weil, managing director of Student Monitor, agreed that Apple’s brand power could help push e-textbooks into the mainstream. The problem for e-textbooks is not that students don’t know that they exist, it’s that they don’t find them appealing, Weil said. Apple’s involvement could change that, he said, the same way it popularized the MP3 player with the iPod.

Price Points

But the aspect about the Apple tablet that could provide the deepest insight into how much it stands to affect higher education — at least initially — is perhaps the hardest to pin down: the price tag. While some analysts predict that Apple would need to price the tablet at $600 or lower in order to market it successfully, rumors abound that the product could run as high as $1,000 — as much as a regular MacBook.

While CourseSmart claims that its e-textbooks cost half the price of a new, printed textbook, Lyman acknowledged that, depending on the tablet’s price tag, it could take all four years to break even on the initial hardware investment. But he said he hopes the additional value tablet’s many rumored features will persuade students to buy it. After all, given everything the tablet is supposed to do, students might regard cheaper, less cumbersome e-textbooks as a peripheral benefit rather than a main selling point.

Green said the tablet’s penetration on college campuses will turn largely on what current technologies it is capable of replacing. If the features of the Apple tablet are redundant with the functions students use on their iPod touches — or smartphones, or laptops — then they can subtract from the cost of the tablet the money they would have spent on those other technologies, he said. The more gadgets the tablet makes obsolete, the cheaper the investment.

But Weil said he thinks all this accounting is moot. College students don’t generally think in such calculating terms when it comes to technology, he said. “At the end of the day,” he said, “students spend more on their cell phone service than they do on their textbooks.”

The tablet is expected to hit the shelves in March.

 

 

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