Tablets, Yes; E-Texts, Maybe

The same students who say tablet computers are going to revolutionize higher education don't necessarily want to read books on them.
May 25, 2011

While tablet computer ownership is still not prevalent among college students, a survey by the Pearson Foundation found that students say the devices could improve their educational experience -- and many say they want one. But the study also finds a disconnect between that demand and interest in digital textbooks.

About 8 in 10 college students surveyed said they believed that tablet computers were valuable for educational purposes, and most saw themselves owning a tablet in the future. Students who own tablets were even more likely to see an educational value in the devices, with 90 percent saying they thought tablets had value as educational tools.

While some of the report's findings bode well for tablets, they don't necessarily bode as well for digital textbook publishers, at least in the near term. The majority of students said they still prefer print editions to their digital counterparts. But with about 7 percent of students owning a tablet computer and 60 percent of college students saying they see one in their future, campuses could be seeing the first signs of the takeoff predicted last year.

"There seems to be this belief among students that tablets are going to fundamentally change the way they learn and the way they access what they are learning," said Adam Ray, director of communications and alliances for the Pearson Foundation. "Students see these devices as a way to personalize learning."

For the report, the foundation spoke with 1,214 college students between the ages of 18 and 30 who were enrolled in a two-year or four-year college or university, or graduate school, as well as 200 college-bound high school seniors. Ray said the study is the first of many that the Pearson Foundation will conduct on the topic of tablets. He said the foundation wants to track student perception of tablets as they become more widely adopted.

When Apple released the iPad in 2010, some administrators and faculty members said it heralded a new age of learning, since the devices could be used for multiple educational tasks such as reading textbooks and PDF documents, watching videos, and taking notes. Colleges tried various experiments with the device in its first year, with mixed results.

Adoption of the iPad and similar tablets, such as the Nook by Barnes and Noble and the Motorola Xoom, has been swift in the general population, but their use in the classroom has lagged. The study suggests that this may be changing, however; 15 percent of survey respondents said they intend to purchase a tablet in the next year.

Claims that tablets will revolutionize the learning experience often go hand-in-hand with a push for more digital textbooks, but the Pearson survey showed that students don't often link the two. While most students perceived an educational value to tablets, only 35 percent said they preferred digital editions to print editions, and only about half of those preferred tablets to other digital devices. Students said they were more likely to use the tablets for e-mail, managing assignments and schedules, and reading non-textbook materials such as study aids, reports, and articles.

The data suggest that the digital-textbook experience might actually be kind of a letdown. While 69 percent of students who said they wanted a tablet said they wanted to read digital textbooks on it, only 39 percent of students who owned tablets said they actually did.

"[Students] don't gravitate to the issues that we think of as really tangible, like the cost and ownership of a textbook," Ray said. "Instead they have these aspirational ideas of what an educational experience should entail. They have a certain amount of imagination."

A recent survey by Student Monitor found that demand for e-textbooks is not as great as envisioned, partly because textbook rental companies have helped to drive down textbook costs. In the same survey, only 5 percent of students said they purchased a digital textbook for the spring semester. Reports and surveys tend to distinguish between tablet computers, which have color monitors and touch screens, and e-readers such as the Amazon Kindle, which tend to use electronic paper technology.

There are some signs that administrators and policymakers are pushing ahead on digital textbooks anyway. Florida lawmakers passed a bill mandating that textbooks at all public elementary and secondary schools go digital within five years. California State University announced on Tuesday a partnership with the Nature Publishing Group to produce interactive digital textbooks for college science courses. Next year, the students in introductory biology courses at the system’s Los Angeles, Northridge, and Chico campuses will use a $49 digital version of the Principles of Biology textbook.


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