Minor Bumps for iPad

April 23, 2010

Apple's new iPad computing tablet may have hit a few snags in its introduction to the college market. But experts say the network compatibility problems that have arisen on some campuses probably will not bear on the device's ability to penetrate higher education. And a new survey indicates that even before the media frenzy that accompanied its release earlier this month, Apple had made inroads with students interested in buying an e-reader.

Among students who do not own a wireless electronic reading device, but are interested in buying one, the iPad is already more popular than the Amazon Kindle, according to data released this week by Student Monitor, a firm that researches lifestyle and consumption trends among college students.

The company’s most recent data, based on a March survey of 1,200 students at 100 colleges, indicate that 31 percent of the 1.7 million undergraduates at four-year institutions who do not already own an e-reader said they are interested in purchasing one. Among those, only 6 percent said they were “very interested.” By contrast, students who testified to being “very uninterested” in buying an e-reader were the largest contingent. Fifteen percent said they were “somewhat uninterested,” and another 15 percent answered “neither.” There were no significant differences across various demographics included in the survey, which was conducted several weeks before the iPad arrived in stores.

Of the students who reported at least some interest in buying an e-reader, 46 percent said they favored the iPad, versus 38 percent for the Kindle. That works out to about 782,000 undergrads at four-year colleges and universities who might soon buy Apple’s new computing tablet — assuming they can scrape together the $500 to $800 it costs to get one.

Of course, the flurry of computing tablets that are expected to hit the market in the coming year might affect how many of those students end up springing for Apple's product over Google's or Hewlett-Packard's. But for now, these data bode well for Apple, said Eric Weil, managing director of Student Monitor. Students are showing more interest in the iPad than they did in the iPhone when it was released, he said, and he expects many students to follow through on their interest in buying the device. “These are typically not impulse purchases,” Weil said, noting the success of the iPhone on college campuses. (Student Monitor is planning to contact the 31 percent of students who said they were interested in buying an iPad later this year to see if they actually followed through.)

The new data come as some colleges are seeding their campuses with iPads. North Carolina State University is loaning iPads to students through its library, the University of Maryland at College Park is planning to give iPads to students in its Digital Cultures and Creativity program, George Fox University has announced it will offer iPads to first-year students in the fall as an alternative to its laptop giveaway, and Seton Hill University says it will give all its students free iPads.

Meanwhile, others are discouraging students from using the devices on campus. Three high-profile institutions have already reported compatibility problems between the new gadget and their campuses' wireless networks: Cornell University is worried that it does not have the bandwidth to support too many iPads; George Washington University says its network will not let in iPads because its security system cannot authenticate the devices; and Princeton University has warned its students that attempting to use campus wireless with iPads could create network problems, which would prompt I.T. officials to block the offending machines.

Martin Ringle, CIO at Reed College, said not all campuses that end up supporting a preponderance of iPads will have network problems, since not all networks have the same bandwidth and authentication protocols. Princeton and George Washington have said they are working to resolve the network snafus, and Weil said he does not see network issues as being a long-term barrier to iPad penetration on college campuses.

“The short answer is that it’ll be as much of a problem as the I.T. folks want it to be,” Weil said, adding that administrators are generally responsive to student needs, especially when it comes to technology.

Bruce Maas, CIO at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, said his university has approached students directly to try to gauge student need with respect to iPads and similar devices. “We are in the process of talking with student leaders on our Educational Technology Fee Committee right now about the priority they see in having a more robust wireless infrastructure on campus, given increasing usage of wireless devices and increasing usage of rich media,” Maas wrote in an e-mail. “The priority they place on this will be a significant factor in determining the level of capabilities we have on campus.”

Campus technologists also do not seem worried about another compatibility issue that has received plenty of media attention: the iPad's inability to read animation created with Adobe Flash.

While some institutional Web sites use Flash animation, there are already enough visitors whose computers cannot read Flash that most sites have an alternate protocol that replaces Flash-animated objects with still images. “It’s like an Easter egg — it’s something that’s cool if you find it, but if you don’t it just sits there,” said Mitchel Davis, CIO at Bowdoin College. “…I think that Flash is a tool that some people decide to use, but I think that everybody has a fallback.”

Even if any colleges are worried that the inability of iPad-using prospective students and alums to view Flash elements on their Web sites might affect the institutions’ recruiting or fund-raising strategies, that problem — like the network problems at Princeton and George Washington — will probably be solved by the time the device achieves any significant level of saturation among students, several CIOs told Inside Higher Ed.

Besides, noted David Wiley, associate professor of instructional psychology and technology at Brigham Young University, if Apple’s feud with Adobe turns out to be a significant drag on the experience of its customers, those customers — students included — will bolt to one of the many competing computing tablets that are in the works, which should be Flash-friendly.

For the latest higher-ed technology news from Inside Higher Ed, follow Steve Kolowich on Twitter.

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