Textbooks entering tablet market

The day my husband handed his iPad to our two-year-old, I cringed, fearful of the US$700 device’s imminent destruction and of introducing technology at perhaps far too young an age.

The day my husband handed his iPad to our two-year-old, I cringed, fearful of the US$700 device’s imminent destruction and of introducing technology at perhaps far too young an age.

But after seeing how quickly he picked up easy lessons on colours, matching and numbers from his first interactions with Monkey Preschool Lunchbox (a 99-cent app), I swallowed my protests.

Anecdotal evidence aside, recent studies have shown that working with a touch-screen tablet and an interactive learning application can improve test scores of students of varying ages.

In January, textbook publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt released findings of a year-long pilot program in which students at a California middle school were given iPads with the HMH Fuse algebra app.

The study found that over 78 per cent of HMH Fuse users scored at “proficient” or “advanced” levels on last spring’s California Standards Tests, compared with only 59 pe rcent of their textbook-using peers.”

Similarly, 120 fifth-graders who played Motion Math, an interactive iPad fractions app, for 20 minutes a day over five days showed an average 15 per cent improvement in fractions test scores, a “significant increase compared to a control group” according to Michelle Riconscente, a University of Southern California educational psychology professor. The study was released and underwritten by GameDesk, a research, development and outreach organization.

That brings us to Apple, which last month showcased a suite of new tools aimed at integrating the iPad into schools and education:

l Its iBooks 2 promises to “reinvent the textbook” with interactive eTextbooks.

l Its iTunes U makes it easier to deliver online lectures.

l Its iBooks Author lets users create their own books.

These applications have many in the tech sector pondering: Is Apple’s iPad poised to reshape education?

Apple and three top textbook publishers are collaborating on digital eTextbooks for the iPad. (The tablet’s competitors, including Amazon’s Kindle Fire and Barnes & Noble’s Nook, haven’t announced forays into the textbook field to date.)

Content will be interactive, letting users zoom in on 3-D images, expand sections they want to learn more about, and search within the text. It will be easier to update content than with printed textbooks, which typically circulate for many years before being updated or replaced.

The author can set the price, so long as it doesn’t exceed $14.95, a huge savings over the price of traditional textbooks. With iBooks Author, users can create and publish their own content. The easy interface lets authors drag and drop images, videos and documents into templates.

Once Apple has approved the content, authors can publish an eBook for free while charging customers up to $14.99; Apple gets a cut, because content is sold exclusively through the iTunes store.

Educators can create interactive lectures and study plans or customize content to assist students.

The updated iTunes U will have an app that makes it easier for instructors to offer virtual classes.There are some big challenges to tablets doubling as textbooks.

At a school moving to eTextbooks, each user must have access to a device. Cost is an obvious hurdle. Every student would need an iPad — which starts at $499 — and it’s hard to imagine cash-strapped school districts funding the purchases for K-12 students.

Another concern is that tablets require Internet access to download and use apps and content.

Most districts lack the bandwidth capacity to support every student simultaneously accessing the Internet.

I think the immediate beneficiaries could be college students, who buy their own textbooks — usually at exorbitant prices. However, the research is encouraging that the learning tools could have a much broader role.

Andrea Eldridge is CEO of Nerds on Call, a company in Redding, Calif., that offers on-site computer and home theater set-up and repair. Contact her at www.callnerds.com/andrea

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