The University of Notre Dame is temporarily substituting textbooks in some of its classes with iPads to see how use of the tablet device affects learning, according to an article in today's Wall Street Journal. So far, students find the coursework "more interesting."
My first reaction to the article was as the parent of a child, someday (I pray) bound for college. I'm psyched! If e-readers replace textbooks, then we can skip the annual pilgrimage to the campus book store. We'd buy one iPad, download texts, and save a bundle of money. My son would be less likely to misplace one iPad than six textbooks, so we'd also cut down on replacement fees. The possibilities are endless. (Newly released statistics from digital course materials provider CourseSmart.com show that college students returning to classes this January will save an average of $60 per title by using e-textbooks.)
My second reaction was as a business journalist. What a fantastic opportunity for Apple and/or other e-reader manufacturers. If you are, say, Apple and you become the exclusive supplier to the Notre Dame bookstore, it's practically a license to print money. Every year a new batch of incoming freshmen has to buy your product to complete their coursework. You can offer trade-ins, upgrades, and used e-readers (similar to the way textbooks are sold now). Again, the possibilities are endless.
Then, being the supply chain geek that I am, I thought about logistics. Wouldn't textbook companies have to license their content? Charge less for downloads than they do for texts? Would they lose on the sale of hundreds or even thousands of textbooks per semester? Why would they want to do this? Also, it occurs to me that there may be some competitive issues around offering iPads and not, for example, Kindles, in the campus bookstore.
None of those questions was answered in the study, which focuses on learning (it is a university, after all). The study, called the eReader Project, looked at undergraduates in a project-management course at Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business this past fall. The sampling of students was small: 40 students in the course used WiFi iPads for seven weeks of the semester; a second wave of 38 students received them in the second half of the semester.
The students were required to download a course e-book in lieu of the physical textbook typically required. (They were given the option of passing up the iPad and going with a hardcover book, but students unanimously chose to go along with the iPad project.) Article and PDF print-outs were provided as supplementary reading, but 22 of the 40 students surveyed said they did 100 percent of the course reading, as well as some additional reading, on their iPad loaners.
The jury is still out on whether or not the iPads enhanced learning. Students were no more distracted in class then they were pre-iPad -- most students have cell or smartphones -- but highlighting and note taking were more difficult on the devices.
The university has redistributed the iPads to law students this semester, and plans to continue to equip students with iPads as educational tools to see how it impacts learning. The school is also eyeing Android tablet devices, like the Samsung Galaxy Tab. The Kindle was a contender at the start of the project, but the color screens on tablet devices were the biggest selling point in an educational setting.
If your business were to go after the education market, what are the "must have" attributes you'd put on your product? And would it be a tablet device, a laptop, or something else? I'd like to hear what readers think -- my son is in the Class of 2015.