Vineet Madan is Vice President of McGraw-Hill Higher Education eLabs, which works with colleges and universities, professors and students along with technology partners to develop innovative, cutting-edge digital educational tools to improve the way instructors teach and students learn.
Since the debut of the iPad, tablets have captured the imagination of consumers. In just one year, the iPad surpassed even the most optimistic of projections to define a brand new product category and become the best-selling gadget of all time, and Forrester analysts project that in 2011, tablet sales will more than double.
But are tablets ready for the classroom? Though tablets have caught on with consumers, the higher education market has been slower to adopt, and understandably so. From grades to degrees to job placement after graduation, the devices that are used in classrooms are tied to important outcomes.
As a result, colleges and universities must proceed carefully when considering whether to adopt a new technology on a large scale. However, reports from recent iPad pilot programs at schools across the country have been positive, and some colleges have even begun distributing tablets to all of their students. As we wrap up the first post-iPad school year, do we know enough to make the “fad, fail, magical” call? I think so.
By looking at all that tablets offer in the context of student behavior and some of the recent trends in education, it's clear that tablets are ready for the classroom. Here’s a look at the top reasons why.
1. Tablets Are the Best Way to Show Textbooks
Tablets are cable of offering enhanced ebooks featuring images, video and audio. These elements are impossible to include in print or in a standard ebook. Read about music? No thanks, I'll follow my auto-advancing sheet music as the audio plays. See a picture of Martin Luther King, Jr. as I read his "I Have a Dream" speech? I guess that's fine, but with one tap of my finger, I'm watching it. The result is a more integrated learning experience, which is more engaging for students. This isn't the future — this is today.
By allowing students to highlight text, take notes in the margin and access a dictionary directly within the book itself, tablets are matching (and in some cases, surpassing) everything that a traditional book — print or digital — can offer.
2. Classrooms Are Ready for Tablets
Though tablets are a recent phenomenon, many students in high school and college have been using smartphones for years, and are already well-acquainted with touchscreen technology. Because they’ve become so accustomed to using these devices, students are increasingly expecting to use them in the classroom setting. When classrooms don't implement what has now become "everyday" technology, we’re doing students a disservice.
Additionally, students — and consumers in general — are becoming more comfortable using tablets for advanced tasks. According to a new Nielsen survey, 35% of tablet owners said they used their desktop computers less often or not at all now, and 32% of laptop users said the same. Most tellingly, more than 75% of tablet owners said they used their tablet for tasks they once used their desktop or laptop for. While tablets can’t totally match laptops in terms of functionally (yet), they can get today’s students most of the way there.
3. Tablets Fit Students' Lifestyles
The appeal of tablets to a college student is obvious: They’re thin, lightweight, and spring to life without delay, making them much easier to take to (and use in) class than a laptop or netbook. Longer battery life means that students don’t have to worry about carrying a charger with them. Forgot what the professor said at the end of class about the mid-term? Launch Tegrity, tap the lecture and replay it in just seconds. That's faster than texting a half-dozen classmates and waiting for what might be an inaccurate response.
4. Tablets Have the Software to Be Competitive
Some of the most innovative software around is being developed specifically for tablets. In addition to the thousands of exciting educational apps available, tablets are fully compatible with online teaching and learning platforms, such as Blackboard, which are becoming the norm at colleges and universities. In fact, tablets’ current shortcoming — limited multitasking — could be their greatest asset in education, as it forces students to focus on one task at a time.
5. Tablets Integrate With Education IT Trends
Cloud-based solutions have become ever more popular with colleges and universities, which are looking to deliver synchronized experiences that are device agnostic. Tablets align well with this trend, given their portability and options for constant connectivity. With tablets and cloud-based systems, students can work anywhere on campus and make sure that their work is saved in a central location and accessible from all of their devices. They also don’t have to pay for computing power that they no longer need.
6. Tablets Are Becoming More Available
One of the primary reasons that tablets have been slow to penetrate the higher education market was their limited availability. Apple’s supply chain issues and the difficulty that some Android tablet manufacturers have faced in getting their products to market have made it difficult for schools to get serious about adopting. As these issues are resolved over the coming year, expect to see more and more tablets popping up on campuses.
Lower price points will make tablets even more appealing to colleges and universities. For close to a year, Apple went virtually unchallenged in the tablet market. Increased competition should drive down prices. The wave of tablets introduced at CES in January is just the tip of the iceberg. With dozens to hundreds of offerings, many based on Google's open source Android OS, expect price points to fall quickly just as they have for laptops, smartphones and HDTV sets. Heck, Apple's original iPad can be had for as little as $349 if you get the timing right and don't mind a refurb.
How close are we today to tablets displacing computers on campuses? Closer than you might think. I wrote this article on a tablet with a touchscreen keyboard.