Apple released the first iPad in April 2010, and the world swooned at it. It was an innovative personal computing device that was ultra-portable and had a touchscreen. And it came with thousands of apps.
In my office, a few people predicted that it’s going to revolutionize the higher education industry. Students would stop buying print books because they are very bulky and hard to carry. You could potentially carry tens of books on a device that weighed less than a book. There was no reason to buy a print book.
Many companies started converting their print books to iPad-ready ebooks. Some start-up companies, most notably Inkling and Kno, began creating beautiful and interactive books especially for iPads. In the last 3.5 years, different versions of iPad have come up in addition to countless Android and Windows tablets.
As part of my user research for a print and technology-based publishing company where I work, I went to the University of Cincinnati several times this year to talk with undergraduate students. I ask them to meet me in the lobby outside the cafeteria of the business school. At any time, there are about 15-20 students studying, talking, Web surfing, and eating. About 80%-90% of those students use their laptops, both Mac and PCs. I have never seen a single student using an iPad or any other tablet. Tablet adoption among college students is at least 30% and most want to have one. Then why is nobody using a tablet to study? Where is the revolution that was supposed to kill print books and laptops (and Microsoft)?
I have some theories.
- Tablets are very portable and much easier to carry than a book. However, students don’t seem to mind carrying laptops, which are already getting lighter every year, in their backpacks.
- Students don’t carry books to classrooms. They read books in their homes or residence halls when portability is not a factor.
- Short articles can be easily read on tablets. However, when students study for longer periods of time, they don’t want to sit in front of a screen. It’s hard on the eyes and is very distracting.
- Students who are in college now have been raised with print books so they have a preference for print books over ebooks. When kids who are using tablets now grow up, they will prefer to use ebooks. I think that’s wishful thinking because most schools still use print books though many kids use ebooks at home.
- When college students study, they don’t just read books. They highlight, take notes, take online quizzes and online homework, write papers, make presentations, etc. A tablet has a poor form factor for most of these activities.
- The on-screen keyboard takes up half of the screen space, which is already small, and typing is very slow. It’s difficult to do any productive work on a tablet. A laptop provides a much better form factor because you don’t have to hold the screen with hands.
- Students find it easier to refer to a print book while doing their homework or paper writing on a laptop.
- A tablet doesn’t allow running of full-blown applications that many students need.
Tablets are very useful devices for many purposes. However, the revolution that was predicted has not happened despite some schools adopting iPads (and some retracting). I believe the people who made those predictions were school administrators, policy makers, business people, and others who were most removed from the students’ experience. Students won’t use a device the way someone wants them to. They will use it the way it works for them. And for now, they prefer laptops and print books more than tablets.