Two years after Steve Jobs held up the first iPad at its launch in San Francisco, Apple staged another event in January at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.
The company that had single-handedly created a tablet market was now proposing to expand in the education sector by using the iPad for online textbooks.
Apple is not the first to focus on this area, but with the 100m iPad sales milestone expected to be passed this year and the company’s magical ability to enthuse consumers with its vision, tablets and their software could have a significant impact on online learning.
“As students are being introduced to iPads, some remarkable things are happening; we’re on the cusp of something really great,” Phil Schiller, head of worldwide marketing, with typical Apple bravado, said at the event.
The announcement at the Guggenheim was all about software and services: iBooks 2, offering interactive textbooks at less than $15, iBooks Author – an application to create them – and an iTunes U app, expanding the podcast lectures that universities offer through Apple, into full online course materials.
The medium for all of this material was the touch-enabled iPad, rather than a MacBook laptop or an iPhone. Some 1.5m iPads are already in use in educational institutions.
Brent Tworetzky is product lead on the eTextbook Reader, a cloud service that enables access to digital textbooks on any device, which has been created by Chegg.com, the textbook rental service. He says: “We find that when students are reading on tablets rather than on a PC, they consume more pages in a session. They seem to be sitting down and focusing more with a tablet.”
Josh Koppel, chief creative officer of ScrollMotion, a developer of etextbooks, agrees. He says: “Touch changes the intimacy of the experience. When you touch the content, it resonates psychologically in a different way from when you’re just reading it. It changes the way you engage.”
But tablets are still in the minority among electronic tools used by students.
Osman Rashid, a co-founder of Chegg who is now chief executive of Kno, the education software company, says: “In five years, tablets are going to be the dominant platform globally for learning, but in the meantime, laptops will still have to be supported.”
Dan Rosensweig, Chegg’s chief executive, says that its research shows students use a minimum of three devices for learning.
“While we believe tablets will continue to grow, they may not be the tool of choice for a student – touch is really cool and fast, but the tablet has yet to be shown to be a really good input device for taking notes,” he says.
Chegg’s approach has been to produce a reader based on open HTML5 standards that adapts itself to any device.
“We’re open-minded about which device students use and we believe they will use more than one device and more than one vendor. Apple’s announcement meant content creators needed to sell through its store for its products, making it an expensive proposition.”
Kno set out to design the perfect tablet for textbooks in higher education – demonstrating a large-format model and a dual-screen one – before opting to concentrate on just the software, as competition in the hardware field became heated.
“We think 10in-screen tablets will become as cheap as $200 to $250 within a year,” says Mr Rashid.
“And in education there will be more stylus-based tablets – Windows 8 looks promising in that regard – students need to be able to write to retain information.”
He sees tablets and their software as being revolutionary in education.
“We will relearn how to learn because of tablets; that’s how profound the impact is going to be.”
This means students receiving instant feedback on how they are performing, through software monitoring their progress and comparing it with that of others.
Similarly, teachers can monitor the performance of their class more closely and take corrective action sooner with students having difficulties.
Analytics will also help authors and publishers improve their textbooks – the data feedback can show if particular sections are not being used by teachers or students.
Content creation tools also allow the teachers themselves to update course materials.
“If I read a great story in the Financial Times in the morning,” says Brad Wheeler, professor of information systems at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, “I can go into the software and find a chapter, highlight a paragraph, add a web link to the article and say: ‘Here’s an illustration of what we were talking about’.
“I just changed everyone’s textbook, it wasn’t some email note stripped of context, that kind of thing starts to bring the text to life.”
Mr Koppel says the potential is there for many further improvements in areas such as making education more social as students help one another.
“There’s so much there already that’s not being used. Imagine using FaceTime or Skype video calling to change our notion of a classroom, getting user-motivated demos and exploring social media – the next step is to put all these pieces together.”