But Mum, I NEED a New iPad for School!

In an interesting short post on Mashable, Erik Loehfelm predicts that, among the “5 Digital Publishing App Trends to Watch in 2012” will be an increase in (or, indeed, the advent of?) the use of textbook apps for education.

Should students be carrying four or five textbooks to school each day? Could students purchase only certain chapters of books? Could books include text that is updated by authors in real-time? Could the concept of a “textbook” be a compilation of Wikipedia entries, content queried from Wolfram|Alpha, a professor’s thoughts and musings and social network contributions?

I’ll confess that the idea of using a “compilation of Wikipedia entries” as classroom texts leaves me feeling slightly nauseous — would any postsecondary instructor even consider doing such a thing?  However, I think the general principle here is sound.

What I don’t think likely is that this is going to happen next year . . . or even the year after.  Perhaps there will be an explosion in content suited for teaching and available for tablets in the near future, but there’s precious little that I’d want to use available right now.

More to the point, the sheer cost  involved in obtaining a tablet computer makes this idea, for the time being, impractical.  The cost of textbooks has soared, but while apps are admittedly cheaper, replacing that $150 satchel of printed texts with a $600+ tablet is not something that is going to be happening anytime soon. Yes, these are going to become much cheaper soon, but not quickly enough to meet Loehfelm’s immediate expectations.

That said, I think that this will happen, eventually, once more and better content is available, and the devices themselves become more accessible.

What should a textbook app feature?  Well, in my field (i.e., literature), it should minimally include:

  •  Reliable texts
  • Decent metadata and a basic scholarly apparatus (at the least)
  • Commentary and annotation
  • Lists of resources and further reading
  • Media-rich features that set the eTextbook apart from print versions of the same
  • A reasonably aesthetically-pleasing and effective interface

As further desiderata, I might add as well greater connectivity with other devices, and the ability to “mark up” and annotate texts oneself.

I think one of the challenges in the next few years for apps creators and eBook publishers will be — or should be — the setting of a minimum standard for this kind of digital textbook.  Without such inducements, there won’t be the necessary justification to offset what will surely still be an increased hit to the pocketbook for students.

I’d be most interested to know if anyone out there is already using tablet apps for teaching.  Anyone?


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