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Saving your child’s back – should iPads replace the textbook?

June 6, 2010

A joint UC Riverside / Children’s Spine Foundation study (“Influence of School Backpacks on Adolescent Back Pain”), and the experience of one of my older daughter’s friends who suffered a back injury related to backpack usage, confirms what many parents already suspect: backpacks laden with heavy textbooks pose a health risk for students.  The study, in which over 3,000 students participated, notes in the conclusion: “These results indicate that nonspecific back pain affecting adolescent schoolchildren is becoming a major national, if not international, medical issue.”

A cautionary tale or an opportunity to accelerate the inevitable: the replacement of paper textbooks with electronic textbooks?  Given Apple’s long-standing association with schools it’s no surprise that a few schools nationwide have taken the electronic plunge – replacing textbooks with iPads.  Monte Vista Christian School, a private high school in Watsonville, California, is piloting the iPad and hopes to eventually completely replace textbooks and equip every student with an iPad.  An interesting article with a video covering early results is available here.  It isn’t just private schools taking the plunge – a high school in rural Minnesota is rolling out 230 iPads to replace textbooks (with the plan to ultimately provide every student with an iPad) – turning 20-30 pounds of textbooks into a 1-2 pound iPad (more details available here).

Electronic textbooks aren’t a new idea – tech-savvy school districts have experimented with notebooks and online textbooks as alternatives to the traditional textbook for years on a small scale.  For many practical reasons there hasn’t been widespread adoption.  Capital investment costs, setup and support operational costs, training challenges, battery life and usability have all stopped pilots from turning into programs.

How does Apple’s iPad potentially bend the curve on electronic textbook adoption?

First, the iPad is based on the same instant-on platform as the Apple iPhone and iPod touch – meaning many children are already familiar with the user interface (Forbes: “iPod touch use ‘exploded’ Christmas day”).  Second, a large screen with multi-touch technology makes interacting with an electronic textbook a rich experience – zoom in on a graphic, touch a word to see its definition, flip pages with gestures and seamlessly incorporate video.  Third, the iPad has fewer moving parts (no physical keyboard) and is lighter and has significantly better battery life than your average notebook computer.  Fourth, the widespread availability of wireless Internet connections means stale textbooks are a thing of the past, errors are fixed with a wireless update and textbooks are no longer cut off from the vast universe of Internet content.

Electronic textbooks only work if the publishing companies are on board with the transformation.  According to a recent article (available here), major textbook publishers (such as McGraw-Hill Education and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) have signed deals with Apple to port textbook content to the iPad platform.  Apple has proven capable of partnering with content publishers with the success of iTunes for music (and more recently movies and TV programming).

Could electronic textbooks make economic sense here in Dublin?  I haven’t done a detailed analysis but here are factors to consider that lead me to believe “maybe”:

  • According to a Dublin Unified School District analysis (regarding whether or not to include lockers in the Dublin High renewal project) physical textbook costs over 7 years can run $465,000 – $720,000.  Will publishers sell electronic textbooks at a discount vs. physical textbooks?
  • Unit costs reductions over time consistent with other consumer electronic products.  Apple is visiting at least one of the high schools mentioned above – if electronic textbooks gain momentum Apple could release a cost-reduced version of the iPad optimized for school use (less memory).  Regardless, it is likely the iPad will get cheaper over time.
  • Replacement / maintainance costs: an unknown is the degree to which theft, wear, tear and loss will impact electronic textbook programs.  Additionally, if students take notes or create documents on devices like an iPad, will an automated online backup strategy be required?
  • IT support costs: can existing IT staff take on the support burden of iPads? Do existing WiFi networks in schools have the capacity to handle  hundreds of students?
  • Teacher training costs: what incremental training would be required for teachers?
  • Accessibility – are electronic textbooks an opportunity or a challenge for students with disabilities?

Perhaps a logical place to start is a limited pilot as part of Dublin High School’s new Engineering Academy (which recently received a $35,000 boost from Chevron).  Other options could be partnering with local Dublin firm Pandigital (a maker of e-readers).

I can’t predict if my children will benefit from electronic textbooks – but I bet my grandchildren will find physical textbooks as odd as our children view vinyl records.

Note: the author is not affiliated with Apple or the Dublin Unified School District but does think the iPad would be a terrific Father’s Day present (hint hint).

5 Comments leave one →
  1. sandeep permalink
    June 6, 2010 6:38 pm

    If iPads replace textbooks, then they should also replace paper.

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