Will iPads Replace Textbooks? Not So Fast [Infographic]

Once you do the math, textbooks don't seem so crazily expensive after all.

You might remember that when the iPad was introduced, there was all this buzz about the thing totally revamping the way students learn. Textbooks, many folks believed, were doomed. The idea obviously had plenty of appeal: Why should students have to put up with crappy, marked up old books? Why should they have to lug them around? And why should schools have to spend so much on something that’s printed on so much paper?

But since then, you might have also noticed that the drumbeat about e-textbooks seems to have quieted a bit. Sure, we get news here and there of experiments that people are trying. But given that, as of December, 60 million iPads have been sold, it’s probably fair to say that the gadget hasn’t exactly changed the face of textbooks. One basic but incomplete explanation of why comes courtesy of Online Teaching Degree. Simply put, iPads are too freaking expensive--even compared to ridiculously expensive textbooks. Crunch the numbers, and it’s not even close. While kitting a hypothetical class out with iPads would cost $430,000 per year, textbooks would cost just $180,000:

Not only that, but if you do the numbers in reverse, they still don’t work. Public schools spend about $2 billion on computers and such, which is barely enough to give 1 in 10 students an iPad:

At this point, your bullshit detector might be going off, and it should: You’d have to be a fool to think that iPads would overhaul public-school education in the days of classroom overcrowding and school budgets in free fall. It was clear, even when Steve Jobs was presenting his wild vision for the future of learning, that he was talking about an extremely elite subset of education--namely, those colleges and private schools which have enough money to lavish on teaching experiments such as e-textbooks.

Moreover, if you run the numbers for a college student, they look far different. Textbooks routinely cost upwards of $1,000 a semester, which makes the iPad look like a far better deal. But it’s still not clear whether an e-textbook offers a better experience than a printed one. Call me a fool, but I believe the printed word helps students on a basic cognitive level--running your finger across a meaningful passage, dog-earring important pages, and scrawling notes in the margin all help physicalize the information you’re learning.

Put another way, when you take a course, the actual experience of learning is as much about digesting information as it is about creating a mental map of the textbooks you’re reading. That mental map essentially works like a container for your newfound knowledge. In my (admittedly brief) use of e-books, I’ve never had that same, ineffable experience, even despite a number of programs that offer note-making capabilities. For that same reason, the papers on your desk will probably never go away because, unlike your computer desktop, your physical desktop is a reliable model of what’s top-of-mind at any given moment.

Via Online Education Degree; Top image: Sergey Titov/Shutterstock

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20 Comments

  • Sebastián Valencia

    Why do you thing that the ipad its the only tablet in the market?, are the other tablets in the market not good enough to do the same think?, something like the one laptop per child proyect could not be apply to make more democratic the use of technology in schools around the United States? (I think the article is great about the possibilities of tech and education, I just wonder if there are no other possibilities around this topic).

  • James Griggs

    I disagree with your reasoning, it does not take into account the increased engagement to learning.  Simply being able to have up to date content on an iPad rather than outdated information in books would impact learning.  Also, all classes do not have books.

    Even though you need a physical object to make a "mental map" others do not.

    Oh and here's another thing it's not too expensive if you consider corporations have the money to sponsor schools iPad purchases.

    I love books, but "Will iPads Replace Textbooks?" for millions they already have.

  • johnlotz

    When has a 27 Billion dollar price tag stopped the government before? I know education isn't it's top priority but they could still find a way. Besides, as someone already said, they (the U.S. Government) would probably get a discount on buying tons of iPads. 

  • Neuromarketing

    I think it likely that if e-readers like iPads were present in the classroom, we'd see free textbooks evolve.  In a paper world, open source or creative commons textbooks are still expensive.  Once the content is created, downloads are free.  I can imagine both social entrepreneurs and non-profit foundations creating or sponsoring these books.

    Would traditional publishers go out of business? Some, perhaps, but the smarter ones would create new, interactive ebooks that better utilize the reader technology to enhance learning.  They would be forced to step up their game.

    Paper books will go away, but it won't be a quick process.  Adoption of e-readers by a modest number of schools, though, might be enough to spark the development of free, high quality content.  Lots of foundations would love to say, "We invested a million dollars, and are saving schools ten times that every year!" Social ROI.

  • Vicky Wolfe

    If reading a textbook were the only function performed by the iPad, then the statistics would be completely valid. What the student gets in addition to textbooks (word processing, spreadsheets, email and Internet access, access to apps galore) makes up for cost differential. We are quickly approaching a time when the iPad can function as a basic computer with Cloud-based storage.

  • guetta

    This graphic should be done using college textbook
    statistics as students require more than 6 textbooks a semester, can rarely
    resell their books after they have been used and need to carry them around all
    the time. I could see a real use for an iPad/ kindle textbook app for College
    students. Especially, because often times it is not necessary to read each
    textbook cover to cover so being able to scroll to a chapter that is pertinent
    would be great.

  • Tim Anderson

    Good article to balance the reality distortion field surrounding the foray of iPad into textbooks.

    Without a doubt, I am certain there will be many valuable ways an iPad can supplement textbooks, but I suspect actually replacing textbooks is another story. A couple of years ago several universities did a big study using Kindles to gauge their effectiveness and it is interesting that the study really doesn't get cited by folks (I just happen to know because I was in graduate school at one of the participating universities). Anyhow, the government got involved because the e-books were not fully compliant with the American with Disabilities Act. Also, if I recall correctly students did not end up being thrilled with them.

    Anyhow, my point with that is that there has been a relatively recent trail with textbook e-readers yet it seems to be that people tend to think Apple will somehow have a 'magical' solution that will just naturally make iPads replace textbooks. I think it is more complicated than that.

  • johnlotz

    A Kindle is NOT anything like iPad. Kindle (besides the newly released fire) is ONLY an e-reader.  

  • guest

    I tutor a student whose school requires students to use iPads. While iPads certainly do add value with accessibility to resources, it quite frankly takes much longer complete a certain assignment and look up information than if he had been using a paper textbook. It takes a lot longer to page through the ebooks to find the relevant information. A few seconds may not sound like much, but it really adds up.

  • downpour

    It's not really fair to compare the entire price of an iPad against a textbook, as the ability to display textbooks is only one tiny aspect of what the iPad can do. Also a textbook on an iPad can display video, audio, interactive 3D models etc.

    It's like comparing PC's to stationary, they are different things entirely.

  • Simon Field

    There are a lot of assumptions and things taken for granted in the statistics. For example: if the US government said to Apple that they wanted an iPad for every student, I highly doubt they would be handed a lengthy Apple Store receipt for $27bn.

    Besides, no company would ever be given such a monopoly over a nation's education, even if the cost was viable. 

    On an individual basis a reasonable amount of students can afford, or their parents can afford, to buy an iPad or some kind of tablet computer. If you invest in one for say University, it will easily see you all the way through (the four year lifespan predicted seems a bit short to me) and of course it depends on your course / etc with regards to how many textbooks you need to buy and so on.

    I'm an iPad owner and I bought it whilst at University, I've basically stopped taking my laptop into lectures and classes. It's an invaluable tool not only for textbooks but also for all of it's other functionality. If the school / university you're at partakes in things such as iTunes U, Podcasts or anything similar then it's good for so much more. Tablets can never replace a notepad and pen, but they can reduce a lot of bulk, add a lot more productivity and fluidity to your workflow. Being able to take video, photos, voice recordings etc during lectures, demonstrations, in the studio and anywhere is just something you can't capture with a textbook, or a pen and paper.

    Another thing to take into consideration is that tablet computing is still completely infantile. Just like smart phones are. Even the format of an eBook still has years to go. How long have books been around? Thousands of years, it's already apparent after less than 5 years at most that eBooks are far from a finalised concept. When tablet computers become as cheap as the throwaway phones we buy today then it will be much more like the future that Apple is envisaging today. 

  • Paul Bunyar

    I believe we read differently when using an iPad [or computer] than when reading a book. I believe that with a book, we read deeply and thoughtfully. We are focused. With an iPad I think we read quickly and only grab bits of information and facts without being focused on the deeper meanings of any particular text.

    Take for example the app, "The Wasteland." One reader commented that he didn't bother re-reading the poem since he was caught up in all the bells and whistles of the commentaries and live readings and the linked footnotes.

    I can easily see a student starting to read an assignment for, say, history. The assignment is to read the details of D-day. But once the student begins, he or she keeps following links from here to there and yon and never really reads the assignment. And if connected to the internet, that student probably ends up playing a shooter game that is nothing really like D-day.

  • downpour

    That's not true, I read all my books on the iPad now and if anything I get more engrossed than I did with paper books. The iPad is more comfortable to hold, it's easier to turn pages, I never loose my place. If i'm out, I can continue to read from where I left off on my phone. I'm also a lot more likely to start reading something as I have my entire library in my hand and I don't have to go hunting around.

    The problem you describe has always existed. If a kid isn't interested in reading something, they won't read it. They can detract themselves perfectly well without an iPad. But interactive elements can help to draw a disinterested kid into a subject... and hopefully then they will take the time to read up on the details. Even if they don't they are still learning something they wouldn't have from a standard book. 

  • Stephen (officesnapshots.com)

    The school I taught at purchased a Nook Color for every high school student. While the screen sizes of digital readers do not accomodate textbooks well, we found them to be a perfect way to handle the heavy load of literature the students consumed.

    Many schools use textbooks as the holy grail of reading, but we found that the more and more we embraced literature, the less we needed textbooks as an essential classroom resource. They worked nicely to fill in context of what the students were reading, and made classroom discussions more intelligent, but they really took a backseat to lecture and lit. And we also used editions that were a couple years old to save on cash which ended up helping us buy the Nooks.

  • tkbrdly

    I'll just point out the obvious:

    iPads save money when used to replace college text books which cost as much as an iPad each semester already.

    In high school students share the same text book with every other student who takes that class at different times (assuming the ipads would remain in the classrooms and not go home with the students), therefore divide your number of students by 5.

  • Amit Kaveeshwar

    I would reckon that the next generation is going to figure this out by themselves in terms of using iPads and digital content for education. We were what were as a product of our circumstances