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.