Left: My old Toshiba Satellite. Right: My new MSI A5000-40US, circa last Christmas The iPad is certainly becoming popular in education. One of the latest schools to experiment with iPads as a teaching tool is the Stanford University School of Medicine, which will be looking at using iPads to lighten the textbook load on students, Mediabistro’s GalleyCat reports. Given that medical students have to study anatomy, the iPad’s color screen with its easy ability to zoom at a touch could prove very useful for examining pictures and diagrams.

(We previously covered another Stanford institution, the Stanford Engineering Library, getting rid of many of its paper books in favor of electronic equivalents.)

But colleges aren’t the only place that iPads are being used. A number of California middle schools are going to distribute 400 iPads in a pilot program for middle schoolers using an algebra teaching application. The results of the program will be studied and compared with those of an equivalent program just using textbooks.

I find myself skeptical of this program’s goals. It seems pretty clear it’s designed as a study of the effectiveness of iPad learning in theory, rather than as a pilot program for something that can actually be rolled out. Does anyone seriously think that California, whose recent state budget woes have become the stuff of legend, is going to be able to afford to give every middle school student an iPad?

And it’s also worth noting that Contributor Gary Price wrote a piece yesterday about a Florida high school handing out 2,100 Kindles to its entire student body (though I can’t actually link to it at the moment due to technical issues).

Of College Students and Laptops

There seems to be a growing assumption that fancy new laptops, iPads, and other new tech toys are necessary for college, in ways that were not true back when I was first in school. Many of the people I help in my tech support day job are college students who just got a new laptop for use at school and are having trouble setting it up. (Of course, some specific college programs literally do require laptops. Here Ben Hutchins writes about the ThinkPad W510 he was required to get as part of the University of Maine’s Electrical Engineering program.)

But Scott Merrill has an interesting editorial at TechCrunch suggesting that people shouldn’t get a new laptop for college—especially if they’re liberal arts majors. I’m not sure I can agree with all its points, but I find myself nodding along with most of them.

Merrill explains that all most students will need a laptop for, for the most part, is visiting course webpages and writing reports and papers. For that, they don’t need a top-of-the-line super workstation—an older used laptop from Craigslist running Ubuntu and OpenOffice will suffice for most of those needs. For things that it can’t do, college computer labs offer more than adequate facilities.

Latest and Greatest: More Hindrance Than Help?

He presents the lack of modern gaming and multimedia capabilities as not so much a drawback as a reason to spend time away from your computer in the presence of your fellow students, socializing and enjoying shared activities—gaming together on someone’s console rather than alone on your computer, or watching movies with friends on a communal bigscreen TV rather. And he points out that an older laptop will not be as attractive a target for theft, and if it is stolen you haven’t lost as much money.

He also points out that Ubuntu won’t catch the viruses of or be as susceptible to hackers as a Windows computer, and OpenOffice will create and read files in the Microsoft Word format that is standard for Windows making it compatible with the rest of the campus. (In my day job, I’ve recommended OpenOffice a number of times to people who were upset to learn their computer only came with a trial version of Microsoft Windows.) And though Merrill doesn’t mention it, the FBReader e-book app runs just fine on Ubuntu on older hardware, too.

The College Student Attention Span

There is a lot to what Merrill says. There is often an obsession with the newest and niftiest gadgets in education, perhaps not least of all because the people who will be using them are exactly in the demographic comprised of the most excited users of any new and nifty technology. It’s no accident that the college computer nerd/inventor is a cliché that has featured in movies from Real Genius to Social Network.

But I speak from experience when I say that college kids are also among the most easily distracted by new and nifty tech toys. I know when I was a college student and allowed to use computers in the classroom, I spent as much or more time browsing Slashdot and my e-mail and chatting online with friends as I did on classwork. (Alas, if I had been less distracted and paid more attention, I might have kept more of my grants and full ride scholarships and not have ended up with over $50,000 in student loan debts to pay off.)

With that in mind, perhaps making do with an older, not as capable computer could be good for the educational experience of college students who do it. If they can’t be distracted by the newest and neatest computer games, they might be able to pay more attention to their coursework. (In theory, anyway. In actual fact, I have little doubt that some people could find endless distraction in nothing more than a pocket calculator, or maybe an abacus.)

The Laptop and the Student Budget

On the other hand, if money is an issue, it is really amazing how laptop prices have fallen over the last few years. I’m not sure if it came about as a result of the OLPC’s quest to drive prices down on its XO netbook, and Intel’s similar drive for its Classmate, but it seems as if laptops in general have become considerably more affordable than they used to be.

The MSI A5000-40US laptop I got for Christmas last year cost about $350—less money than the iPod Touch 64GB I’m currently lusting after. It’s not going to run the newest and fanciest games at full graphical and speed capabilities, but it is terrific for browsing the web, writing, and watching video. Tiger Direct currently lists a number of 15” laptops starting at $299.99, and smaller netbooks starting for even less.

And of course Geeks.com has refurbished netbooks from a couple years back at relatively low prices (currently starting at $199.99 for anything that’s not Windows CE, but they get lower-priced ones in every so often). It would be entirely possible for today’s college student to buy a new but low-end laptop for little more than the cost of a particularly expensive textbook or two. It would be hard to beat those prices and still get anything worthwhile by going to Craigslist as Merrill suggests.

Cheap laptops and netbooks are great educational devices—possibly even better than an iPad, given that the physical keyboard and full desktop software capabilities make it easier for students to do useful things and don’t offer all the timewasting distractions that can be found on the iPad. And college students don’t necessarily need the latest and greatest technology for the tasks that college demands of them (with a few exceptions, such as students in particular technology degree tracks).

And since e-books are mainly text and pictures, practically any computer a student gets will read them with ease.

Up until last Christmas, I made do with an aging Toshiba Satellite laptop running Ubuntu. It had no working battery, so I had to make do with plugging it in wherever I went. But all the same, it let me write and surf the net, and I have little doubt that I would have been able to use it to complete most of the writing assignments I was given in college if I’d had it with me at the time.

Perhaps the emphasis on college students having the latest and greatest technology should be reconsidered, at least from the perspective of giving them them the best ability to focus on the important thing—their education.


  1. Personally, I do not see the iPad as the best reading device (one has not been invented yet). As an old ebook person (everything from a DEC prototype, the origional rocketbook & softbook, to current models) I will say that when I can pry my iPad from my 14 year old’s hands, that is what I currently read almost everything on (the other is an android tablet). I am not an e-ink fan – ask me next generation (disclaimer – my father was one of the founders of an e-ink company many years ago) For textbook illustrations I want a larger screen. For text books, I think the iPad could be great, but textbooks need to be rethought and have on-line (downloadable) updates in many cases rather than correction sheets passed out at every lecture – yes this happened to me). If the iphone 4 display be scaled up to at least ‘A4’ legal size at a semi-reasonable cost (have you seen the textbook costs today)? You can charge a premium for the device if the books are cheaper, and if a better battery/fuel cell combination can be made, (that is coming – just got a price quote from a company that does external fuel cells for backup power, battery units and chargers are fairly cheap, but the rechargers if you want to be independant of them are close to $600. Still debating) I personally think it would be ideal. Texts/research/news/social/email/;etc on a single platform, none of the tonnage I used to have to carry around, texts that are updated automagically, entertainment (Videos, etc) etc. in a single package that can be carried – it would have changed my life. For example – my 14 tear old came across a reference to an ‘LP’ in one of his readings. He had to ask me what it was. I had to go to the basement to find one and realized that I have not played one since the mid 90’s. Can you imagine what could happen when all university lectures are available online and archived? That such a device could access every lecture in a class so it could be self paced? Say good bye to your overpriced institutions – there would be a fundamental shift. Self starters would be making names for themselves years earlier. Of course, something would have to replace the social aspects of a campus – that (IMHO) is the real learning experience.
    The downsides – reliance on such a package. Making sure that all students – nomatter what background – have access.
    A little beyond the article, but just for the ability to not have to carry a huge packpack every day, yes, I can see an iPad device being used and would support one.

  2. As someone who uses the iPad to read a lot and to do business on, I am certain the iPad is the right device. But right now the device is ahead of the content.
    My Chemistry, Physics and Maths textbooks way back were very much the same size as the iPad screen so the format size is perfect and there is plenty of room for well laid out content. But are there enough well priced text books available to make it worth while ? I think not. Not yet. I believe we should wait until the text book people start creating their textbooks specifically for these devices instead of scanning to pdf or any other intervening work around.

    I agree that this obsession with laptops and new ones at that, is ridiculous and unnecessary.

  3. It’s not really about the appropriateness of technology but marketing when a college gives or requires students have certain tech toys ( computers back in the late 80’s, then laptops, and later Kindles or iPads). In order to survive a college needs to attract student. They attract students by being different/ special in some way. Have the most up-to-date / faddish tech is one of those ways.

    But that isn’t to say that all students can’t use the new tech. And not just students in the sciences either.

    Sure, an English major doesn’t need the latest or greatest computer ( I was one myself. Wordperfect+ an Atari ST got me thru college in the late 80’s. Granted, before the web existed – but we had email and word processors even “back then”)

    But Adobe CS 5, which my daughter needed for a class this fall ( she’s a student at a 4 yr art school, not some trade school), certainly won’t run adequately on one of those cheap $400 laptops you think are so great.

  4. Sure, even cheap netbooks can handle running Open Office so you can write papers on it… But reading on one is not enjoyable for me. Even on a bigger monitor, I find long-form reading uncomfortable. The iPad has been great for me in that area. Stuff I used to have to print out to read, I just load up on the iPad using GoodReader. (and I am now reading a ton of magazines on the iPad too, but that’s another story)

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