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For a few years now, electronic textbooks have been expected to take off in a big way: They're cheaper than traditional textbooks and easier to carry around in a backpack. They seem like a natural progression for students who've grown up playing and working with digital devices.
But so far, traditional books still prevail on campuses. This year, though, there is speculation that the iPad, with its potential for enhanced visual features, can take e-textbooks to the next level.
NPR's Lynn Neary reports.
LYNN NEARY: Matt MacInnis thinks the iPad is a game-changer for the e-textbook market. MacInnis is the founder and CEO of Inkling, a company which designs textbook software specifically for the device. Until now, he says e-textbooks have just been bad imitations of paper books.
Mr. MATT MacINNIS (Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Inkling): And when you just copy the stuff that's on a page and slap it onto a computer screen, you really don't get the same effect that was intended for what you have on paper.
NEARY: With the iPad, MacInnis says it's possible to reinvent the textbook. Take his company's biology textbook, for example.
Mr. MacINNIS: Anytime we refer to a molecule, it pushes in a 3-D version that you can spin and swipe and unpinch and look at. We give guided tours through complex concepts.
So rather than seeing a picture of a cell dividing and then having a big, long caption, you can now tap, step, step, step, through all the different phases of cell division and see those things unfurl in front of you.
NEARY: This fall, a number of universities and colleges around the country are experimenting with the iPad. Reed College in Portland, Oregon, is one of them.
Professor ALEX MONTGOMERY-AMO (Political Science, Reed College): All right, if you guys want to bring up the syllabus (unintelligible) on the iPad. Do you have it on your iPad? Have you downloaded the PDF? All right, if you want to bring it up, I actually have the paper copy.
NEARY: Alex Montgomery-Amo's course on nuclear politics is something of a laboratory for electronic readers. Last year, the class was chosen to experiment with the Kindle. This year, they've been given free iPads to test. Montgomery-Amo says they're hoping they have a better experience with the iPad than they had with the Kindle.
Mr. MONTGOMERY-AMO: That went, I think horribly would be a good way of putting it. The problem is that the Kindle is actually less interactive than a piece of paper. In that the paper, you can quickly write notes in the margin or star something or highlight something.
And the Kindle was so slow at highlighting and making notes that the students stopped reading them as scholarly texts and started reading them like novels.
NEARY: As a result, Montgomery-Amo says, his students didn't comprehend the material as well as they did when using a traditional textbook. The Kindle was also clumsy to use in the classroom because, he says, the device was just too slow.
Mr. MONTGOMERY-AMO: It would take them half a minute for everyone to get from, okay, open this one up, all right, waiting, waiting, jump to this page. Okay, we're waiting again. And then it finally comes up, and you can have a discussion. But by that point, all the momentum has been lost. And the iPad is fast enough that you don't get that lag.
NEARY: The students have only had their iPads for a few weeks, but so far, senior Michael Crane and junior Rebecca Traber say they've been pleasantly surprised.
Mr. MICHAEL CRANE (Reed University): I mean, I thought it would just kind of be a fun toy. I mean, it still is a fun toy, but it also, I found, makes it really easy to read articles for a class. In fact, I read pretty much all my articles for all my classes on this now.
Ms. REBECCA TRABER (Reed University): I actually found it startlingly easy to annotate. I mean, like, it's - you just swipe your finger, and you highlight.
NEARY: The students have the option to buy their iPads at a good price at the end of the year. Rebecca Traber says she thinks she will buy it. Tevon Edwards, a junior, says he won't.
Mr. TEVON EDWARDS (Reed University): It's nice. It's very convenient, but I just don't I can't imagine everyone going out and buying an iPad. It's just not - it doesn't solve enough problems for how much it costs when you could -for most classes, I can just use a laptop if I really want to do something.
Ms. TRABER: While I like reading on it better than reading on a laptop, in terms of creating anything, like writing papers or even emails, it's ridiculously hard just because I don't like the keyboard at all.
NEARY: It's students like this who will decide what the classroom of the future will look like. They'll choose the device that works best for them, be it an iPad, PC or even a traditional textbook. And that means content providers will have to design software that will conform across different platforms and devices.
Sean Devine is CEO of CourseSmart, the largest provider of e-textbook content. He says for a while at least, digital books will have to match the layout of print books.
Mr. SEAN DEVINE (CEO, CourseSmart): We believe that students will be sitting side by side in a classroom, and not all of them will have iPads. Some of them may have the print book just as they have had for years. And they need to see the same thing. They need to be literally on the same page.
NEARY: Inkling's Matt MacInnis says his company is also designing software that's compatible with the printed page, but MacInnis has no doubt the iPad and similar tablet devices will be hard for students to resist.
Mr. MacINNIS: I can absolutely guarantee you that the guy with the book version is looking over the shoulder with envy at the guy with the iPad version. I mean, that's how this is designed to work.
NEARY: MacInnis believes the era of the monolithic, $180 textbook is ending. The time when you can download a chapter for $2.99 is just beginning, and when it comes to marketing his e-textbooks, MacInnis says he'll aim straight for the students.
Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.
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