College students: Tablets will replace textbooks by 2017

The Apple iPad still dominates among tablet owners on campus.

Interest in computer tablets has been consistently high on college campuses since the Apple iPad hit the market in April 2010, but not until this year did tablet ownership spike in higher education.

Only 7 percent of college students surveyed in 2011 owned a computer tablet. In 2012, that number has spiked to 25 percent, and students now see their sleek new tablets as the inevitable replacement for their bulky, pricey textbooks.

Six in 10 college students – and seven in 10 high school seniors – believe tablets will replace traditional textbooks within five years, according to findings from the Pearson Foundation’s Second Annual Survey on Students and Tablets, which was made public March 14.

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Last year’s findings indicated that college students were primed to buy Apple and Android tablets once the technology became more available and cheaper. Only two in 10 college students said they had no interest in buying a tablet in 2011, and 86 percent of respondents said the “devices help students study more efficiently.”

The shift in tablet use was reflected in how college students are using the technology. Six in 10 students now use their tablet to read for fun and for educational purposes. Less than half of student respondents used tablets for those reasons in Pearson’s 2011 survey.

Pearson’s survey findings could predict a further boom in the number of tablets on campuses in 2013 and beyond: more than one-third of respondents said they intended to buy a tablet in the next six months.

There remains little competition for the iPad in higher education. Sixty-three percent of tablet-owning students use the iPad, while 26 percent own a Kindle Fire. Fifteen percent own a Samsung Galaxy Tab, according to the Pearson survey.

Colleges and universities that have conducted smaller, campus-based technology surveys report that tablet ownership has seen a slight uptick over the past year, but nothing close to the increases detailed in the Pearson survey.

Virginia Commonwealth University’s Technology Services blog said that a fall 2011 survey showed that tablet ownership among the school’s students is “very weak.”

“Still, the trend for mobile is steadily moving up and we would probably see that reflected in tablet ownership if our survey was administered again this spring,” the blog said.

The Pearson survey isn’t the first to predict the demise of traditional textbooks in higher education.

One in four college students said in a July 2011 survey that they’d give up sex for a year if it meant never again having to carry textbooks around campus, but majorities of students in other opinion polls show a reluctance to give up on traditional texts and switch entirely to electronic books.

The survey, released by Kno Inc., a California-based educational software company, grabbed the attention of educators and students alike—and not so much because the survey shows that lugging heavy books from the dorm to the lecture hall and back isn’t fun, but because of what, exactly, young adults would sacrifice to rid their lives of their 800-page biology text.

Seven in 10 college student respondents said they want digital textbooks options, whether through a popular computer tablet like the Apple iPad or eBooks on a laptop.

But educators and activists who keep a close eye on developments in higher education’s textbook policies said the sky-high demand for eBooks and web-based textbooks material is rarely, if ever, reflected in other national surveys on the issue.

Surveys and polls conducted by the Student Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) have consistently shown that three in four college students still prefer traditional textbooks. The same surveys have made it clear that students want more textbook options, including eBooks and open-source books that could be sold online or on campus for little or no cost.

“It’s pretty clear that one option isn’t right for everybody,” said Nicole Allen, a Student PIRG spokeswoman who tracks national textbook preferences and policies. “The larger point is that students want options. … I think the [Kno] survey definitely dramatizes that situation.”

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