Tablets Missing on Campus: Students Prefer Laptops for Learning

May 09, 2014

Article ImageTablets may currently be all the rage among consumers worldwide (comScore reports that 72 million Americans own one), but college students may be cooling to these devices, based on the latest data. Approximately 29% of students indicate owning a tablet in 2014, but that's a slight dip since last year (28%), according to a recent report from Ball State University. By contrast, smartphone ownership among college students is currently over 88%, up from about 72% in 2013, per the same report.

These results lead Michael Hanley, advertising professor and director of Ball State's Institute for Mobile Media Research, to believe that college students aren't embracing tablets, especially as digital learning tools. "Students use tablets for entertainment, not education," Hanley says. "Laptops are the device of choice for education because of their powerful operating systems, variety of software and ease of use, especially with a keyboard and mouse. Streaming movies and TV shows, online shopping, searching and just basically chilling out is how students use tablets."

That assessment should alarm digital publishers and electronic content providers who are angling to appeal to college-age consumers with electronic textbooks, educational apps and other tools designed for tablets and other small mobile devices.

While the research her company has gathered suggests that instructors are allowing for increasing usage of mobile devices in the classroom, most college students are leveraging tablets for out-of-class functionality and many still express the need for traditional paper textbooks, says Dr. Tina Rooks, senior vice-president and chief instructional officer for Turning Technologies.

"Many prefer the tactile benefits of turning pages, earmarking and highlighting that paper textbooks enable," Dr. Rooks says. Also, "several of our customers have voiced frustration that, given the expansive capabilities of tablet technologies, most ebooks or e-textbooks do not leverage (tablet) technology in meaningful ways. Many e-textbooks are viewed by customers as simply a PDF form of the textbook with little additional value."

Ask Dr. Amy B. Hollingsworth, Natural Science Biology Lab coordinator with The University of Akron, and she'll tell you that tablets are not popular classroom aides among her pupils. "I don't see my students doing much with tablets other than using them as timers, Googling things, and watching videos," says Dr. Hollingsworth. "The ‘textbook' part has not caught on. Students have a choice, usually, to buy one computing device. If you have to choose one or the other, a laptop wins."

David Miller, CEO of SlugBooks, says a big reason why tablets haven't become a more widely used electronic learning device for college students is the cost-prohibitive nature of many digital textbooks.

"Digital textbook prices are often outrageously high relative to marketplace (print textbook) prices, which are naturally driven down the longer a book has been in circulation due to supply consistently increasing as more students liquidate their used books," says Miller. "Additionally, in the vast majority of cases, digital textbooks expire. They are rentals. Students understand it's a bad value proposition and run toward physical books."

Although smartphone ownership will continue to remain high, Hanley doesn't expect college students to turn to these devices as de facto digital learning tools, either. "Smartphones are used very little for these academic purposes," says Hanley. "At Ball State, students can access their academic records, class schedule and other university information from their smartphones. But class work is not done on them."

Hanley noted that, if tablet usage for academic purposes has any chance of increasing, digital content providers need to pressure tablet manufacturers to improve tablet usage for academics.

"The iPad doesn't have a good detachable keyboard or mouse. Microsoft has made inroads with its (Surface) tablets (which features an attachable keyboard), but its market share is very low," says Hanley. "But there are some peripheral software and technologies that may bring more interest in tablets for academics, like personal assistant software such as Microsoft's Cortana, Google's Now, and Apple's Siri."

Dr. Rooks added that electronic publishers "should provide flexible content to be used across devices. The richness of the content can be increased with the use of certain devices, but the device itself should not drive the content."

Hanley agrees: "It's not as much about the device as it is about being accessible via the internet, which is the queen bee of digital content distribution. Laptops, smartphones, and tablets are just a self-selected worker bee distribution channel from which to access content."

(Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)