I got some comments on my Blackboard iPad post specifically regarding the push toward native—and therefore proprietary—apps and away from standards-based web apps. This concern is just one example of a constellation of complaints about how Apple is too closed. I understand those complaints and am not going to argue with them here. But whether you love Apple or hate them, whether you will buy an iPad or not, I think it’s clearly the case that the iPad’s success will increase adoption of Open Educational Resources.
One of the problems that OERs have are, ironically, portability. Since OERs are commonly either in HTML, PDF, or some kind of eBook format, they need to be accessed on an electronic device. But the devices that were widely available before now mostly weren’t suited for use in all the places that you’d want to take your school books. A desktop computer is not mobile at all. A laptop is better, but ungainly. It’s awkward to read from a laptop on a bus, or while waiting in the doctor’s office. It’s also awkward to use for group work in class. It’s not impossible, but it’s awkward. Smart phones are portable enough but they’re not big enough to be optimal, especially for things like textbooks. There is a reason why books are the sizes that they are. Publishers could make them bigger or smaller. They are the sizes that they are because those sizes fit their purposes. As such, the tablet form factor is the closest to the right size to replace a wide range of these books.
Obviously, Apple didn’t invent the form factor, but they have brought about a few important changes. First, they delivered a first-class web browsing experience to a $500 tablet. Tablet PCs have decent browsers, but they tend to be expensive. Kindles are at the right price point, but they can’t provide a full browsing experience (yet). This is important for all the OERs that are provided as web pages. (It’s not clear to me how many OERs use Flash and therefore are not accessible on Apple tablets, but let’s leave that aside for now.) Second, Apple is already changing attitudes about the form factor and beginning to drive wide adoption. Tablet PCs were a flop from a product perspective. They were doomed to be niche forever. Amazon did a good job moving Kindles, but they don’t have anything like the horsepower only Apple has to push the form factor into ubiquity. A teacher can’t use electronic-only resources unless she knows that all her students can have reasonable access to them. In many cases, she will want them all to have in-class access to them. The lack of a ubiquitous device with the right form factor therefore limits uptake of OERs. And finally, and somewhat paradoxically, Apple’s ability to attract textbook companies is also important for OERs. Even at $500, a tablet is a significant investment for many students. It only starts to pay off as a tool for accessing educational resources if most or all of a student’s assigned readings are available on it. Right now, the vast majority of classes are not being taught only with OERs, so that means students need to be able to access their textbooks and for-pay course packets via a tablet in order to justify the expense. Apple has the ability to make a market and therefore to attract publishers. Once all educational resources are being delivered electronically at scale, OERs should be easier for faculty and students to embrace.
Update: Joe Ugoretz makes some of the same points in his post about his own experiences with the iPad.
By the end of this year, there will probably be at least a dozen tablets on the market that are striving to compete with the iPad. Some of them will run Windows, some will run Android, and some will run other operating systems. In order to compete with the iPad, many of these will have to come to market at a lower price point. They will also have to have a first class browsing experience, decent battery life, and some of the other features that make the iPad an attractive reading device. The manufacturers will do their best to compete with Apple in terms of attracting publishers to their respective platforms, which will require them to put pressure on the industry to move towards file format standards (e.g., HTML, EPUB, PDF, etc.). This will all make OERs more accessible and adoptable.