Reading 2030: Or, 4 reasons the new iPad is better than printed books and what that tells us about the future of reading

I have glimpsed the future and it came in the form of the new iPad that arrived on my doorstep on a recent Friday. After a few weeks of using it I can confidently say I prefer reading on it over a tree-based book.

Now I know there are a lot of people out there that prefer the feel of a real book. I’m not here to say that they are wrong or to convert them to the way of the iPad. I do however wish to demonstrate why the iPad will be so transformative and get you to think about what this means for our education system in the next 18 years.

4 Reasons the New iPad is Better than a Printed Book

Reason 1: The Screen

The latest model has what Apple is calling a retina display. Basically, the point is that from a normal viewing distance it is difficult or impossible (depending on your eyesight) to make out the individual pixels on the screen. At that point the reading experience is nearly identical to reading a finely printed book or magazine.

We’ve crossed this analog to digital threshold twice before with huge consequences: First was the transition from analog sound (records and cassettes) to digital recordings (CDs and later mp3 files). Second was the transition from film cameras to digital cameras. In each realm there are holdouts who claim analog is superior to digital. But for the vast percentage of users digital is good enough (or superior). We are crossing this threshold with print ay this very moment.

Reason 2: Interactivity

Anecdotes (and YouTube videos: here, here, and here) of small children trying to interact with televisions, computer screens and even printed texts as they would with a touchscreen interface abound. The reality is that today’s children are growing up in a world where the first way they learn to interact with technology is through a touch interface. This is very different from the past when a keyboard or mouse was the first interface. A keyboard requires an understanding of language that small children obviously don’t understand. And even a mouse requires hand-eye coordination and an understanding of abstraction that are just not developmentally present for children until they are six or seven. I used to work at a child care and remember the frustration of the kindergarteners when they would first be exposed to the mouse.

A touchscreen has no such barrier. As such, children can start to interact with texts long before they can read the words. Of course, children have always done this to an extent; they will flip through a storybook looking at the pictures and make up their own version of a story. But the iPad allows for so much more. We are just at the beginning of this shift to interactive texts; it will take years for us to see what this means for students’ expectations of texts and their abilities to understand and interact with the digital world.

Reason 3: Highlighting, Dictionaries, Notes, and More

Whether you use iBooks, Kindle or another reading platform it is now standard to be able to highlight and underline, add notes, and easily look up words in the dictionary simply by clicking on them. If you’ve ever accidentally highlighted the wrong line in a paper book and longed for an ‘undo’ command you know where I’m going with this. You can also appreciate this if you’ve ever skipped looking up a word you didn’t know simply because your dictionary was sitting on a shelf across the room.

But these benefits almost seem minor when compared to other features. Here are two examples:

3D simulations. Current textbooks are forced to use two dimensional images to model complex three dimensional systems. There are limits to this. In fact, it often leads to misconceptions among students. The use of interactive 3D models within textbooks allows students to interact with and visualize an object from every angle. This is of course useful in science where students can interact with models of the solar system, molecules, and biological systems and in math in terms of geometry and trigonometry. But think too about the applications in history where students can similarly view a reconstruction of ancient Rome.

Really big text. Marco Ament, the developer of the reading program Instapaper, relates in a blog post how, in developing Instapaper for the iPad. In referring to the feature of making the text really, really big he writes “That was tweaked with the help of one customer’s father with very low vision so he could read the news for the first time in years.”

These are just a couple of the ways that digital texts can make information, ideas and the texts themselves more accessible to readers. In fact, iPads are also being used to dramatic effect with students with disabilities. See for example this report on how an iPad has helped a child with autism.

Reason 4: Volume

Not as in loudness, but in terms of the number of texts and resources that can be stored and accessed from a single device. While we’ve had this benefit of storage using computers for a long time the fact that it can now be applied to books will have a profound impact on how we use space in our homes, classrooms and libraries. And beyond saving space in our physical world there are implications of convenience. Utilizing and referencing a variety of different texts becomes much easier when they aren’t  in a separate room or building.

What does all this mean for reading in 2030? A whole lot of electronic texts. And a whole lot of ‘real’ books gathering dust in closets and storage units. There will be concerns about the loss of books (as copyrighted but out-of-print texts aren’t available) and implications of how our brains read electronic text as opposed to printed text.

But those are the realities that must be addressed. Or as Teaching 2030: What We Must Do for Our Students and Our Public Schools…  Now and in the Future puts it at the start of chapter 4:

“Let’s face it: Major advancements in new technologies and bioengineering are reshaping our everyday lives and challenging policymakers, practitioners, and parents to rethink what the public schools look like and what counts for learning.”

And this is the fun part: figuring out how we as educators should prepare for this great leap forward. What new skills do we need to develop? What new skills should we teach our students? How will these changes in reading go along with the shift to online and personalized learning? How do we as teachers make that shift as a profession?

Clearly the questions quickly go beyond the realm of reading itself to broader implications for education. Teaching 2030 doesn’t actually spend much time talking about the future of texts but it does address many of these broader questions even as it focuses on online learning and MUVEs. Which brings me to the biggest question: when will we see an electronic version of Teaching 2030? Digital readers want to know.

Update: It turns out there already is a digital version of Teaching 2030, at least on Google Play. You can find it here.