Guest Post by Vineet Madan, Vice President of McGraw-Hill Higher Education eLabs

Vineet Madan
Vineet Madan

There’s been considerable fanfare around the Kindle Fire tablet since Amazon announced it at the end of September, and it’s easy to understand why: finally, there may be a worthy competitor to the iPad. Though many tablets have tried to unseat the iPad in recent years, the Kindle Fire bears two important differences: it’s produced by a company with years of experience in making high-selling tablet-type devices, and it’s tied to an expansive content library with millions of existing customers.

The Kindle Fire (and tablet computing in general) has also been a popular topic in higher education, where digital content and devices are reshaping the way that teachers teach and students learn.

The case for why tablets are ready for the college classroom is pretty simple: they’re a great way for students to consume media-rich digital content (the best way out there, in my opinion), they mesh well with students’ lifestyles thanks to their small profile and long battery life, and tablets offer access to the world of apps, which includes some of the most innovative educational software around.

Like in most other markets, the iPad has so far been the tablet of choice on college campuses. But with today’s launch of the Kindle Fire, Apple may have its first viable competitor.  Will the Fire knock out the iPad and light up a second-stage tablet wave in education. Here’s one insider’s perspective.

The price

Of all the features of the Kindle Fire, the one that could allow Amazon to really cause a disruption in the higher education market is the price. At $199, the Kindle Fire is less than half the price of the base model iPad. This alone not only gives Amazon a shot at stealing potential customers away from Apple, it might allow it to create an entirely new market segment.

We all know how important price is to students and parents. I’ve long thought that tablets wouldn’t truly gain traction among college students until prices fell below $300. Now, with the Kindle Fire coming in at two-thirds of that price, students may finally have the low-cost alternative that they’ve been waiting for.

The screen

Or, more specifically, the screen size. In the world of higher education, companies like mine have been paying close attention to pilots of e-readers and tablets on campuses over the past few years. The one piece of feedback we’ve consistently heard from students who’ve participated in these pilots? They’re looking for larger screen sizes – 9.7” and above.

Will the Kindle Fire’s 7” screen – which is nearly 30% smaller than the iPad’s – be enough to satisfy students’ needs? Given that much of the digital content that students have access to today goes far beyond what most think of as an e-book – with multimedia elements such as images, video and audio built right in – I think the Kindle Fire’s smaller screen size will be a dealbreaker for many college students.

Integration with Amazon’s content library

On the surface, giving college students a tablet with a seamless integration with Amazon’s vast library of digital content seems like a match made in heaven. After all, students buy most of their books through Amazon. Right?

The answer isn’t a simple yes or no. While many students undoubtedly purchase books – both print books and e-books – through Amazon, the growing popularity of online learning platforms is changing the way that college students access content by placing it in the midst of other critical course experiences, like doing homework.

These online learning platforms – accessible via any browser, including Amazon Silk – not only provide students with direct access to e-books, they use adaptive technology to analyze students’ knowledge and can recommend specific sections of content that students should brush up on to improve their skills. Data-driven personalized learning that helps both instructors and students become more efficient is the emerging future of education – bank on it.

The apps

One important fact about the Kindle Fire (and its new competitor, the Nook Tablet) that many are overlooking: its users won’t be able purchase apps directly through the Android Marketplace. Instead, they’ll be limited to the thousands of Android apps that are available through the Amazon Appstore. While this means that the Kindle Fire’s apps will likely have higher standards for stability and security, Kindle Fire users run the risk of missing out on new educational apps that can help them learn and study. If I were a student, that’s not a risk I’d be willing to take.

What about the other features?

  • WiFi-only connectivity: This won’t be an issue for many college students, who reside on campuses that are blanketed with wireless coverage. A lack of a go-anywhere connection may make it difficult for part-time students to do coursework as they commute, but I expect that it’s a reasonable sacrifice for the lower price tag. Students looking for constant connectivity should check out the data tethering options available with many smartphone plans.
  • No camera: No problem. Aside from a photography class (and would you really use a tablet to take pictures for your class?), built-in cameras are not currently being used by most education apps.
  • Amazon Silk: While this cloud-accelerated browser may give general consumers a speed boost when browsing the web, most campus networks already take advantage similar technologies. At this point, it’s unclear if there is a Silky upside for students.

So what’s the tale of the tape?  I think that the Fire measures up well against the iPad on portability and price, but ultimately its smaller screen size will keep it from igniting the higher education market.

In the post-fight matchup, it’s best not to get too caught up in the specs of the current device, as Amazon is already rumored to be working on a larger-screen version of the Kindle Fire. Once the Kindle Fire’s usability for education catches up with its attractive entry price, I think that the next (or next-next) version of the device stands a good chance of becoming the a must-carry device that changes higher education for the better.

Vineet Madan is Vice President of McGraw-Hill Higher Education eLabs, which works with colleges and universities, professors and students along with technology partners to develop tools to improve the way instructors teach and students learn.

Also see his past Mashable guest post, 6 Reasons Tablets Are Ready for the Classroom.

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  • JoshMullineaux

    The Kindle fire is a great device and no doubt will be loved by many. One thing we are all forgetting is the reason why textbooks on the iPad have NOT had mass adoption and the reason why textbooks published through the big traditional textbook publishers on the Kindle fire will have more of the same fate… they are much too expensive.

    Almost 50% of students admit to not purchasing a textbook for a class because of the price. Are textbooks really doing their job?

    Until the model for textbook publish is flipped on it’s ear and the prices come down DRAMATICALLY, the use of tablets by students will not equal the use of older less extensive laptops.

    Go to any university and walk around and you will rarely if ever see an ipad or another tablet device. You will see all laptops and cell phones.

    The fire is a step in the right direction in terms of functionality and price of the actual device, but the textbooks themselves have to come way down in price.

  • john holdcroft

    I would put “content” as the first and foremost issue related to Will The Kindle threaten the iPad.  Right now, until more choices are offered and open education becomes more common, students are beholden to the choices made by the teachers.  At this point, more teachers are using traditional texts from Higher Ed publishers.  Price, screen, apps are nice, but just the sizzle.  Content is the steak.  Get the content in the device, and then see who will consume it and in what fashion. 

    The change in choice and self-published content is coming, no doubt, and next generation publishers will be a part of this change, but the key right now is having the right content first, then students and faculty can figure out how to consume the content. 

  • FrankCatalano

    It’s a great pros/cons analysis for higher education. Though — and I realize this wasn’t the purpose of this piece — I can’t help but wonder how the balance might be differ in K-12 education.

    Price remains important, perhaps even more so with strapped school, district and state budgets. Screen size may less important, but only if full multimedia instructional and assessment content doesn’t grow as fast in K-12 as it likely will in higher education (eventually, they’ll be at parity).

    Integration with Amazon’s content library is a non-issue in K-12, as students don’t buy the textbooks and professors/teachers don’t choose them — both are done at the district level or higher, so the willingness of the major instructional materials players to play nicely in digital will be critical. And apps are probably only slightly less important in K-12, as teachers will want to have supplemental apps to recommend (and/or students will seek them out on their own).

    On the other factors, WiFi is an equivalent issue, no camera is a K-12 positive (no embarrassing teacher photos on Facebook, at least not from the Fire), and if Silk plays well with HTML 5, having intelligent caching could be a net positive if school and district networks have bandwidth issues.

    I think, on balance, the K-12 assessment might be similar. Price is a strong positive, screen size, to date, a neutral or negative.

    Of course, there’s always the emotional evaluation: Never underestimate the ability to rationalize a more expensive bright shiny object, even if the less expensive one will do. But that’s out of all of our control.

    Thanks, Vineet, for the thoughtful piece.

  • KevinChao89

    Kindel Fire cannot and will not be able to be used in higher education or K-12. There is no accessibility at all. Professors, staff, students, etc. who are blind, low vision, dyslexic, have a physical/motor impairment, and/or a hearing impairment are not able to use it due to Amazon refusing and failing to build in accessibility.

    However, this is in huge contrast to the iOS devices, such as iPad, which from day one has built-in universal design/access, allowing everyone to use it. Please have a look in Settings, General, and Accessibility. Apple put  in three different sections: vision, hearing, and physical/motor, allowing anyone in the world to use it.

    iPad is the only device, which has the best eTextbooks, eLearning, and education and work content and apps. Everyone in the world is able to use these. Well over 100,000 iPad optimized/specific apps.

    The Amazon Kindle Fire for K-12 and higher education due to lack of accessibility for people with disabilities is dead on arrival. And, by  association, due to Kindle Fire being DOA for education, it will not be able to be adopted in libraries, work, etc.

    • Hfhendrickson

      Not true my friend, although not completely apples fault netflix which is obviously run through apples ipad does NOT have subtitles for the hearing impaired. Small cookies you may think but this has really upset my sister who is deaf and the deaf community.

    • Hfhendrickson

      Not true my friend, although not completely apples fault netflix which is obviously run through apples ipad does NOT have subtitles for the hearing impaired. Small cookies you may think but this has really upset my sister who is deaf and the deaf community.

  • Radu Tyrsina

    Interesting perspective, thanks for the post!

  • perplexedmom

    Help!  Trying to decide between Kindle Fire and Ipad for 10 year old dyslexic child.  There are mixed opinions out there.  You say, not the purchase of choice for higher education.  Many of the issues don’t apply here.  I have read some posts that say Kindle has opened the world of reading for some dyslexic children, others push Ipad b/c of multitude of apps.  Given the constantly changing world of technology and the price differential, do I count on Amazon adding more dyslexia friendly apps or go for the higher priced Ipad?  We may want textbooks online eventually but that will be many generations down the road.

    • jcw

      Kindle fire does not have text to speech – if your dyslexic child needs to have the information read – there is not a current app to do this. 

      • Wordstoexpress

        Thank you for that info. I was wondering the SAME thing for the same age child w/ dyslexia.  Sounds like an iPad is the best option at this point.  Sigh.

  • Mattlogon

    It is incredible for students to use media digital content in their learning process.I think this option will help more students who have many problems in their learning.Several producers are developing more beneficial apps for kindle as well as making unique kindle cover that protects your gadget .

    Best regards
    Matt Logan

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