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Goodbye books, hello iPad

School is cool for some lucky kids in Singapore, where three secondary – or high – schools and one primary school have begun handing out iPads to students. They can dump their school bags and  textbooks. Books are out, e-books in, in a new wheeze in education.

Nanyang Girls High School has spent S$135,000 (about Rs 48 lakh) to buy 150 iPads for 140 students and 10 teachers in a pilot project, reports Reuters. Users connect to the internet using the tablet, and download books and course material. They can take notes on the iPad, and use worksheets.  The portable, lightweight, tablet computer was chosen to give students more freedom to learn for themselves and they have no problems using it, said one of the teachers. Agreed 14-year-old Chloe Chen:“It’s really fun to use and much more convenient. Teachers can just tell us to go a website, and we can immediately go and do our work.”

The project follows similar initiatives in America. The iPod touch has boosted reading skills at the Central Elementary School in Escondido, California, claims the Apple website. Teachers report greater enthusiasm in the classroom when students record and hear themselves read on the iPod. To make learning more fun, the students post their projects and assignments on blogs which teachers read and comment on, providing immediate feedback. This has accelerated learning – in six months, the students gained almost two years of reading comprehension.

The iPod touch is also used by medical students at Ohio State University, says Apple. Since 2000, the Ohio State University College of Medicine has had a PDA programme for its students. But the students wanted iPods to download podcasts of lectures and various other course material. “With the storage and capabilities of the iPod touch, I can carry the whole med school curriculum in my pocket at any given time,” said Justin Harper, a fourth-year medical student.

It’s not just students who love the wee new devices for their connectivity, portability and prodigious  storage capacity. Judges of this year’s Man Booker prize have been sent electronic book readers for the first time to help them plough through more than 100 novels. Writer Susan Hill said on Twitter that she and her fellow judges were given the gadgets “so they won’t have to post us tons of real books”. Last year the judges read 138 books before awarding the £50,000 prize to Howard Jacobson’s novel, The Finkler Question.

Thanks to my son, I am also discovering the joys of e-book readers. The Amazon Kindle he gave me is smaller than a tabloid newspaper and lighter than a hardcover book. Yet the flat, little black device with a big screen and a keyboard already contains enough books to fill up a whole shelf.  And there’s room for lots more, which I could download from the net.

What I like best is the search feature of the new device. Instead of leafing through Shakespeare to look up a quote, I can just type in a few words in the search box – and up pops the relevant passage from his works stored on my Kindle. The Kindle can also read out books, which I find particularly useful when consulting dictionaries. Instead of looking up phonetic symbols to find out how to pronounce a word, I can hear it spoken on Kindle. You can hear words spoken on a computer, too.  But the Kindle has another attraction for booklovers. Some of the Kindle editions on Amazon.com cost as little as 99 cents. Printed books can’t beat them on price.

Amazon sold more Kindle e-books than paperbacks in America in the last quarter of last year. The trend continues, with 115 Kindle e-books sold for every 100 paperbacks in January. The e-books have been outselling hardcovers even longer, according to Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos.

E-book readers are changing not only the world of books but journalism, too. I attended a seminar where newspaper and magazine publishers from Asia and Europe described how they are developing content for e-book readers , tablets and smartphones to counter declining circulations. “Print isn’t dead. It’s just adapating. It’s migrating to e-book readers and tablets such as the Apple iPad and the Samsung Galaxy Tablet,” said Angela Mackay, the Financial Times’ executive director and head of Asia Pacific.

Yes, the newspaper business has come a long way since my first visit to a newsroom when newspapers were still printed on hot metal. I remember the clatter of Linotype machines. The printers worked in a veritable inferno, noisy and suffocating. What a welcome change it was when newspapers switched to “cold type”.  The environment at once became squeaky clean to keep the computers running smoothly. And now some American newspapers like the Christian Science Monitor no longer even appear in print, publishing entirely online.

Critics may argue the new technology is increasing disparity between the haves and the have-nots. While iPads are coming to classrooms in Singapore, there are places where children don’t even have proper schools. Some are luckier than others. Singapore embraced the internet as a learning tool years ago, as noted in a policy paper, for “bringing out the ‘aha’ experience in pupils”. Cool. You can’t blame educators who want to make learning fun.

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