Imagine that you are the go-to person for instructional technology for your college or university, and it has been decided that all students will be required to purchase an e-reader and download their textbooks beginning with the upcoming semester. The person who created this mandate also decided that the choice was between the two most high-profile devices on the market: the iPad2 and the Kindle Fire. You have a big decision to make and little time to make it in. Here is the information you need to help guide your choice.
The Kindle connects seamlessly to Amazon's extensive library of media and a limited selection of apps from the Android Marketplace. The iPad links in to iTunes, iTunes U, and the 500,000+ item App Store. There is little difference in the availability of books and the ability to view media on the two platforms. The same holds true for textbooks, as both platforms have agreements in place with the major textbook publishers. However, this is something that could possibly change dramatically in the near future, as the agreements in place with publishers are currently under antitrust investigation.
In all likelihood, if previous media models hold sway in the electronic text battle, each of these two giants will probably secure exclusive rights to the books from specific publishers, artificially limiting the availability of certain texts depending on which device you own. There is hope that this won't happen and textbook publishers will continue to make their work available in formats that work on multiple platforms (such as Adobe's PDF format). In all likelihood, regardless of future agreements, there will likely be workarounds to make any text available on either platform Any institution that moves toward required e-book readers will have to be prepared to support conversion of texts if necessary. So choosing one device over the other, at this point, probably will not be a catastrophic decision.
Limited or Endless Possibilities
Beyond showing movies and displaying books to read, what are the technical specifications of these two devices and what will each one allow you to actually do?
Technically speaking, there really is no comparison between the two devices. In this case, you actually do get what you pay for. The iPad2 has a faster and more powerful processor, larger, higher resolution screen, more memory, Bluetooth, accelerometer, optional 3G connectivity, built-in cameras for still image and video capture, and a comparable battery life to the Kindle Fire. The only technical advantage that the Kindle has is that it is smaller and lighter (Kindle = 7.5" x 4.7" x .45" and 14.6 ounces vs iPad2 = 9.5" x 7.31" x .34" and 1.33 lbs). This increases portability to a small degree and may make the Kindle easier to hold. For someone with larger hands however, the larger screen size of the iPad2 is a significant advantage. For a complete technical specification comparison and product review, refer to this PC Magazine article.
While the tech specs may not mean too much to the average reader, they translate to a huge difference in what you are actually able to do with each device. While the Kindle Fire is primarily a device for looking at things: documents, email, movies, books, and magazines, and playing a limited selection of games, the iPad2 can be used to create as well as view.
As clichÃ©d as it has become to say, "there's an app for that," it really is true, and that is the one thing that sets these two devices apart, particularly if you are considering their use in education. The Kindle's passive (reading/viewing) model is already outdated in terms of the way education should work. Sitting quietly and viewing media was great 20 years ago, but we need to move beyond that model in general, and especially in the classroom.
The iPad embraces a much more interactive and engaged model of learning. Using this device to have students create their own media, conduct active research in the field, or interact with others via video chat are all features well worth the investment. Students learn best by being active and through collaboration with others. While the Kindle Fire is more of an isolating, individual device, the iPad not only allows creative collaboration, but, because of its ease-of-use, inspires it. Populating an entire campus with these devices would increase student engagement and activity, whereas the mass implementation of the Kindle on campus would have no real effect beyond making students' backpacks lighter.
Cost vs Value
It seems like the fight is already over after examining what you can actually do with the two devices. However, there is still the very significant issue of price to consider when making this decision. On the surface there seems to be no contest here. The Kindle Fire can be pre-ordered prior to its November 15, 2011 release for $199.00. Meanwhile, the iPad2 comes in a range of prices between $499.00 and $829.00. This really seems like a no-brainer, particularly when you consider issues of socio-economic diversity on college campuses. For students already struggling with overwhelming college loans, the difference between $200 and $500 is not insignificant. Or is it?
While having a computer of your own in college is not usually a requirement, it certainly helps. Overcrowded or poorly maintained labs and the constraints of having to work in a public space can all affect the quality and quantity of a student's work. Given these limitations, many students will choose to bring their own computer to campus. Requiring that students purchase what amounts to a nearly fully-functioning computer in the iPad2 ensures that every student on campus will have access to a computer whenever and wherever they may need one. This even has the potential to reduce some of the institutional costs associated with maintaining public computing labs. Maybe even enough that the school could consider subsidizing the purchase of the iPads.
While I maintain that I undertook the writing of this comparison with an open mind, my extremely strong endorsement of the iPad2 as the e-reader of choice for higher education would seem to indicate otherwise. The strength of my opinion follows my overall constructivist educational philosophy. Looking more closely at the limitations of the Kindle Fire has reinforced my commitment to the idea that technology should allow for innovation and creativity, rather than harken back to outdated models of the way people learn and interact with technology. So while the Kindle's price is far more attractive, I have to say that I am putting an iPad2 on my own holiday shopping list.