Inkling - is this the future for textbooks on the iPad?

The minute the iPad was announced those involved in technology integration in education dreamed of the possibilities. Electronic textbooks were sure to be the next big thing to help our students. Lighter backpacks, interactive and multimedia content, collaborative tools, and a "wow" factor to hook our students were all on the table with the new touchscreen tablet. Since the launch in April, few apps have come close to realizing this dream. I even wrote a recent post on how I didn't see the iPad as a replacement to textbooks just yet. Inkling, a new iPad app, manages to be the first to convince this author that we may be closer than we think.
Inkling piqued my interest when I saw it in the Top 10 free apps in the app store last week. After seeing that it was a textbook reader app geared specifically for education, I just had to download it to see what Inkling had in mind. Honestly, I thought it would be another PDF type reader app with limited functionality and little use for the real classroom. After toying around with the included Elements of Style content which features a well thought out tutorial, my interest only deepened further.

As one would expect, the pages on the iPad appear brilliantly. Text is clear and the colors are rich. Instead of flipping pages as in iBooks, one can tap the top or bottom to quickly scroll, and then slide up or down to "turn" the page. Although the iBooks method is more eye catching, Inkling's method seems more natural, so this bode well for the overall design of the app. A big concern when converting to e-books involves how to quickly jump to and from pages. Inkling has several built-in features that seem to address easy page turns. There's a "Jump to Page..." option where you can enter a page number. You can bookmark pages for quick reference, and Inkling includes a "spine" on the left side that lets you navigate within sub-chapters.

Additional built-in reader features include the ability to tap on captions to enlarge, view figures separately, and tapping on vocabulary in bold brings up detailed definitions. Review questions at the end of a section have an accompanying answer that's hidden until clicked. I would have liked a zoom function similar to what is included in Zinio, though you can adjust the overall text size in Inkling. In the Biology sample that I downloaded, I was able to explore three-dimensional models of molecules and as a Chemistry teacher, I have to say that this was quite impressive.

All of the above makes for a great reading experience. However, what really sets Inkling apart as a potential game changing app is how it allows for students to be active with the text. Holding down on a word opens an options box that allows you to copy, highlight or add notes. Once you highlight a word, you can then extend the highlighted portion to encompass more text. Perhaps, the coolest feature of the app is the ability to add notes in the margins. Again, holding down on the word allows you to add a note, and a tiny blurb is then displayed in the margin. Apparently, you can share notes with other users, so it's theoretically possible to collaborate on a reading, asking and answering questions posed by other students. Both highlights and notes are searchable and quickly accessed from the left sidebar.

So, what's missing? Well, in a word, content. Until textbook publishers agree to put popularly purchased books into a format accessible by an iPad or another e-reader, we'll have to just live with the available samples and continue to dream about what the future could bring. With Inkling, we now have an idea of what can be accomplished, a confirmation that reading textbooks on the iPad can be done well, and in the end, our students will benefit from the dramatic increase in features offered.

Inkling is available for free in the App Store.

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