The never ending debate
This topic is constantly debated around the world and in education never more so. This year schools around Ireland are widely adopting tablets some 20,000 students across 100 secondary schools, and it is clear to see the winner here for many years is Apple’s iPad. It’s beautiful design, intuitive operating system and a vast range of educational apps in the App Store is easy to see the appeal of why this is the first choice in the mind of most school leaders and educators. Margaret Keane from MissionV recently posted an interesting article on her blog posing the question “Why iPads?” which questions the choice of tablets (tablet=ipad) by schools while outlining some alternative options. In a related article published in the independent, we can gauge the cost’s involved in going down the tablet route for parents. The option of purchasing a tablet with ebooks (which has its own debate) is voluntary in the majority of schools, but there is no doubt of the added pressure on parents to put up the cash. So with the choice of tablet, the cost, ebooks and various other factors around tablets, this debate will go on for some time.
Apple, Microsoft or Android even Chrome?
It is hard to find an unbiased view of which tablet is the “right” option for education. Competition in any industry is great, it keeps all the players on their toes, so which is the “right” tablet of choice? I think the first and major factor that is widely overlooked is the operating system, what it can and more importantly what it can’t do. Apple is the exception here as their operating system iOS is directly linked to their hardware (you cannot download or install iOS other than the Apple tablet device it was supplied on). In the 15 or so years I have been involved in the technology industry, each position I have held is around delivering solutions. The solution is always based around the requirements or simply asking the question “what the client is trying to achieve?”. The emergence of tablets in education and specifically with Apple – the first to market with viable tablet solution, a lot of questions have to be asked about style over substance. There is no doubt the product is beautifully designed and well manufactured, aside from the vast range of apps in the App Store which we can pose another question, is it quantity over quality? how many apps are you actually going to use? Microsoft and Google are also catching up in this space. The question is it “right” for education still has to be answered.
If like many schools you have a Windows network with shared folders for students and staff, will your tablet of choice enable users to continue to access this information? Here is a recent article on the benefits of choosing a tablet operating system in line with your existing infrastructure. Can it plug right in?
What are the requirements?
While it may seem that this is an attack on Apple or somewhat biased view – it is far from it. There is no doubt that Apple has the market share with tablets in education so it is only natural to refer to iPad when discussing the topic. So, going back to the question which tablet is “right” for education? we have to ask ourselves well what are the requirements. While their is a common set of goals with any educator using a tablet in the classroom, each school and individual will have their own requirements. What books do we use, is there an ebook version? Can it be used offline? What is the cost? Is the projector or interactive board compatible? Do I need connectors or converters? How can I use my existing learning resources with the tablet? Do I need to purchase any apps? Can I access the existing school I.T. infrastructure? Is our wireless system scalable to handle the number of devices? How can we mange or lock down the devices? Broadband? Will the device be compatible with existing systems that we use?
There are many requirements that need to be considered and questions that need to be asked; how many school’s actually consider or ask any of these questions? I have seen teachers given an iPad and wondered where is My Documents? Where do I put my memory stick in? I have used this software for years how do I install it? These are basic, fundamental questions and you can understand the dismay when they are told there is no common storage like my documents, there is no option to plug in a memory stick, you can’t install that software, etc. While most of these issues can be resolved with workarounds, what you then start to see is the fragmentation of information suddenly dispersed on apps like DropBox, Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive, iCloud. While all of these applications have their own merit, the collaboration with fellow educators, subject department team members and school leaders is disconnected. So this brings up the next question – training?
Again, I think that this is often overlooked. Regardless of how “easy to use” a tablet or device may be, not everyone is going to comprehend the solution. Going back to the iPad scenario of no common storage, no usb access, no abilty to use existing software – a 15 minute or even one hour whistle stop tour of the device to a room of 30 people is not good enough. The idea of here you go, play around with it you will figure it out is often not good enough either. Simple things like a team within the school to support their colleagues, regular workshops or get-together’s to show how fellow colleagues are using the device, and most importantly a common, broader strategy around the use of the device while delivering education to students. Here at SchoolWise we believe that it is not about learning the hardware or software, but fundamentally how that hardware or software can be used to educate and learn. Do we chose a tablet with an operating system that everyone is already familiar with? if we choose a different on what changes/sacrifices do we need to make? What kind of training plan do we need to implement?
Another often overlooked and fundamental requirement is how are we going to manage and connect these devices? While the initiative was made a number of years ago to equip each classroom with a computer/laptop and projector, there was no similar initiative to support the roll-out of wireless. Many schools simply purchased off the shelf access points and plugged them in wherever they needed wireless connectivity. Aside from the network problems this causes, along with the laborious task of managing/configuring each one separately, the are primarily designed to support a small number of devices connecting to them. Suddenly introducing a 100 tablets might not work out the way you planned. Do you want the tablets connected to the network in the first place? If like many schools you have an existing Windows network where you had shared folders for students and staff will the tablet of choice be able to access this information? Can I plug in a memory stick? How can I backup the information? How will I manage the tablets and control security?
So which tablet is “right” for education?
There is no single tablet that is “right” for education. There is no “right” device for any problem, it is about choosing the right device that meets the requirements and solves the problems. I think there is a broader debate around tablets in education and each school must define “what are our requirements”. Discussions between schools around the environment where tablets exist, the pro’s and con’s of each device, the success stories and more importantly the failures or mistakes.
Ultimately I think this debate will rage on for the foreseeable future