The introduction of the iPad was a seminal event in the evolution of tablets, which were previously also referred to as slates. According to recent news articles on August 5, 2014 in The Atlantic and on August 6, 2014 on the website BGR.com there is a recognizable shift underway for schools to reconsider the overall usefulness of the iPad as an educational device. While this might come as a surprise to some, it is not very surprising to many Instructional Technology professionals that foresaw the limitations of tablets related to the most basic learning needs of students. The news reports from the Atlantic and BGR are likely a portend of things to come.
Few can argue that the iPad is not a wonderfully inventive and fun device. But, It was never designed with students in mind. In fact, Steve Jobs stated when the iPad was introduced that he really didn’t know what the device would be used for. However, the device was created primarily as an entertainment device to bridge the gap between mobile devices and laptops, and not designed as a productivity device. While it is well suited to consumption oriented activities, the productivity limitations are becoming more exposed.
There are examples of school districts that have moved away from iPads such as Los Angeles, CA and Fort Bend, TX. There are also many other schools that have decided laptops, Chromebooks, or the newest generation of hybrid tablets are better choices. Hillsborough Township Public Schools in New Jersey piloted both the iPad and Chromebooks, to find out that the iPad was fun, but the Chromebook was better for real work. Perhaps most poignant was a quote from Joel Handler, Director of Technology, when he stated that “Our goal was [to find out] not really which device was better, per se, but which device met the learning goals.” There has been far too much of a rush to adopt iPads in schools without a thorough analysis of the learning needs of students. Yes, iPads are fun, and sometimes useful in learning settings, but often is not the best choice for many student learning needs.
A fair question is if the iPad is a device well aligned to the learning needs of students, or is it just popular and a safe choice. Most pointedly, are there better alternatives such as hybrid tablets or Chromebooks? Much depends on the learning needs of students, how the technology is integrated into the curriculum, ability to manage the devices, cost, and professional development for teachers. Perhaps obvious, the alignment of the technology and learning needs is primary. That somehow has gotten lost in many purchase decisions.
The keyboard remains the primary method of input. Some fight it, but eventually come around to it, albeit reluctantly. Students create content using the written word and text input. Ignoring or rejecting the fact that a keyboard is an essential tool borders on folly. Touch screens are great, but are not suitable for most productivity oriented activities. Further, an LCD keyboard is all but useless for serious input. The Bluetooth keyboards that mate with the iPad are a mixed bag of compromise. Voice recognition is great for limited input, but certainly not for creating papers or essays. It is also worth noting that beyond the obvious uses of a keyboard, the Common Core online testing requires a keyboard. Los Angeles found that out after adopting the iPads and subsequently backed off the implementation. As many schools have discovered, the lack of efficient keyboard input is just too great of a limitation to make the iPad a suitable device for many students.
The use of software is also an important consideration. Google Education offers an extensive assortment of educational software and apps for students and teachers. Many of the apps are peer reviewed by teachers, making the evaluation somewhat less laborious. Managing the software is easy because it all resides in the cloud. The Chromebook is a cloud based device, where almost everything is stored in the cloud. It is easy to download a single app to all devices, and to manage student activities.
Another consideration for schools along software lines is the need to install software on a device. The Microsoft Surface Pro uses the full version of Windows 8.x, not a one-off mobile operating system. This enables the installation and use of popular software programs on the Surface Pro tablet. This is particularly important to secondary and higher education. Not all software needs can be satisfied through an app, or online software.
There is value to the hardware supporting peripheral devices, such as a mouse or printer. The availability of a USB port is also handy in many instances. The Microsoft Surface Pro 3 offers great utility from a hardware perspective. The fully integrated touch type keyboard is a standout. Sometimes it’s also necessary to plug in a mouse, a printer, or big monitor. Using Excel without a mouse? Try it, you won’t like it. Many other programs too are just much more efficient using a mouse.
Perhaps the most important development in tablets is being pushed by Microsoft. The use of an active digitizer built into the screen technology makes writing with a stylus pen natural and efficient. For writing on a screen, an active digitizer is a must. Without an active digitizer, writing on a capacitive touch screen with a fat rubber tipped stylus is miserable, slow, and not accurate.
Students take notes extensively, so a writing surface that mimics the efficiency of paper is essential. There is research to suggest hand written notes offer more cognitive value than typing, so we cannot be so quick to dismiss hand writing notes in favor of notes written with keyboards. Additionally, hand writing within text is key learning strategy of students. The ability to annotate, highlight, underline, code, and write in margins (marginalia) is an essential part of active reading, and is perhaps the most often used learning strategy for students. While the Surface Pro 3 is leading the way with this feature, look for other tablets to follow suit. It would be worthwhile to eliminate any tablet from consideration without an active digitizer.
Technology in education is not a zero sum game. There is no single best device, or any device that meets all learning needs. However, there are basic features of a device that should cut across all technology offerings. While the iPad stands out for ease of use, it limits productivity. The Chromebook is a very cost effective device, and is rapidly gaining popularity because of productivity benefits. The Microsoft Surface Pro 3 is perhaps the most compelling device to come along, but suffers from a price point that is out of the question for most students. If the Surface Pro 3 was half the cost, it would likely be flying off the shelves and into classrooms. If Microsoft can’t drop the price, hopefully other third party vendors will offer a clone at a much lower cost. The Surface Pro 3 (and Surface Pro 2) features arguably align with the needs of students better than any other device available today.
We are seeing a reduction in technolust and iPad envy, toward more thoughtful research and analysis for educational technology. Learning from the mistakes of other schools can be instructive, and lead one to the principles of how learning needs and technology intersect. Technology is not a solution, but merely a vehicle. Any technology that is useful in education must support basic learning needs that have been identified in previous empirical research. Each school needs to carefully consider what students do in the learning process, and support those basic needs. The ability to create content efficiently (keyboards) and write efficiently (active digitizers) cannot be sacrificed.
Schools are slowly realizing that the iPad has unnecessarily handcuffed student productivity in many areas. Careful analysis and research is essential to avoid future technolust. Use the carpenter’s rule; measure twice, but cut only once.