Tablets have come a long way since Apple launched its pioneering Newton MessagePad in 1993, the first Internet-connected flat-screen device pairing a stylus with handwriting-recognition software. Since then, computer hardware companies have been refining and experimenting with the concept of Internet-connected tablet computing devices. The personal digital assistant (PDA), convertible laptop/tablets, dual-screen booklet tablets, e-book readers and other designs have been among the many iterations of tablet computers, sometimes known as slates or media tablets.
But it wasn’t until 2010, when Apple’s first iPad brought to tablets the multitouch technology that allows users to pinch, zoom, rotate and otherwise manipulate screen objects and displays, that tablets truly developed mass appeal. Since then, the popularity of tablets has grown at an exponential rate. A 2011 Gartner report, “iPad and Beyond: What the Future of Computing Holds,” projected that worldwide media-tablet spending would grow from $9.6 billion in 2010 to $29.4 billion in 2011 and continue to increase at an annual average rate of 52 percent per year through 2015. In another 2011 report, “Forecast Alert: IT Spending Worldwide,” Gartner predicted that the average cost of a tablet would drop from $423 to $300 in 2013.
Game-, search-, reading- and movie-friendly, and with a swiftly proliferating range of applications for everything from sticky bookmarks to stock trading, tablets have been broadly embraced by the consumer world, but they are also finding a home in schools. With tablets averaging around $450, or approximately half the price of a laptop, districts are beginning to take the devices seriously as a technology solution. According to Apple’s public second-quarter report this year, the company sold more than two iPads for every Macintosh computer to its U.S. K12 customers during the first quarter. Apple also says that there are more than 1.5 million iPads in education institutions, including over 1,000 one-to-one deployments.
Joe Simone, East Coast director of K12 education for CDW-G, which helps districts plan, implement and maintain technologies, says that continued budget cutbacks, increasing support for digital content, and the need for lightweight mobile tools are some reasons school administrators are purchasing tablets.
Such considerations are reflected in findings from “The 2011 CDW-G 21st Century Classroom Report,” which surveyed 1,000 high school students, faculty members and district IT professionals around the country. The report found that 47 percent of IT professionals say their budgets were cut for the current school year, and 73 percent say their district leaders are using or considering using digital content.
Tablet Benefits for Education
Simone points out that in addition to being more affordable than laptops, tablets lie flat and don’t block the teacher’s view of students’ online activities, their light weight makes them more mobile, and they have a longer battery life—around eight hours, as opposed to four.
Even elements that might be considered drawbacks in the consumer world can sometimes be pluses for classrooms, says Vineet Madan, senior vice president of strategic services for McGraw-Hill. The fact that tablets largely can’t support multiple open windows and files helps keep students focused on their work and not tempted to multitask with applications such as Facebook or Twitter.
But it’s the multitouch interface that remains the biggest draw for tablets in schools, especially for the youngest students, who can engage in a tactile manner with content that doesn’t require reading, writing or keyboarding skills. “The more senses we can engage students in using the better,” says Madan, who adds that the capacity to use two or more fingers on the screen at one time lets students manipulate objects in ways impossible with a laptop and keyboard. “If there’s a molecule on the screen, they can touch, pinch, zoom, spin it around on their fingertips,” he says.
For Warren Buckleitner, founder and editor of Children’s Technology Review, the tablet’s multitouch interface and its broad and affordable app selection represent major game-changing elements for education. “Touch applications allow even elementary-age students to explore highly sophisticated concepts in an unprecedented way,” he says.
Buckleitner gives the examples of the Solar System app by Touch Press, which displays an interactive 3D model of the solar system that kids can explore by tapping on planets to see facts and the planet’s relation to other celestial bodies, and Vito Technology’s Star Walk interactive astronomy guide, which allows users to point their device cameras in any direction to locate and identify more than 20,000 constellations, stars, planets, satellites, galaxies and other objects in the night sky from any location on Earth.
Another example is Boreaal and PiMZ’s Letterschool, a $3 handwriting, letter and number app that lets preschool and elementary-age kids trace numbers and letters with their fingertips and receive instant instructive feedback. Buckleitner says that programs like this can effectively take the place of traditional software programs that can average $200 or more.
Although it is still too early for definitive scientific research on the relationship between brain function and touchscreens, even babies and toddlers are fascinated by touchscreens on tablets, smartphones and other devices, says Lisa Guernsey, director of the Early Education Initiative for the New America Foundation and author of “Screen Time: How Electronic Media—From Baby Videos to Educational Software—Affects Your Young Child.”
Beyond the engagement factor, tablets are also ergonomically smart, says Guernsey. The ability for youngsters to easily transport and use the lightweight tablets while lying on the floor or in other positions makes them friendlier and more accessible to young students than laptops. For people of all ages, says Guernsey, common neck and back injuries sustained or exacerbated while using laptops and desktops can be avoided with tablets.
Limitations of Tablets
Despite the many benefits of tablets for schools, there is unanimous agreement among experts that tablet computers are not yet ready for prime time when it comes to replacing laptops in one-to-one environments. Leslie Wilson, CEO of the One to One Institute, which guides and advises districts in one-to-one implementations, says that tablets cannot yet deliver the meaningful personalized learning experience that must include student-centered communication and collaboration. “Tablets cannot offer the storage capacity or collaborative and robust multimedia tools students need to create as well as to consume content,” she says.
A keyboard and the ability to keep multiple windows open to research and write are necessities for students, and not just those at the secondary level, says Jaime Casap, senior education evangelist for Google. “It’s about finding the right tool for the right job,” he explains, recounting how his 10-year-old son chose Google’s Chromebook, a notebook computer, over an iPad, iPod Touch, or MacBook when he was working on a homework assignment at his father’s office and needed to search and access his notes in the easiest way.
The Chromebook, produced by both Samsung and Acer, is about the same cost as a tablet and runs Google’s cloud-based Chrome operating system. It is somewhere between a pure cloud client and a traditional laptop. Word processing and other capabilities are accessed via Web apps from the Chrome Web Store rather than installed as traditional applications.
Gail Palumbo, lead faculty and area chair for curriculum, instruction and teacher leadership for the University of Phoenix, and former director of technology and curriculum for Montgomery Township School District in Skillman, N.J., says that another concern about schools using tablets at this early stage in their development is how well they integrate into existing IT infrastructures that control maintenance, safety, network security and other management tasks. Though Apple has recently announced its Configurator, a management tool to help schools standardize iPad tablets and complete the installation of apps faster, Palumbo says that it still can’t act as the comprehensive tool needed “to do it all.”
Schools also need to consider their options for connecting tablets to the Internet and to output devices such as whiteboards, says Palumbo. Many tablets lack the necessary USB ports commonly found on laptops, and schools need to plan for implementing wireless technology on a broad scale. Palumbo offers this example: “Where on campus will wireless access points be located? Just in classrooms or also in hallways, the cafeteria and in other areas?”
Though tablets are more portable than laptops for field trips and other off-site activities, tablets also need 3G or 4G connection in places where no Wi-Fi access exists. These faster connections require expensive data plans from companies such as Verizon or AT&T and are not practical for schools, which must adhere to the federal Children’s Internet Protection Act’s ban on the use of technology outside of a school’s protective filtering system.
Eric Iverson, the director of external relations for the Universal Service Administrative Company, which administers the e-Rate program for schools, confirms that although school data plans are eligible for e-Rate support, there are restrictions, including no home or off-premises use. Another factor school leaders should consider before implementing a tablet initiative is the relative dearth of textbooks available through Apple’s e-textbook initiative. Ryan Faas, business reporter for Cult of Mac, a daily news Web site “that follows everything Apple,” says that as of this point, only about 30 K12 textbooks are provided for the iPad.
“With a relatively small selection of e-textbooks,” says Faas, “schools may face challenges moving to an all-iPad textbook strategy for the 2012-2013 school year.”
With upwards of 20 companies now manufacturing tablets, schools have a broad range of choices, but because of the iPad’s large installed base in schools, it clearly has a leg up on competitors. Palumbo says that schools are buying iPads over Android models in part because there’s “safety in numbers.” Schools can build consortiums, share solutions and tap into what Apple claims are its 20,000-plus education apps. Palumbo also says the battery life for an iPad 2 or the new iPad (its official name) is 10 hours as opposed to some eight hours or less for other tablets.
For Buckleitner, Android models fall far short of the iPad. “It’s like comparing gelato to ice milk,” he says, citing Apple’s “profoundly powerful distribution model,” its time-saving synching across devices, and its trusted, single-site e-commerce process.
In addition to the Chromebook—which Casap points out has several school-friendly features, including an automatic log-out if a student closes the lid—other hardware manufacturers are also trying to build a better mousetrap when it comes to tablets for schools. Two examples are the Asus Slider, which has a built-in keyboard that slides out of the device, and Lenovo’s ThinkPad Tablet, which includes a portfolio docking case with a full keyboard that the tablet can connect to.
Like Google, Canadian-based CDI Computers, which sells refurbished PCs, notebooks and LCDs to U.S. and Canadian school districts, is taking on the tablet manufacturers with its Uno Book. COO Erez Pikar says that the tablet is designed for education, with USB functionality, optional Bluetooth or USB keyboard and a rugged case.
Tablet models by many of the major hardware manufacturers continue to evolve rapidly, offering new features and capabilities with each new iteration. For a sampling of tablets currently being marketed to education and recommended by contributors to this article, see the chart on page 61.
Going Forward with Tablets
For district administrators considering implementing tablets, Casap, Evans, Wilson and others advise that you are first clear about your goals and then work back from there to determine what device best suits your needs. Beyond that, Casap and Buckleitner advise district leaders who are aiming for a one-to-one environment to take it slow, start small and do the research through print and online journals and YouTube reviews.
Considering the number of tablets on the market, it is difficult to remember that multitouch tablet technology has only been available for less than two years, says Buckleitner. With three iterations of the iPad already launched in that time, it seems a safe bet that users can count on new models with new features.
“We are at a great time for tablet-style devices and so many more form factors in education,” says Cameron Evans, education chief information officer for Microsoft. “I am confident that with technology we can increase the human potential for teaching and learning beyond any previous generation.”
Echoing the sentiments of Wilson and others, Evans says that the tablet should be about empowering the individual student and supporting robust, creative work. “If I’m a student and I want to write a novel, compose a score, program a robot, build an app, edit a 36-megapixel photo, or produce a film—my imagination should be the limit, not the capacity of the device.”
Susan McLester is a contributing writer to District Administration.