Tablets and Transforming Education–Much is Needed Before it Should Happen

Some time in the ’90′s I had an ongoing conversation with a colleague who had recently purchased a Palm Pilot. Remember those–hand-held and about the size of a modern day smartphone. They had note-taking ability, limited writing recognition, a calendar and organizer along with some other capabilities. At the time they lacked telephone and wifi capabilities. They did have their uses though. My friend, who was finding his new device to be quite useful, was very enthusiastic about the potential effect this type of device might have on the classroom. He was even of the mind that it could replace much of the paper resources–books, workbooks and writing sheets–so popular at the time. He was wrong, though. Here we are, a dozen years later and all those things–the paper things–are still about as popular and essential as ever.

So what?

Sometime in the coming year a new crop of high powered, low cost 7″ tablets will hit the market. They will be shiny, useful and capable. In short order just about everyone who can afford it will have one. At around $150 each that will likely be just about everyone. Everyone, that is except (a) the richer crowd who will remain with the more expensive 10″ models and (b) those who simply cannot afford the luxury of owning the newest toy. Given the power, portability and just plain coolness of these new devices it won’t be long before educators everywhere will be looking to integrate them into their teaching and learning activities. That said, it may be wise to wait before joining the stampede to place sets of these in the classrooms.

There are several reasons for this. First, it is likely that a sizable proportion of the students will have their own equipment so it would be something of a waste of resources purchasing items that students may have anyway. That said, there is certainly nothing wrong purchasing school sets for those students who do not have their own but when the time is right. This brings us to the second problem: that of managing and supporting the devices. Doing for existing school computers is already quite a headache. Disk imaging and maintenance is already difficult enough. Bringing a fleet of portables into the mix, all of which require the installation of a large number of apps as well as user accounts makes it even more onerous. Worse again there would be no guarantee of any sort of standardization, so the management application would likely have to contend with multiple equipment types, multiple operating systems and, likely, multiple users per machine. Leading straight out of this is also the issue of BYOD. As already mentioned, a sizable percentage of the students will want to use their own equipment so the students will need to access the apps, many of which will need to be purchased, and the district’s technical team will need to find a way to allow the student-owned devices to access the Internet and parts of the school Intranet while maintaining the security of the school’s own information systems–a tall order at best.

The tablets themselves have significant technical limitations. Compared to laptops and traditional PC’s, tablets are mostly inferior when it comes to creating content. Have you ever tried composing an essay on one? Anything longer than a 2-3 line reply is something much better suited to a device with a real keyboard! Oh the typos! As for harder tasks such as 3-d modelling for tech-ed as well as processor (and energy) intensive tasks like video production, the devices simply do not have the horsepower. Not all software is compatible either. Adobe Flash™ is generally unsupported on tablets and Java™ run-time based applications will not work either.

But then there is the biggest problem of all: barging ahead and purchasing tablets for students is actually a case of putting the cart before the horse. Schools are in the business of educating students so every decision has to be made on just one basis: will doing this increase achievement? (And, yes, that includes decisions around sanitation, busing, scheduling, staffing, discipline and everything else. Just think about it!) Purchasing tablets for schools is just a case of obtaining equipment for which there is no well-defined need at this point in time. The end result of this can only be either (a) the equipment is under-used or not used at all or (b) the usage to which the equipment is put amounts to busy work; that is the devices will be used in a haphazard fashion with ill-defined outcomes and even less well-defined procedures. In short, people may feel inclined to use them just for the sake of using them.

This is not to suggest that practitioners and leaders should step back and wait. In all likelihood devices similar to the 7″ tablets are very much a part of the future of educational technology but that will not happen by itself. Much work has to be done. Lessons that take advantage of the equipment have to be developed and, more importantly, that all-important eContent has to be developed. That will take a considerable effort on behalf of a large number of people. Simply put, the education community needs to find its way and that will take active participation on behalf of a lot of dedicated members. It is with that in mind that perhaps people should get behind this new movement.

When they arrive on the market the new tablets will be powerful and very attractive. Unfortunately the finer-details of how they fit into the mosaic of school live will not exist. Fortunately the seeds of those ideas already exist. Tablets are not new. The iPad, for instance, a very capable device, has now been available during three school years. These have begun a legacy of usage. Some literature exists. More importantly, a legion of teachers are already out there with the desire and the skills to start this tech integration process and, make no mistake, it will happen.

It will take time, though. Well-developed learning activities take a lot time and energy. They must be planned, developed, classroom-tested and then further refined before becoming truly useful. Finally they must be implemented on a larger scale. This is a process that takes years. So should we all wait? Of course not. Tablets, as already mentioned, will be an important part of the landscape. It’s just that, at this time, we should not expect them to just sweep through the system. There’s years of work yet to be done before the devices will be a mature part of the landscape. In the meantime, educational leaders should move ahead treating the integration of these devices as part of a large scale pilot. The huge benefits will come but only after a lot of dedicated developmental work.  That work has no particular endpoint; it is something that needs to be ongoing.

This piece started with a recollection of a story of a similar device–the palm pilot–and how it failed to make any lasting widespread dent on classroom activities. Yesterday’s palm pilot, today’s tablet…they are not too different. Each seems, in its time, to be the next greatest thing. But that’s because we can all only see so far. There will be always something else, just over the horizon. As has been pointed out, there’s a great likelihood that no one particular device will make the big splash that some may think.

But think about it, though. Smartphones and tablets are becoming mainstream. Teachers as well as students are adopting them…in droves. What’s more, the devices are no longer unwelcome. Once, not too long ago, wireless devices were seen as a distraction; a means by which students could avoid doing their work and simply waste valuable time. Increasingly they are being seen as the opposite; a means by which valuable tasks can be enhanced. Small look-up jobs like definitions, sources and map info are now done almost exclusively (by those than can) through these devices. Some reading is now done through them. Learning Management System (LMS) access is increasingly being dome through them. Perhaps this is, in fact, the wave. It’s not that the devices will come in and shove everything else out of the way. Rather, the devices will gently move in, enhance classroom life where it should and stay out of the places it does not belong.

Now where those places are and are not–finding them is the fun part!

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  1. #1 by Nina on October 29, 2012 - 12:07 am

    Nice post! Getting tablets (or any other devices) to schools before we have discussed the real need and planned well their usage is indeed putting the cart in front of the horse.
    I wish more educators were aware about the fact that adapting new devices doesn’t actually transform education, it just changes the way we share information. Learning still happens inside the students…even though we may be able to make learning a bit more appealing to them with the new tools.

    • #2 by Maurice A. Barry on January 7, 2013 - 12:18 pm

      Couldn’t agree more! That said, since making this post I’ve acquired another tablet, a Google Nexus 7. I’ve since stopped using my iPad altogether :>) The thing does have possibilities, but, like I said it will take some doing before we can do a good job of using these effectively for learning and teaching. That day will come, though…

  2. #3 by Seriously Virtual on April 24, 2013 - 8:12 am

    Rather than educators I would say that it is important for decision makers, politicians, and members of the community who need to realize that giving tablets to everyone won’t necessarily lead to good results, more so when the current educational structure and system is left unchanged. I believe that such use of devices, if meant to be used correctly and effectively, warrants a total change (in attitudes, content, assessment, approach, teaching and learning methodologies) that reflect the affordances of these devices and modalities.

  1. Tablets and Transforming Education–Much is Needed Before it Should Happen « lederr

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