The following post is a copy of an article written for a UNESCO sponsored site
on education in developing nations.
Mobile digital devices rocketed to popularity around 10 years ago with the release of the iPod. Mobile computing went mainstream with the release of the iPhone in 2007. With the release of the iPad just one year ago, we are now seeing a significant shift in the dynamics of computer purchase and practice – moving away from desktops and laptops to iPads and other mobile devices. Their cost relative to laptops along with the promise of mobile computing has raised tremendous interest in iPad use in education.
I don’t believe Apple anticipated the demand for iPads as educational devices. When they were first released, more than one Apple sales representative suggested that iPads were designed for personal media consumption and laptops would be a more appropriate investment for schools. In response to overwhelming interest among educators, I started our online community – iPads in Education – within weeks of the iPad’s release. The site is an online network that provides guidance on educational usage, allowing users to ask questions and gain from others’ experiences. In the past several months we’ve learned a significant amount about how mobile tablet computing may impact education now and into the future.
- Form factor: Anyone that has used an iPad can attest to its compelling form factor. It just feels right. Light, portable and easy to hold or lay in your lap. As opposed to a laptop where the upright screen acts as a barrier between people in classroom settings, the iPad tends to be used more organically; it’s small, lays flat and is easily shared and passed around.
- Long battery life and instant-on: Continuous, transparent access to information is a key educational goal and these are two core requirements. The long battery life of iPads allows you to charge them overnight and use them throughout the school day without any need to pull out messy power cords or search for sparsely located electrical outlets. Additionally, they power up almost immediately. Teachers have little class time to meet increasing demands and don’t need to be wasting five or more minutes every lesson waiting for students to open laptops, power up and log in or shut down. The iPad simply flips open and it’s on. Importantly, as with other mobile devices, this also enables natural, almost transparent educational use. You’re more likely to just spontaneously turn to it for information in the course of a discussion. Students can carry it around easily and instantly access and integrate information and tools into discussions and educational activities.
- Price: The cost of computer implementations has been a stumbling block for many communities and countries. The advent of cheaper alternatives – netbooks, smartphones and iPads – are closing the digital divide and making computing increasingly accessible to more people.
- Touch interface: When combined with the simplicity of the screen layout, the touch interface is a key element of the iPad’s popularity. Most notably, you will observe how young children instinctively take to it without instruction – the web is replete with examples. From my own experience, I find that younger children adapt to the interface even more naturally than teens.
- Improved digital reading: The crisp quality of the display, especially when combined with the light weight and portability, enables a far superior reading experience than currently exists on desktops and laptops. Along with the iPad’s light weight and portability, this finally opens the door to the possibility of utilizing eBooks in education in place of their far heavier and more expensive paper counterparts.
- Integrating multimedia: We live in a society that increasingly expresses itself in images and video. There is an abundance of apps delivering high quality multimedia content to iPads, allowing for integration of fantastic media experiences into educational activities. This is especially applicable to news events where fresh, sharp video footage and images are easily accessible and can spark valuable class discussion.
- Special education: Increasingly we are hearing how the iPad has been a huge success within special education. The simplicity of the touch interface is making it an extremely popular device for students with special needs.
- Connecting: The educational value of social networking lies in its ability to facilitate the growth of impromptu virtual learning communities - connecting people around the globe to share opinions and experiences. Social networking applications are an integral part of iPad usage – whether connecting users to news events, industry experts or video-conferencing with students and classes in other countries.
Consumption or Production?
Much has been written about the opinion that iPads are great consumption devices but are less stellar at allowing students to express themselves creatively. I don’t entirely agree. Firstly, it isn’t simply a consumption device – it’s an extraordinary consumption device – and the role of information acquisition in education shouldn’t be under-valued. Also, as the application market matures we’re starting to see an evolving depth in the creative opportunities. Music applications, digital storytelling, animation, mathematics … now with the addition of a camera to the second generation iPad and the hallmark release of core Apple applications such as iMovie and GarageBand, the creative possibilities are expanding rapidly.
- Sharing: iPads are intensely personal devices that record your digital footprint – logins, preferences and more. There’s no login process. This makes them difficult to share. A 1:1 iPad implementation requires very different planning than an implementation that shares iPads among students. My hope is that educational app developers will see the obvious need for sharing in schools and add login layers to their apps.
- They aren’t laptops: You can’t manage iPads in the same way as laptops. Imaging and synchronization processes, content management, application purchasing – they all raise specific issues that require thorough discussion and planning. Planning your deployment is an essential first step - both from a technical and educational standpoint.
- Keyboard: The touch screen keyboard is not popular with all users. I find that it’s more than sufficient for smaller typing tasks such as emails, notes, blog posts and more …. but I believe we’re approaching the end of qwerty typing in computing. The popularity of tablet computing may end up stimulating development of alternative, more efficient input methods that also utilize voice and video.
- Flash: Several popular educational websites require the use of flash and these are not currently available on the iPad.
- eTextbooks: At this point, the promise of eTextbooks still exceeds the reality. There aren’t enough quality books available in digital format and frankly, most still stem from a model that is built upon their physical, paper counterpart. It’s not enough to simply translate textbooks to digital files - we need new models that utilize the media and interactivity capabilities available on iPads. A digital textbook should be cognizant of what the learner has mastered and where he/she needs assistance. It should customize the content to the reader’s strengths and weaknesses and report the student’s progress to the teacher. Effective use of multimedia – interactive multimedia – will become core elements of new eTextbooks and eCourses. There have been some excellent first attempts and eTextbooks and eCourses will improve as the market matures.
The Immediate Future
- The app market will mature and we’ll move from single task, short session apps to more sophisticated offerings. The release of GarageBand and iMovie are important steps in that direction.
- The barrier to entry for creating and distributing eBook content will become lower. Increasingly, teachers and communities will create their own eBook content.
- Social reading is an imminent phenomenon that combines the reading of eBooks with social networking. When reading eBooks users can connect to friends and other readers, asking questions and sharing notes or opinions. Apps such as Inkling are a bold first step in that direction.
- While the iOS browser is adequate it still lags behind desktop offerings. As mobile continues to expand we can expect a consolidation of desktop and mobile systems and browsers resulting in better mobile web editing, more collaboration tools and support for a wider range of web technologies.
Finally, it’s still a free-for-all in the mobile tablet market. The huge popularity of the iPad is spawning a wealth of new applications and cultivating the development of a host of competitive products that will only serve to strengthen the overall educational value of mobile tablet computing.