Exploring the use of iPads and mobile devices in education.
Apple held it’s widely anticipated Worldwide Developer Conference recently and as expected, took the opportunity to disclose the upcoming release of many new product features and services. Chief among them was the announcement of the new iOS 5 mobile operating system and a new wireless data synchronization and storage service called iCloud.
Any analysis is still somewhat speculative as most of the new features won’t be fully available for several months … but hey, since when has that stopped us? There’s a lot to digest and several significant features that will impact education directly.
“PC Free” Wireless Synchronization
The huge achilles heel of iPad deployment to date has been the difficulty involved with their management and synchronization. The impending ability to now synchronize iOS devices wirelessly removes part of the headache of having to connect them to desktop with an iTunes account. With the new “PC free” feature, devices will setup automatically out of the box and then update, backup and synchronize to an iTunes account when left charging. Typically in a school scenario that will be when they are left charging overnight in a cart..
Probably one of the least heralded of the new features may be the one that has a huge potential impact for classroom teachers. AirPlay mirroring will now allow anyone with an iPad 2 to project whatever is on their screen wirelessly to any HD television connected to an Apple TV. For those that aren’t familiar with Apple TV, frankly you’re in the majority. There haven’t been many compelling reasons to consider purchasing this $99 device … until now.
Consider the scenario where you ditch that expensive and repair greedy classroom projector or SmartBoard and instead purchase an inexpensive large screen HDTV along with an Apple TV for all your classroom projection needs. No more expensive repairs or $250 bulbs to buy. Instead, any teacher can now wirelessly project their iPad to the large screen TV. And it gets better. Imagine now that any student in the class can easily project their own iPad screen to the TV without moving from their seat or plugging in any cables.
For those of us that believe in the value of effective communication to both teacher and student learning, Apple has streamlined the way we can send and receive information with the following new features:
iCloud is Apple’s new service for synching user data across devices. Data can include files, music, photos and more. Users will receive 5GB of free storage and can store files from any iCloud supported app. This includes Pages, Numbers and Keynote from Apple as well as any and all third party apps that elect to synchronize storage on iCloud. Unlike service such as Dropbox that allow storage of any files however, iCloud will only store files from compatible apps. iCloud focuses on integration with apps as opposed to DropBox or SugarSync which are more of a generic file storage mechanism.
This does however have important implications for backup and workflow and especially in schools where students are not permitted to take iPads off campus. Imagine students creating a document in Pages as a typical example. Today your options are either to store the document on the iPad without any automatic backup and without off-campus access if the iPad doesn’t go home with the student. A second option would be to email the document from the device and create a duplicate copy which can be retrieved from the email. Other options that can be configured include WebDav and DropBox but they are cumbersome to set up and manage for anything other than a handful of students.
With iCloud, the student has a web based account and the document is automatically stored and backed up from the iPad. Further, the student can access the account off-campus and retrieve the document for further editing before returning it to the iCloud account.
Safari Web Browsing
I currently have my iOS Safari browser loaded with a bookmarklet from Instapaper for saving articles for later reading and another from Readability for uncluttered and easier to read page formatting. Both of those features will now be standard in the new version of Safari under iOS 5. Add to that tabbed browsing and speed improvements and Safari may finally be a capable mobile browser.
One of the main critiques of the iPad from a productivity standpoint is that you can only display and work with one app at a time (although I have had students tell me that this actually minimizes distractions and makes it easier for them to concentrate). Multitasking will now be simpler and faster with new gestures that allow you to swipe left or right to switch between apps.
The iPad has been extremely popular in special education and iOS 5 continues to make improvements for people and learners with disabilities. New features include LED flash and custom vibration patterns to see or hear when someone is contacting you as well as improved VoiceOver controls.
Would Have Been Nice If...
Given that they won’t be fully released for some time, it’s too early to close the book on iOS 5 and iCloud yet. There are however several features that could still be important additions:
Overall, I’d have to say that most of the new features aren’t really “new” and have existed in other third party apps and competing services for some time already (see Android, Blackberry, Google, DropBox, Instapaper, Readability and more). One could question the ethics of copying concepts from competitors but that seems to have been the behavior de rigueur of the software industry for many years (from which legal firms have profited more than anyone). For those of us that have become accustomed to Apple’s record of innovation this may have been somewhat of a disappointment. Apple does however seem to have successfully integrated the new features into their operating system and software in a fundamental and seamless manner. If you’re an avid Apple consumer or an Apple school then you’ll likely to find many of these new features indispensable.