Tablet Devices: Taking Education by Storm?
by Susan Brooks-Young
By early 2011, the tablet market exploded worldwide. Analysts now predict that in 2012, 92 million tablets representing multiple platforms will be sold, outpacing sales of personal computers.
When Apple announced the first-generation iPad in January 2010, reactions were swift and mixed, ranging from the dour observation that iPad was nothing more than a bloated iPod Touch to Steve Jobs’ assurance that “iPad is our most advanced technology in a magical and revolutionary device at an unbelievable price.” Consumers clearly opted for Jobs’ take on the iPad. In the second quarter that iPads were available, they outsold Macintosh computers—4.19 million compared to 3.89 million—and a total of 14.8 million iPads sold by the end of 2010.
By early 2011, the tablet market exploded worldwide. Analysts now predict that in 2012, 92 million tablets representing multiple platforms will be sold, outpacing sales of personal computers. Both computer manufacturers and companies that once specialized in mobile phones are gearing up to release one or more tablet devices.
The rapid acceptance and adoption of tablets for personal use is taking a lot of people by surprise, but what is really astonishing is the interest this mobile technology is generating among K-12 educators. Pilot programs at grade levels from pre-K through high school have been launched across the U.S. in both public and private schools. More are planned for the 2011-12 school year. In light of this keen interest, it seems appropriate to launch this year’s Technology in the Classroom series by taking a look at tablets—what they are and some current options, along with potential for classroom use.
Tablet Devices: An Overview
Based on all the recent hype, you might think that tablets are a relatively new development in mobile technology, but that’s actually not the case. The first commercially available tablet computer was released in 1989, but tablets didn’t attract much attention until 2001. That’s when Bill Gates announced Microsoft’s prototype of a tablet PC. This device was very much like a laptop except it was equipped with a touchscreen that supported text entry using a stylus and handwriting recognition or a virtual keyboard. The idea of touch technology intrigued many, but tablet devices remained a limited market until the 2010 release of Apple’s iPad and Samsung’s Galaxy Tab. In short order, a number of companies announced plans to sell their own versions of tablet devices, and, in March 2011, Apple released the iPad 2.
Size is an attractive feature of tablet devices, which fall somewhere between smart phones and laptops. Tablet screen size ranges between 7” and 10”, and tablets weigh up to 2.6 pounds. Touted as platforms for consuming media including video, photos, music, books, and magazines, tablets can actually be used for much more. The Wi-Fi capability (and in some cases 3G or 4G) enables users to surf the Web, read and write e-mail, and download special programs called apps onto the device. Some apps require an internet connection to run, but others are standalone programs that can be used even when Wi-Fi is not available. At the time this article is being written, the most common operating systems for tablets are Apple’s iOS (iPad); Android 2.0-2.3 (e.g., HTC’s Flyer or Dell’s Streak); and Android 3.0-3.1, also called Honeycomb, which was developed specifically for tablets (e.g., Samsung’s Galaxy Tab 10.1 or Asus’ Eee Pad Transformer). However, there also are—or soon will be—tablets running Blackberry Tablet OS, Windows 7, or Web OS. This column focuses on devices running iOS and Android 3.0-3.1 (Honeycomb).
iPads and Android tablets running Honeycomb are similar in several ways. Current pricing for the tablets themselves is similar, although there is speculation that ultimately Android tablets may be less expensive. Both types of devices feature multi-touch screen displays, virtual keyboards, and Wi-Fi capabilities. Navigation of the devices is very intuitive—within just a few minutes, users can learn the basics of finding their way through the screens and accessing various pre-installed apps. As a result, tablets can be used by your youngest students—even preschoolers—and students of all ages find tablets very engaging.
Apps are purchased and installed on tablets through online stores. iPad users make their purchases through the iTunes App Store, and Android tablet owners purchase through several sources, commonly the Android Market or Amazon’s Appstore. While the iTunes App Store currently offers a greater selection of apps than you can find on the Android side, the quality of education apps for both platforms varies greatly. It’s easy to download and review free apps, and some paid apps offer free “lite” versions for users to test before purchasing, but this is not always the case. Most paid apps are fairly inexpensive, but the cost can mount up quickly.
There are some significant differences between iPads and Android tablets. Apps are an important feature for all tablets, but not all apps are available for both types of device, and access to apps differs for each platform. An iPad running on the factory configuration can download and run just those apps found in the iTunes store. Android tablets can download and run apps from various sources including the Android Market. Once you’ve downloaded apps, the Apple iOS makes it easy to organize apps using folders. You can do the same on an Android tablet, but first you’ll need to download an app that enables you to create folders.
The dual cameras on the iPad 2 are a nice feature for classrooms, supporting video conferencing and adding the capability of using the iPad for simple photography and video activities. The iMovie app ($4.99) makes it possible to edit video right on the iPad 2. Most 10” Android tablets also have dual cameras, but this feature is not found on all these devices. Again, there are apps that support video editing on the tablet device.
File management is more difficult on iPads than on Android devices, although Apple’s recent announcement of iCloud, which will be available when iOS 5.0 is released in fall 2011, may take care of this issue. In the meantime, Android tablets currently facilitate file management through USB ports or SD card slots, making it easy for users to save files on portable storage devices that can be connected to a laptop for file transfer. An added bonus for Android users is that the USB port or SD card slot also provides instant expansion of storage space for the tablet. Finally, the iPad does not support Flash-based websites while Android tablets can run these sites using a free app called Flash Player. While some argue that Flash is outmoded and needs to go, the fact remains that, for now anyway, many education sites are Flash-based.
Should you decide to go the Android route, it’s important to understand that not all models of Android tablets include identical features such as screen size or dual cameras. And at this time, there is more than one operating system available. Honeycomb is the OS developed specifically for Android tablets, but some devices are still sold with earlier OS versions installed.
Some Tablets to Consider
The tablet market is rapidly evolving at this time. In addition to tablets released in the last 18 months, several new products are slated for release this summer and fall. Here are just a few to consider. Aside from the iPad 2, which runs iOS, the tablets listed here run Honeycomb.
• IPad 2, Apple (bit.ly/kz1bME): Released in March 2011, the second-generation iPad is available in several configurations ranging from 16 GB to 64 GB. All come with a 1GHz dual-core processor, a 9.7” screen, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth capability, dual cameras, and a battery life of up to 10 hours. 3G connectivity is also available through AT&T or Verizon. Current price $499 to $829.
• Eee Pad Transformer, Asus
(bit.ly/jOBhHk): The Eee Pad Transformer comes in two configurations, 16 GB or 32 GB. Both come with a 1GHz dual-core processor, a 10.1” screen, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth capability, dual cameras, and a battery life of up to 9.5 hours. This tablet also sports a Micro SD card slot and an optional docking station ($150) that includes a keyboard, touch pad, two USB ports, one
card slot, and which also extends battery life up to 16 hours. Current price $400 to $499.
• Galaxy Tab 10.1, Samsung (bit.ly/lyBdJZ): The Galaxy Tab 10.1 is available in three configurations: 16 GB, 32 GB, and 64 GB. All come with a 1GHz dual-core processor, a 10.1” screen, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth capability, dual cameras, and a battery life of about 9 hours. This tablet also includes a USB 2.0 port, a Micro SD card slot, and a SIM slot. Recommended pricing ranges from $499 to $599. 4G connectivity will be available through Verizon, but at the time this column was written service plan options had not been announced.
• Thrive, Toshiba (bit.ly/jUgJUy): Toshiba’s Thrive tablet comes in three models, 8 GB, 16 GB, and 32 GB. All feature a 1GHz dual-core processor, a 10.1” screen, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth capability, dual cameras, and a battery life of 7-8 hours. The Thrive has a mini USB 2.0 port, a full-size USB 2.0 port, and a full-size SD card slot. This device also comes with a removable battery and optional docking stations ($39.99 and $59.99) that offer additional USB ports and other options. Recommended pricing ranges from $429 to $579.99.
No matter which tablet you purchase, you will want to add at least three accessories—an anti-glare screen protector, a case, and a microfiber cloth, which can be purchased from the manufacturer or third-party vendors.
Potential for Use in Classrooms
Tablets offer several advantages for classroom use over netbooks and laptops.
They are lightweight and easy to use whether sitting or standing. Users can move from one location to another without having to close and reopen a screen, and they can switch the screen orientation from portrait to landscape by simply tilting the tablet in the appropriate direction. These features make tablets more portable than other mobile devices. Other benefits are the instant on and off capability of tablets and the ease of switching from one app to another, allowing students to dive quickly into instructional activities. The touch interface results in a level of interactivity not necessarily seen with laptops or netbooks, and seems to be particularly engaging for students with learning disabilities or other special needs. Long battery life means tablets need not be recharged during the school day. And there are a growing number of low- and no-cost education apps.
There are drawbacks to consider, though. Currently, tablet prices are higher than netbooks and some low-end laptops. Factor in the basic accessories, and the price jumps even higher. Sorting out the logistics for behind-the-scenes device management is also a challenge. Developing plans for charging (all tablets) and syncing (iPads) the devices, determining who can download and install apps and setting up accounts for this, and revising acceptable use plans to reflect use of mobile devices all require time and expertise. And there is the fact that, at least at this time, tablets do not replace laptops if for no other reason than the fact that it is difficult to write and edit large amounts of text without purchasing external keyboards—another
I believe that in time prices for tablets will drop, schools will sort out management issues, and alternative methods of text entry will make the devices more useful for writing more than brief notes or e-mails. In the meantime, I recommend that educators hold off on school-wide 1-to-1 tablet implementations, and use this time to initiate smaller pilot programs in which teachers and students can explore various devices and equipment configurations to determine the tablet and instructional strategies that will best suit their school.
A former Catholic-school teacher, Susan Brooks-Young spent 23 years as a teacher and administrator. She now works as a professional consultant and author. Her latest book is Teaching with the Tools Kids
Really Use (Corwin Press, 2010). Susan invites comments at SJBrooks@aol.com.
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