The iPad Mini Could Spur an Education Revolution

by Steve Wildstrom   |   October 24th, 2012

Picture of iPad miniI have long been a skeptic about the role of personal computing in education, especially for K-12 schools. Yes, the internet has made a wealth of information accessible to students. But the instructional revolution promised by technology optimists seems to hover forever on the horizon. The tablet—and for now, at least, that really means the iPad for reasons I will get to—could be the tool that finally makes the difference. And the new iPad mini could greatly accelerate the trend.

There are many reasons why technology has been an educational disappointment for three decades. Probably the most significant is that the computer has never become students’ constant companion but remains instead an occasional tool.

There have been experiments that equip large groups of students with laptops, but they have been far from a roaring success. Laptops are expensive to buy and even more expensive to maintain—both hardware and software. They are heavy for kids to carry and often lack the battery power to get through a school day of steady use. While many textbooks and other instructional materials are available for Windows and Macs, reading on a laptop screen is a mediocre to terrible experience. In theory, laptops opened the door to new educational experiences, from rich media to a wide-range of custom generated instructional content. In practice, the device itself got in the way.

Tablets are fundamentally different. They are intensely personal and no more obtrusive than a textbook. Reading on them is a delight. While they can break if abused, they are far more rugged than laptops. Perhaps more important, their software is secure by design, making them all but immune to the malware and corruption that plague conventional PCs.

Apple is best equipped to take advantage of the K-12 tablet market. It has quietly worked with schools to develop tools for successful classroom use and to improve the manageability and delivery of custom content and applications. (A case study of a large-scale iPad school pilot in the Australian state of Victoria gives a lot of information on how this can be done.) Apple offers extensive training and support for educators. And the iPad Mobile Learning Lab is a charging cart designed for classroom sets of tablets.Apple is best equipped to take advantage of the K-12 tablet market..

There’s nothing like this in the fragmented Android world and Google does not appear to be taking on a leadership role in education. (It is promoting Chromebooks for educational use, but not Android.) Microsoft might have a shot with its new tablets, but an obscure technical decision will limit their appeal. One of the big attractions of Windows, at least to school system IT departments, is the ability to manage devices centrally, including deploying software and locking down systems. But Windows RT devices, including the Surface and other tablets based on ARM processors, are not able to join Windows Active Directory domains.

What seems like a really geeky move by Apple could greatly enhance the ability of educators to create custom instructional content for the iPad, especially in math and the sciences. Mathematical typesetting for ebooks of all types has been a source of enormous pain for as long as ebooks have been around. Apple has just made it easy. The just-released update to  the iBooks authoring app allows text to be created in three forms widely used for mathematical typesetting, LaTeX, MathML, and MathType. This is a simple example of text including LaTeX that I entered into iBooks Author in about a minute:

LaTeX text

This attention to the needs of education is likely to pay big dividends for Apple. And the iPad mini should prove particularly attractive to educators. Educational volume discounts could take the unit price well under $300. And the lighter weight and smaller size makes it better suited for younger students, who are likely to find the larger iPad heavy and bulky.

A lot has to happen in education before tablets can reach their potential. Most important, the people who run schools have to overcome their deep-seated fear of students in possession of connected devices. Yes, they can facilitate cheating and distractions, but teachers have always had to deal with cheating and distraction in classrooms and this is a terrible reason to deny students the advantages to students of everything from a library at their fingertips to instructional materials enabled by the tablet. The upfront cost of the tablets will be an issue, though savings on textbooks and other educational materials that will no longer be needed in physical form could allow a rapid recovery of the investment.

Schools, particularly K-12 education, is a sector that has lagged badly in the adoption and use of computer technology. The explosion of tablets may finally be about to change that.

Steve Wildstrom

Steve Wildstrom is veteran technology reporter, writer, and analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He created and wrote BusinessWeek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving BusinessWeek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD and also consults for major technology companies.
  • FalKirk

    I’ve been waiting my whole life for computers to revolutionize learning. I don’t know it the iPad is the solution I’ve been waiting for. But I do know this. There is no stopping the use of tablets in schools from kindergarten to college. In three to five years tablets, will be ubiquitous in education.

    Book it.

    • http://www.facebook.com/scott.bergman.161 Scott Bergman

      I think that the tablet (now it is the iPad) is the revolution device, but the revolution has to come from the teachers. Willing to change can be hard. For these things to be used effectively you have to change the way in which you teach, assess and evaluate. People don’t like change…….

      • steve_wildstrom

        Very true. But until the advent of the iPad, they really didn’t have a tool that merited the effort.

        • MN Mom

          As a parent of a boy with special education needs who is mainstreamedmost of the day, oh how I wish his school would implement iPad mini app technology to help him maintain pacewith his neurotypical pepeers. What takes him ages to handwrite is much faster on an iPad or even iPod Touch. Thinking about adding this to his IEP if we can convince the school. Great article – thank you!

          • MN Mom

            And because I’m typing on an Android, my words are stuck together! Sorry – hope the message intent is still clear.

  • Dr.No

    There is still the administrative/IT bureaucracy that Apple still has to deal with.
    Router issue with Bonjour/Airplay not compatible with Enterprise Routers.

    You will see that technology is like fashion exciting initially and euphoria wears off.
    Books will not be cheaper, ipad can replace traditional computers
    but is not going to do anything with teachers or students the most
    import part of education. Other counties have more motivated
    teachers and students with higher expectations which US will lack
    because only 26% of students even go to College.
    1 Trillion in student debt so much for revolution more
    like debt prison.

  • mhikl

    You’re on a roll today, Steve.

    How about this for size, pun fortunate. What if Apple were to come out with an iPad e (e for education). It would be the same size as the original iPad, use a less expensive screen, lack cameras, costly aluminium and what ever costly bits not necessary for general education.
    It would be housed in a thick soft bouncy rubber edged of material in many colours so it could be dropped without worry. It would be cheaper to make but be well crafted and would only be sold to schools in bundles. We’re talking a lot cheaper than the iPad and a little cheaper than the iPm.
    The bouncy rubber casing might be attachable via screws or such, and come in enough colours that school could differentiate class sets. They would be orderable separately so only one ‘naked’ iPad e would actually have to be put together for sale.

    What a further incentive to parents who are contemplating a home tablet. They may not be able to purchase these cheaper iPads but wouldn’t the fact their children were using an iOS device at school be incentive to go for an Apple iPad over the bargains some parents might be pondering? I can just see the other tablet makers throwing up their hands in defeat at such a reality.

    • http://www.facebook.com/scott.bergman.161 Scott Bergman

      I so agree. As a guy who just mailed off 2 ipads with cracked displays I like the bouncy rubber casing. and class set colors, nice…..f

      • steve_wildstrom

        You don’t want to make the iPad a lot bulkier or heavier. But something like this $4 silicone cover might do the trick.

  • http://kirstenwinkler.com KirstenWinkler

    According to the minimum requirements for common core assessments, the screen of the iPad Mini is much too small. http://bigthink.com/disrupt-education/is-the-ipad-mini-too-small-for-the-classroom

    If this actually makes sense, I don’t know but I think the iPad 2 is a viable alternative for the classroom. Apple might stop selling it for the consumer space but still offer it to educational institutions.

    • steve_wildstrom

      There’s a lot of misinformation here. The Common Core State Standards are a set of curriculum goals for math and language arts: they list what we expect students to know at each grade level. The say nothing about teaching methods, technology, or anything else except educational content. The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium are two rival groups writing assessments aligned with CCSS. either has anything but advisory status and, frankly, neither has any business making recommendations and specific technologies that should or should not be used. The SBAC/PARCC technology guidelines were written in April and are already badly out of date given rapid developments in tablets. They also have a common set of specs for laptops, netbooks, and tablets, which makes no sense whatever.

  • Tom

    With all due respect you’re completely off base with
    this. I’m in charge of IT for a special needs school (where arguably we tablets could help even more). In that capacity I can tell you most of your points are off-base. Here’s the rundown…

    Breaking isn’t a big issue at all for either laptops or tablets. We’ve had laptops in classrooms for over 8 years now and only one has ever been broken beyond repair (and the repairs themselves are rare)

    There are no sizeable education discounts on iPads. We have an education rep at Apple, he’s told us “it doesn’t matter how many you buy the 10-pack is the only discount avaible” (the 10-pack knocks off a measly $20 on the full size iPad).

    Text books are pretty much a non-starter. School districts set the text book standards
    and they demand all schools standardize. So unless every school has an iPad they can’t standardize on e-books. They can’t even define a separate “tablet
    text book” because federal funding requires school districts require Equal
    Education Opportunity to all students. Since tablet based text books have inherent advantages a district would
    be risking their funding

    “Students in possession of connected devices” really isn’t an issue. At least not since campus wide filters and Surelock were invented.

    Having “access to an entire library” is not really a possibility without buying copies of each book for each student. This is basic copyright law and violating copyright law can jeopardize funding (particularly title 1 funding which is vital to many schools).

    The real problems with tablets in schools are far more mundane. Here’s a few examples…

    Power – To use the tablet for education the kids have to be able to take the tablet home. When they do they usually don’t charge them so they come in the next morning with a dead tablet and running power cords to each desk is a safety risk

    Theft – Send a kid home with a tablet and there’s a good chance it will get swiped by a visiting relative, repairman or other visitor. In a pilot program we did 20%
    of the tablets were stolen

    Money – Buying tablets for each student means less money for PCs. But a lot of the education sites out there are still flash and a lot of education learning is still based around a keyboard. Even if you get the kids keyboards it isn’t the same as a PC (There’s no typing tutor for the iPad for example)

    Alternatives – Though they are less flashy there are a lot of alternative devices out there that provide better educational programs. Google the Neo2 for example. It’s grey scale with a tiny screen but it’s made by a company called Renaissance Learning which produces a whole lot of good content and they produce the content exclusively for their devices.

    I could literally go on for a few more pages but you get the point.

    • steve_wildstrom

      Thanks for your comments. It’s always good to get reports from the front lines.

      The breakage I am concerned with on laptops is less physical damage than software cruft. Windows and to a somewhat lesser extent Mac OS X require a lot of maintenance.

      There are more substantial discounts (not published) available for Apple purchases in sufficient volume. This would generally require purchases at a systemwide level.

      The majority of K-12 textbooks are now available in ebook form, so a district can select a text and have it available in either print or electronic form as needed. A vast amount of non-textbook information is available free and publishers and libraries are moving, far too slowly for my taste, to ebook lending programs. I am not endorsing stealing copyright material. I have never heard of a system requiring equality of funding that literally requires the exact same thing for every student. Besides, I would love to see the technology adopted on a district-wide basis, solving the equality issue.

      I still see a lot of fear of connected devices (witness the inability of schools to come up with sensible policies on mobiel phones.) One danger is that they get locked donw so tightly that they lose much of their usefulness.

      Regarding issues such as power and theft, these are problems, but I don;t see why they are different for tablets vs. laptops. Power should be less of an issue for tablets because of their much better battery life. Schools should have the ability to brick tablets (or PCs) that go missing. That can discourage a lot of theft. And I believe that the advantages of tablets, with keyboards where appropriate, vis-a-vis PCs outweighs their disadvantages. (Memo to educational web site operators: Flash is dead. Even Adobe admits it. If you want to stay in the game, convert to HTML 5. BTW, Java is dead too.)

      • Tom

        Just a few follow up comments…

        Software breakage isn’t really an isssue. I (and most other schools I know at this point) use a tool called Faronics DeepFreeze. It “freezes” the system and restores that frozen copy on every boot.

        As for Apple discounts I’ve offered to buy in quantities of 150 and was told there’s no discount. There are discounts for Macs which might be what you’re thinking of. But I was told there were no further discounts at any qty level.

        On equal textbooks Google Equal Education Opportunity. You’re just wrong here (you can also talk to any homeschool parent who face these same issues)

        On Cell. Phones you’re conflating two issues: Devices under the school’s control vs Devices the students bring in themselves. Devices the school owns can be locked to one app (again take a look at Surelock or Apple’s own Guided Access which was introduced in iOS 6).

        Finally on the issue of power and theft you’re correct that a laptop would have as much of a problem if they were being used in the same way. But they aren’t. Right now laptops are used to supplement paper education and as such are kept at the school. If you’re talking about tablets you’re usually looking at replacing paper which means the tablets have to go home.

        One final point: In general I think it’s great that people are interested in using education in schools. But that doesn’t help anyone if you don’t know the actual issues. Everyone I know of who maintains computers for a school knows about DeepFreeze for example. If you don’t it will lead you to think there are problems with laptops that don’t actually exist. Everyone in education technology wants more people thinking on these issues but you can’t provide answers to problems if yo don’t know the problems.

    • http://twitter.com/umbrarchist umbrarchist

      “They can’t even define a separate “tablet text book” because federal funding requires school districts require Equal Education Opportunity to all students. Since tablet based text books have inherent advantages a district would be risking their funding”

      Now that is amazing! So the students are all sabotaged in the name of equality.

      • steve_wildstrom

        It’s not correct. Unless some state has a very odd law–and it is states, not the federal government that set education policy–there is absolutely no prohibition on using tablets or any other kind of technology because of equal funding rules. My district, Montgomery County (Md.) Public Schools, has been rolling out Promethian Boards (much like a SmartBoard but using a projector rather than a flat-panel display) to classrooms. Lacking either the budget or the support staff to do it all at once, they are being deployed in stages. And some teachers use them very well, and some barely use them. It’s the same with any technology.

        • Tom

          Again you’re taking a little bit of information and using it to extrapolate to an erroneous conclusion. While it is true that states set education policy schools receive Federal Funds like Title 1 funds and those funds come with strings attached. If the states set all education policy then how would programs like “No Child Left Behind” work? The answer is they wouldn’t.

          Also, Smart Boards is a brand produced by SmartTech and they do use projectors not flat-panel displays. See here: http://smarttech.com/smartboard

          • steve_wildstrom

            The federal government supplies around 10% of K-12 education funding. But policymaking is largely left to the states. For example, under NCLB, schools are required to maintain “adequate yearly progress” as defined by the law, but states are responsible for the testing that determines whether AYP is being achieved. But my basic point was that the feds neither mandate nor prohibit the use of technology in classrooms, nor do they require equalization to the point where all schools must have the same technology. (There are special and more restrictive rules for special education, where Washington also pays a larger share of the cost.)

            I had missed the fact that Smart was now making projection systems. These would be very much like Promethean, at least in hardware.

    • lucascott

      Much of these issues are things that can be handled by properly setting rules and conditions.
      Kid didn’t charge his tablet at home per the rules, well that’s the same as not bringing the properly supplies and possibly your homework to class. If the latter would get a kid detention, so does the former.
      Make parents put down a deposit in case of loss or theft same as you probably do for that school issues band instrument. When Dad might lose $500 in actual money he’s going to pay attention to what his brother the louse is doing.

      And so on.

      • Tom

        I don’t disagree with your first sentence. There are answers to all these problems it just requires finding them. So no disagreement there.

        But your answers to those problems are too simplistic. For example, the power issue isn’t a discipline issue it is a curriculum issue. If the kid can’t follow along because his tablet is out of power then you can’t use the tablets in the classroom without buying spares which increase the cost for each classroom.

        Same with the deposit. Believe it or not many parents don’t have the financial resources to put down a deposit. So if a parent can’t put it down then what do you do? You’ve built a curriculum around this tablet. It isn’t like a band which is an elective course. The kids each have to have one to be educated. That’s the problem.

  • Calipenguin

    Computers failed to revolutionize classroom education because they were simple replacements for pencil, paper, calculators and movie projectors, so they did not radically improve conceptual mastery of any subject when children are left to explore on their own. Tablets are more portable and have touch screen, GPS, and inertial sensors but are those features enough to revolutionize education? One could argue that very young children can learn to interact with a touch screen much quicker than with a mouse, but by elementary school that tablet advantage disappears as children switch to the higher precision of a laser mouse and keyboard. Students often need to cut and paste pictures and text between a web browser, word processor, and slide maker but a full featured desktop OS is much better suited for this task than iOS, Android, or Metro. As high school kids get ready to take AP Calculus exams they must learn how to use a powerful graphing calculator such as HP-50 or TI-84 because general purpose computers and tablets are not allowed. Therefore I don’t see how tablets can revolutionize education because their new sensors don’t radically change how new concepts are learned. They are convenient for quick web searches and short emails, so perhaps that is their only true advantage over laptop computers.

    I think a far greater revolution would come from Google Goggles. A student could look at a quadratic equation on the whiteboard, let Google visual recognition set up and solve the problem, and display the step by step solution on the Goggles immediately. Every textbook word’s dictionary definition would just be an eyeblink away, and if a student reads Shakespeare and doesn’t understand a phrase, Google can find the translation and display it through Goggles in a floating text box right next to the book’s printed page. Slow readers or dyslexics can hear automatic speech generation in their headphones when they wear Goggles and Physics students can run instant force analysis or electrical circuit simulations just by staring at a textbook’s diagram instead of entering the vertices of the dozens of elements into a simulator.

    • steve_wildstrom

      I think you mean Google Glass, not Goggles. (Goggles is an iOS/Android app that is supposed to recognized real-world objects but mostly reads bar codes and QRs. Glass is the head-mounted mini-display.)

      The problem is that Glass is some time away from market and is going to be expensive when it gets there. Also, if my own experience with head-mounted displays is any indication, some people are going to have a lot of trouble using it; I haven;t used Glass but was only able to wear earlier displays for 10 minutes of so before I started getting a nasty headache.

      But I think the ideas you are talking about could mostly be implemented on tablets. With an ebook textbook today, you can tap on a woord and get a definition. Text-to-speech can read content. Interactive simulations can easily be added to textbooks.

      It’s much easier to do all these things on tablets than on conventional notebooks (though you are right that desktops/laptops will remain the preferred tools for serious writing, spreadsheets, PowerPoint, etc.

      Something is going to have to change the attitude of both the College Board and school systems toward software calculator implementations. The TI-8x series is hideously antiquated and they are selling devices with a bill of materials of well under $10 for $100 or so. Nice work if you can get it, and they have sent years lobbying school systems, textbook publishers, and the College Board.

      The College Board’s attitude as been that they can hold back the tide of technology when the fact is that they have to change their exams to deal with a new reality. But that is a bigger subject for another time.

      • Calipenguin

        Thank you for correcting me. Yes, i do mean Google Glass, and I also meant a future version of Goggles that would work with Glass to identify algebra or calculus equations written on a whiteboard and display the solutions in a floating dialog box next to the actual equations.

        • steve_wildstrom

          The math interpretation would be extremely cool, but I’m not holding my breath. It’s actually a fairly hard problem to get optical recognition of math right and, unlike some problems, there aren;t a lot of people willing to pay to solve it.

          It’s hard enough just to enter math into a computer. The coding for that simple quadratic formula in the original post looked like:
          frac {-b pm sqrt{b^2}-4ac}{2a}
          There may be a better way to accomplish this. My wife teaches high school math with a Promethean board. Her lecture notes and everything that she would have written on the blackboard in the old days now goes on the screen, and all the contents are available to the students for download. Currently, this is done with PDF files, because that is the technology she has available (and she has done this all on her own with no particular help from the school system other than supplying the Promethean Board. It would not be a big leap, that is to say, not very expensive with existing technology, to make the contents of the Promethean Board appear in real time on students’ tablets with the math as live MathML, which could then produce additional information, in class or at home, by tapping an equation.

          Why isn’t this sort of thing being done? Beats me. The technology is out there.