I 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:
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.