Balancing the Appeal of Mobile Computing against the Real World Education Constraints
Imagine a future where our children are more motivated because they are immersed in the same technology that is increasingly surrounding them in life.
The education sector globally has traditionally been slow to adopt new technology. A wave of affordable, mobile computing devices, particularly tablets, is changing this. Education administrators, schools, and individual educators are experimenting with new touchscreen devices such as Apple's wildly popular iPad, at a rate that is faster than even the most optimistic tech watcher could have anticipated. Schools are increasingly exploring the integration of technology in the classrooms. And more and more, they are opting for tablets instead of laptops or desktop computers.
The appeal of tablets to educators is easy to understand. Tablets are affordable, adaptable, interactive, portable, powerful, connected, and (and if it's an iPad, students think they're cool as well).
With tablets, students and teachers are no longer confined to computer labs to experience the benefits of technology-supported learning.
Tablets contain cameras that allow for taking pictures or recording videos for class projects. They support video playback for watching movies, clips or animations, enhancing learning with immersive and interactive multimedia teaching aids. Built-in speakers and microphone allow for music playback and voice recording for music, language and humanities subjects. And of course, with wireless networking, tablets can connect to the Internet, giving students access to the rich, diverse World Wide Web for research, video conferencing, email and so much more.
Tablets allow students to easily carry around more information – and less weight – than a bag filled with stack of text books. All this from a device that is less expensive than traditional desktop computers; more portable, offers much better battery life; and is easier to use and maintain than most traditional laptops. It's no wonder there is so much hype and so much interest in tablets in the classroom. After all, what's not to like? Well it turns out, there are several things to be weary of.
For technology to make a real difference in student learning, it cannot simply be an add-on. Proper integration of learning technologies into schools and classrooms requires a substantial rethink of pedagogy, curriculum, assessment, teacher practice, parental engagement and physical infrastructure.
So, as appealing and versatile as tablets are for learning, there are several factors that constrain their use in the real world:
Relative to desktop and laptop computers, tablets are quite affordable. However, true cost of ownership includes other charges to cover licenses for appropriate educational software and eBooks; accessories like protective cases, charging stations, cables, adapters, keyboards; and equipment warranties. These can quickly add up. Then there is the additional cost of outfitting schools to provide secure Internet access and to store and secure the digital content created and used in the class.
There are thousands of educations titles available for Apple's iPad and an equally impressive set of options for tablets based on Google's Android OS. But the majority of apps were developed for the US educational system and may not all be perfectly aligned to non-US curricula.
Each tablet platform has an associated app stores designed for the consumer market. These seldom provide specific content and application management features. Further, the one tablet one user paradigm to not always carry neatly over into the classroom. Educators and students must therefore consider new method of sourcing, sharing and delivering educational content and applications.
Tablets are great at content consumption, but the absence of a physical keyboard presents severe challenges for content creation in a classroom context. Further, the several popular tablet models lack standard ports for transfer and syncing content between devices. This means that delivering content to multiple devices can be problematic and time consuming for teachers and students. Careful thought and proper investment must go into ensuring that devices can be easily and securely updated and new content deployed en-mass.
Not all teachers will find the learning curve presented by tablets easy to master. As easy and intuitive as tablets may be for most students, special investment has to be made in teacher training and orientation. Educators also may not intuitively understand how tablet apps integrate into lesson plans. They may be challenged to find the time and motivation to adapt to new modes of classroom preparation and lesson planning that tablets demand. Deliberate focus has to be placed on teacher training and orientation before embarking on any tablet campaign.
Deployment, monitoring and management of tablets, as is the case with all technology assets, requires careful planning and consideration. Schools must also consider how they will monitor and control such student usage. Video cameras, and voice recorders are wonderful assets to have in the classroom when used responsibly. However, inappropriate use can lead to nightmarish scenarios. Additionally, there are several legal implications, including access to online sites and content, which must be thoroughly researched before any deployment is considered.
As with all things technology, the landscape is constant evolving. A new class of education-focused tablets is emerging to address the challenges inherent in deploying consumer-oriented devices in the classroom. New companies like LearnPad and Amplify are touting their tablet wares as tailor made for the needs of education sector. Features like curated education app stores; safe web browsing, with an on-device white-list of approved websites; integrated course management tools; support for multiple user profiles and device level access mechanisms; all promise teachers greater control over the devices in the classroom, and lover total cost of ownership.
Technology giants Apple, Google and Microsoft are not standing still either. Each has announced plans to place even greater focus on the education sector in upcoming versions of the tablet platforms. Given the range of different tablet options available, each with assorted benefits and limitations, it is important that decision-makers understand each platform, each device, its key features, and how it can be used within the school environment.
Tablet computers undoubtedly have a place in education, and more specifically in the classroom. However, careful consideration must be given to the use, content, manageability, security and integration of the devices in the classroom. An informed choice will benefit educators and students, and set the stage for true 21st century education.