How tablets are invading the classroom

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You’ve been hearing about it for decades. Equipping all students with computers has long been a holy grail for classrooms around the world, but it just hasn’t happened. Sure, many classrooms have a computer, but most students still read out of textbooks, write with pencils on paper, and take notes off of a chalkboard. But there are signs that change is afoot. The rise of touch tablets has triggered a land grab in schools all around the country. Education officials with money to spend are overwhelmingly opting for tablets over PCs, and all of the major players in the tech industry – from Apple to Amazon, and even Microsoft – are gearing up for a fight. 

Touch tablets offer a cheap, and more intuitive alternative to laptops and desktop PCs. They also dispense with the need to carry around bags full of books. Tablets may be the next big thing in education, and everyone wants in.

The stage is set

The integration of technology into the classroom has been slow so far, but things are changing. Adoption of tablets and has already taken off in higher education, and is beginning to  filter all the way down to kindergarten classrooms. Here are some key trends.

Contenders for the top classroom tablet

The numbers are beginning to add up and it’s looking like tablets are going to become commonplace in schools – but which tablets will win? Will Apple’s lead with the iPad push it into a lasting position of dominance in the classroom, or will new competitors like the Nook, Kindle, and even Microsoft Surface make a sizable dent in Apple’s plans? Let’s take a look at how some of the best options compare on price, usability, and ecosystem.

Apple’s iPad

In an investor call this summer, Apple CEO Tim Cook said “Education tends to be a conservative institution, but we’re not seeing that at all on the iPad.” He went on to explain that “The adoption of the iPad in education is something I’ve never seen in any technology.”

That came on the back of the revelation that Apple had sold almost one million iPads to high schools and colleges in that quarter alone. The company has made a concerted push to interest the education market and the attempt to offer digital school textbooks with iBooks 2 and iTunes U was a big part of that.

Obvious drawbacks to the iPad are the price and the closed nature of Apple’s ecosystem. On the other hand, there are a lot of high quality educational apps, and the iPad is easy to use. The cost could be reduced by investing in older generation iPads or even considering the new iPad Mini. 

Apple got a head start in the tablet market with the iPad and the education sector is no different. Whether it can maintain that lead remains to be seen.

Amazon’s Kindle

Competition in the education market is set to increase in the coming year and Amazon wants in. The online retailer has been selling Kindle devices to U.S. schools at bulk discounts. Considering they are already break-even devices with relatively low price tags, that cost saving could be a huge incentive for schools and colleges.

Kindle trials have been running in more than one hundred schools in Florida and Texas. The basic Kindle e-readers are being used as an alternative to heavy bags full of books, but Amazon is also looking to push the Kindle Fire tablets. The Whispercast service allows educators to easily manage fleets of Kindle devices, and the ability for teachers to restrict access and set limits could be a real selling point for Amazon’s tablets.

Barnes & Noble’s Nook

The bookseller Barnes & Noble is just as serious as Amazon when it comes to catering for education and its line of Nook e-readers and tablets are very similar to the Kindle range in terms of functionality and price. Barnes & Noble also offers discounts tailored services for educators, customized school accessories, and charging carts designed for classrooms.

Nook trials have been undertaken in a Colorado high school and Chicago Public Schools also purchased some Nook readers.

Of course, the closed eco-system argument about Apple also applies to Barnes & Noble and Amazon.

Google’s Nexus 7 and other Android tablets

Whether it’s the Nexus 7 from Google, a Samsung Galaxy Tab, or another open Android tablet, there are some cost-effective options out there. You can get a relatively powerful 10.1-inch Android tablet for a few hundred dollars and the Google Play Store offers a decent range of educational apps. Ambitious educators and school systems could also develop their own apps and integrate directly into school services more easily than they could with an iPad.

Imposing restrictions on what students can do with open Android tablets will be an obvious concern, but there are fleet management options out there that offer educators more customization options than closed ecosystem devices like the Nook, Kindle, or iPad.

Microsoft Surface

The Microsoft Surface may be the new kid on the block, but it has some clear advantages over the competition. Its detachable keyboard covers solve the typing issue present with standard touch tablets. Touchscreens are best for consumption, but students need to learn typing skills and they need to be able to actually work on their tablets. In a recent interview, Bill Gates reiterated this point. When asked about tablets in higher education, he pointed out that, “Just giving people devices has a really horrible track record. You really have to change the curriculum and the teacher.” He also went on to say that, “…it’s never going to work on a device where you don’t have a keyboard-type input. Students aren’t there just to read things. They’re actually supposed to be able to write and communicate. And so it’s going to be more in the PC realm – it’s going to be a low-cost PC that lets them be highly interactive.” Perhaps he’s alluding to an education push from Microsoft?

There’s also the native support for Microsoft’s Office suite of software, which is still the standard in most workplaces and educational establishments around the world. Familiarity shouldn’t be underestimated as a potential draw. Windows is found everywhere and that doesn’t look likely to change in the near future.

The Surface also offers great enterprise management solutions and security that will work well for schools. Microsoft is much more experienced when it comes to fleet management; many schools may see it as a safe pair of hands when compared to Android.

Price will be an issue, but the Surface is a more well-rounded device than the iPad, so we won’t be surprised if it is able to muscle into the education market.

Are we getting ahead of ourselves?

Are tablets really the answer for education? We think so, but the truth is that touch devices are so popular right now that they’re being touted as the answer to everything. A few years back, before tablets burst onto the scene, there was a push to equip students with netbooks, but it was met with mixed results. Having an entire school filled with tablet-equipped students has obvious benefits, but cost and device management are serious hurdles to overcome.

We’d love to hear your opinions on this. If you’re a student using a tablet or e-reader for your studies or an educator with experience of employing tablets in the classroom then please weigh in. Are tablets the future of education? Which device would get your recommendation? Post a comment.

Showing 13 comments

  1. kdc0521 1 year Ago  
    I think Tablets are a fun learning tool but there are some great learning experiences that don't always involve using these things, and they can be big distraction in the class room. Especially in a class room with centers that have one area devoted to iPads, I see often that the other centers are treated as waiting spots to use iPads. There goes the learning opportunities for the other centers, but that's just for lower elementary grades. They end up being distractions (games and apps like facebook, pinterest, etc) in the upper grades and if you have a substitute in the class, they have those to compete with. I like iPads, but they can either be your best ally or worst enemy sometimes...
  2. rosied 1 year Ago  
    The microsoft surface will be a tough competition once it gets more apps added to it. I purchased a surface over a month ago and love it but the ipad offers so many apps that can be useful in a school setting. I am currently observing in a high school that uses ipads and the apps are endless. This makes the possibilities in the classroom endless. The scope of the classroom is broadened and so many more activities can be done. A lot of colleges require online submissions of assignments and communication with professors. Learning this earlier on will only prepare our students for the future. They will get comfortable with keeping track of their grades and assignments electronically and will understand the more complex systems as they reach college.
    1. #1) there are WAY more programs for Windows (and even Mac OS) than there are iPad apps.
      #2) the iPad can't access Flash, Java, etc. online, so even though you get a few hundred thousand apps available, you LOSE access to about 100 MILLION web resources online. Most of those are free...
      #3) How many good apps are FREE? (answer: very few. The free ones I have seen for education are mostly garbage.) So, you lost access to all those FREE online Flash resources, and now you have to go pay $5 per app to get the same functionality.

      horrible....
  3. LOSPINOS 1 year Ago  
    Let me tell you a funny thing that happened to me when I was finishing my reading from a tablet of this article and in the mobile edition of the blog. At the end of it I read a message asking me to change to a desktop computer to post a comment. Of course, I did not because Chrome for android let you to simulate one. So if you are reading this comment is that an associate professor that use a tablet in its day to day work at the University of Oviedo was able to use it for most of everything with a pretty expensive tablet (Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1) Not every tablet I used before had a pen and quad cores, maybe such a nice piece of technollogy really let me say as a first time these kind of tablets will be a killer app in education ( and unfortunately for Samsung I have not the same feelings for other of their technollogies :))

    Ps unfortunately for a non native speaker, the spell-checker doesn't work yet on desktop simulations ..
  4. Matthew Gudenius 1 year Ago  
    What do I think?

    I think:

    a) People are not doing due diligence, they are simply jumping on a bandwagon, WITHOUT doing needs assessments, exploring alternatives, or

    b) We are doing a serious disservice to students, because colleges and employers still expect them to know how to use ACTUAL computers. Most colleges recommend laptop Mac or Windows computers -- many SPECIFICALLY tell students not to use tablets. There are ZERO job listings on Monster.com have "iPad" or "tablet" or "smartphone" as a skill in lieu of computer proficiency (there are listings for the above, but they are for developers/programmers, which means applicants have to know how to use an actual laptop or desktop computer.) According to NetMarketShare.com, only 10% of devices out there are mobile devices. Only 1.5% are iPads, and there are even fewer percentage of other brands of tablets.

    You can learn more about the many limitations and problems with iPads (and tablets in general) at my website, EdTechExpert.com
    1. Win8(RT) on ARM tablets:
      - no regular Win7 programs
      - few .Net programs with bad performance (if MS port .Net Runtime to ARM )
      - no windows games such as skyrim, crysis etc...
      - old Tegra 3 SoC
      - something new very expensive 500 or 600 with keyboard
      - occupies 16 gigabytes of hard drive of 32 gigabytes

      Win8 on x86 tablets
      - regular Win7 programs with no touch optimized UI on a tiny screen...
      - Very Expensive 899 or 999 with keyboard ( simple model )
      - real bad battery life ( 4 hours )
      - Surface Pro ( 900 grams ) IPAD and ANDROIDs ( 600 grams )
      - windows heavier than IOS and ANDROID
      - virus from all sides
    2. I'd have to disagree with the "disservice to students". I'm sure that they will still know how and experience "ACTUAL" computers. A lot of the systems on these new tablets are similar to regular computers. For example, the microsoft surface runs basically like a pc or laptop...if a school gets funding and provides them with a tablet, they will learn how to use technology in an educational manner and of course they'll play around with it as well, but they'll learn how to navigate their way through a device...essentially learning nonetheless..as for college, i'm sure colleges are going to change their opinions as tablets become more prominent...and I would hope that students have learned enough to realize they won't make it through college using a small hand held tablet...i think you may be a little too pessimistic..whatever students learn on the tablet can be replicated somewhat on a pc or laptop...educating them of the various technologies is pushing them in the right direction for the future..
      1. Microsoft surface runs that way because it is running Windows so, yes, it's not "similar" to Windows operating system... it IS Windows.

        The big fallacy is teachers saying "I'm sure they will experience actual computers"... how are you so sure, if you aren't doing it in your classroom? As teachers, if we want the kids to know something, WE are the ones who have to expose them to it and teach it to them.

        It is a HUGE mistake by older folks (I'm going to go out on a limb and guess you are over 40) to assume that kids are "digital natives" and will thus "automatically know" technology and how to use it correctly. What if they don't have a computer at home? What if their parents are ignorant and buy them an iPad instead? What if they DO have a computer, but nobody at home knows how to use it well enough to teach the kid?

        What I am seeing in my classroom are:

        a) Students who now think technology is for entertainment, not for anything else.
        b) Students who know how to go on YouTube and iTunes, or illegally download music and movies... but don't have a clue how to save or copy files, create and organize file structures (folders, etc.), or how to properly format a typed document (they can't even center a title or indent correctly. Many don't even know how to use spacebar the right way.)
        c) Students who can't type to save their lives.

        These are skills that colleges and employers want -- and EXPECT -- people to know. (don't believe me? Type "college computer skills" in Google and check some of the top links.)

        WE ARE DOING A DISSERVICE TO OUR STUDENTS.
  5. Stephanie Ng 1 year Ago  
    I'm a high school student in Canada and I'm using a Tablet PC (. My school uses OneNote for homework and notes, and Outlook for e-mail. My Spanish textbook is online. Basically, everything except tests and some textbooks is digital. My PC can swivel around and fold into a tablet, and it comes with a pen. It's especially useful for art projects and note taking.
    1. The PC model is Fujitsu Lifebook T371
  6. AliOmar 1 year Ago  
    Tablet could replace books for education short term but eventually Affordable Ultrathin Ultrabooks will replace both, simply productive
  7. James D. Dunn 1 year Ago  
    Invading is such a negative word. I think, if used properly, tablets can be a great benefit to the students.
    1. I fully concur. Without some schools taking a leap of faith, we'll never have the necessary data to know what works and what doesn't. The ideal computing device will be a result of years of successes and failures. I applaud the schools who are becoming early adopters.

      Matthew Gudenius's comment brings up a good point that there are not skills listed on monster.com. That said, 5-10 years before the web took off, there were not job listings for HTML and Javascript developers. Funny how things change. My 2 and 4 year old daughters who use my iPad to watch Netflix, color, draw, match, etc. will know an entirely different reality when they are in high school and college.