Practical Tablets

Let’s assume that we have a tablet device or a mobile device that we want to roll out to students. Maybe it’s an iPad. It’s probably not an iPad, because I really like things like USB connectivity and an app structure that makes free apps practical. I also think, despite Apple’s posturing, that Adobe Flash isn’t going away anytime soon. It might be an Android device. That’s probably a more likely scenario at this point. The Archos 101 tablet is a good start. If they can fix some of the fundamental flaws with that device (like not enough memory), it could be a contender. Maybe I don’t have the form factor right. It could conceivably be a smaller device, more akin to a phone or an iPod touch, or one of those 7″ tablet devices.

This device — whatever it is — has to be deployed in a 1:1 environment. From what I’ve seen of netbooks, tablets, and mobile devices, these things just don’t work in a multi-user environment. The old model where you have a cart full of laptops that you wheel around the school, or computers that kids can sign out and use, or labs where multiple people use the same computer aren’t going to work. Instead, every kid gets a device. They keep it for the whole school term. Nobody else uses it. That’s the model I’m looking at.

The devices that are on the market now are fabulous content consumption devices. In general, they do really well with web browsing. They have usable e-readers, and they really could be used to replace textbooks (assuming we have content for them). The email clients work well. The personal organization tools — like calendars and to-do lists — are great. They do things like Twitter and Plurk and Facebook reasonably well. You can usually watch video on them with decent results. I’d love to see a decent graphing calculator, but other than that, they’re pretty good.

The place where they fall down is on creation. It’s still hard to compose text without an add-on device, even despite the bigger keyboards on the tablets. Speech-to-text really isn’t there, still. The cameras work, but organizing the photos and doing digital storytelling are difficult. Video editing is next to impossible. I know there are tools like StoryRobe available, and I’ll admit I haven’t used them. But I still think there’s a long way to go before the creation tools come anywhere close to a “real” computer.

This is important, because every person I’ve talked to who works in a 1:1 environment stresses the creation of content. While we may look to these devices as information resources before we make the leap, almost everyone who is currently working in this kind of environment says that the real power comes from what the students can create with them. How can they use the device to make something new that shows evidence of their learning?

Maybe that’s a matter of application development. Maybe we need to look at it in a different way. I don’t think there are any dealbreakers — any reasons why this can’t be done with a tablet device. It’s just going to take some time and some innovation and some motivation for the tools to catch up.

Management of the devices, though, is a problem. I’ve heard the stories of schools trying to deploy iPads or iPod Touches. Usually, the stories involve syncing a few devices to a single iTunes account, the use of iTunes gift cards, and other crazy procedures to get the right content on all of the devices. Plus, that brings up some legal issues as well as technology ones. Just because I can sync five devices, does that mean I only have to buy one copy of an app to be able to use it on all of them? Probably not. But there’s also probably not a way to buy five copies of an app with a single iTunes account. And, there’s no way to have any kind of site license or volume purchase.

What if we did this in another way? Consider Microsoft’s system for Windows Updates. I hear you. Everyone hates Windows Update. They hate the idea that their computers need updates to begin with, and they hate the fact that Windows interrupts them to install the updates. But hear me out. Microsoft has the ability for enterprises, like schools, to set up Windows Update Servers. In our district, all of the computers are configured to get their updates from a single server located within the district. Every day, at a time that we specify, each computer checks for updates against this server. This gives us a lot of flexibility. If Microsoft releases a patch that we don’t need, or that breaks something, we can choose not to approve it. We regularly delay major updates like service packs or Internet Explorer upgrades. Plus, each patch is only downloaded once from Microsoft — by the update server — saving quite a bit of bandwidth.

What if we had this sort of thing for mobile devices? Android regularly checks for system and application updates. I’m assuming that iOS devices do, as well. The ability must exist to change where they get these updates. After all, my Evo checks for system updates from Sprint,  not from Google. So let’s say I have this server. Each device checks in every day. It identifies itself. It probably has some sort of authentication method. Then, it says, “hey, do you have any updates for me?” The server sends the updates to the device. Maybe there are additional apps that need to be installed. Maybe there are apps that have to be removed. We could use the same system to push (or expire) content.

I could envision a system where, on the first day of the semester, each new Economics student gets the Econ textbook pushed to their device. On the last day of the semester, the same system rescinds the license for the book, reclaiming the license to be re-allocated to another student.  Maybe the teachers also have the ability to push content to their students, though I’m guessing we would probably use something like Moodle to do this instead.

This system could also be used to site-license applications. They could be made available within the district to our devices without allowing the wider world to install them.

How can we do this? I’m guessing that it’s more practical on Android than on iOS. Is there software out there that can be used to create my own internal marketplace? I know the software is out there — there are lots of Android markets. But is there an open source solution that schools can use to try to build something like this?

Photo Credit: Moster300 on Flickr.

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3 comments

  1. John,

    When you have answers to these questions, please share them with the world! This would make 1:1 more practical and useful. The one point I see lacking is pricing, what can districts realistically afford to pay for these devices?

  2. Price is an important consideration. I paid about $350 US for the Archos 101, and that’s the price range I’m targeting. If we were do do this in any kind of 1:1 program, I would expect the manufacturer and/or reseller to work with us on a volume purchase, possibly getting down to the $300 range. I should also point out that I’m talking about wifi-only tablets. Paying $30 per month per device for Internet access is untenable.

    If we were to get into iPad range (or, worse, a Motorola Xoom), I think we’d be better off going with a full notebook computer. We could get a 12″ Core 2 laptop with 2 GB of RAM, 160 GB hard disk, and 3 year warranty for less than $500 in the off-lease market.

  3. John,

    Have you seen the great things going on in Special Education with the iPad though? Can you see this with other tablets as well? Are they as easy to use? Have the same capabilities? Would they be open to looking at the market of special education as Apple is now doing?

    Check out our class blog @ http://staff.bbhcsd.org/kolism and click on “iPads in Education” for to follow our journey with only two iPads. :)

    AND… we are currently ordering one as a communication device for a student with autism.

    I couldn’t be more excited…

    Just another quick read for you on “1:1″- http://specialeducationtech.com/special-education-tech-news/what-do-you-mean-by-one-to-one/

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