Product Focus | Feature

The Tablets Are Coming

Today’s next-generation tablets are small and light, they’re relatively inexpensive, they have a long battery life, and, with exponential growth in applications, they can do just about anything. Schools may want to get ready now, because if the technology is, as the experts predict, in its infancy, there’s a tablet explosion on the horizon.

Michael Gartenberg, a technology adviser for Gartner, points out that tablet technology has been in the works for years, but it was really Apple that created the mass market for them. "The iPad has sort of set the standard for other devices," he says. Many other manufacturers--Samsung, Motorola, Toshiba, Lenovo, and Acer, to name a few--have joined the tablet fray, most based on the Android platform.

Apple and All the Rest
The availability of applications is the main distinguishing factor in the burgeoning market, says Gartenberg: "Most tablets have a pretty good form factor, a pretty good battery life, so it really comes down to, are the applications there? Is the ecosystem there with support for things like accessories and content?" Apple has led the field in terms of app development, now boasting 140,000 apps for the iPad. It’s essentially Apple and all the rest, Gartenberg says, and "the rest"--other tablet manufacturers--have invested heavily in Android app development in order to compete.

Xoom tablet manufacturer Motorola has focused on making sure it "has the right partner ecosystem to attack the market," notes Sheldon Hebert, the company’s senior director of enterprise business. "We’re working with the textbook companies so that you can leverage textbooks online instead of having to buy a book with your tablet as well. And we’re making sure we’re leading the foray when it comes to cloud-based applications," Hebert says, adding that this includes enabling students to work with Google Docs to publish a document and share it with their peers for editing.

For its part, Samsung sponsors awards and contests to encourage Android app development and has partners that focus specifically on educational apps, says David Lowe, vice president of enterprise sales at Samsung. "In the K-12 market, it’s more about the interesting and innovative learning applications. It’s about finding ways to connect with the kids and deliver information that’s going to be engaging."

Lowe points out that one area where tablets can be effective is in working with disabled kids. "The tablet offers capabilities that never existed before, such as speech pathology for autistic children, or physically disabled children. The tablet offers opportunities that are nonthreatening and interactive and that manage to get autistic students to interact where they wouldn’t have before.

"People are constantly coming up with applications and use cases to completely transform the lives of those kids," Lowe adds.

Forming a Tablet Plan
With so many new options, and the tablet field changing so rapidly, schools are struggling to come up with a tablet plan. Joe Kurtz, director for K-12 education for CDW-G, helps school districts develop their technology strategies. He says schools are attracted to tablets for a number of reasons: They’re more affordable than laptops or desktop PCs, they’re customizable--"teachers can pull down applications that can help reinforce certain subjects or that can provide educational gains very quickly at a touch of a button"--and, because the tablets lie flat on the desks, teachers no longer contend with the wall that’s created when students open up their laptops.

How to pay for the devices is a big question, Kurtz says. Some schools use grants or special funding to incorporate tablets in targeted classes. Others leverage textbook budgets for tablets, opting for electronic versions of texts that are both cheaper and more easily updated. Still others replace older equipment with the less expensive tablets as part of a general IT upgrade.

Kurtz adds that many schools also consider a bring-your-own-device (BYOD) strategy to help allay the costs of a tablet program. This way, schools buy enough tablets to ensure that all the kids have access to the technology, but they don’t have to outfit the entire student body. 

"What we’ve seen is that a lot of districts are actually going out and surveying the parents to see what they have before they go down the BYOD road," Kurtz says. "They’re really trying to include the community and their constituents before they make that decision because platforms are always a hot topic."

Another benefit is that BYOD can mean "engaging students with something they’re already using," Kurtz points out.

Nonetheless, using a mix of student-owned and school-owned devices presents a few challenges. Schools have to make sure the devices students bring are secure and, despite efforts to coordinate with parents, getting all the students on the same tablet OS is easier said than done.

Supporting Tablet Use
One school that has gone the other route by requiring its students to all own the same device is Palmer Trinity School, a college prep school in Florida. According to Gus Sabogal, director of technology, the student body began transitioning from Lenovo laptops to Lenovo tablets in 2006.

Palmer Trinity prides itself on being innovative, Sabogal says, and tablets represented the cutting edge. The school "also wanted to find ways to save some paper printing," he adds. "We were printing documents constantly."

Within a year of introducing its tablet program, Palmer Trinity saw decreases in the costs of ink, paper, and printer repairs. At the same time, the school also discontinued its use of whiteboards. Now, "everything is done through wireless projectors on the screens with handwritten notes from the instructor," Sabogal says.

While students are required to buy their own tablets, Palmer Trinity supports their use in several ways. Sabogal’s department provides training for the teachers, so they can take advantage of new opportunities that tablets provide, and it provides training for the students on "how to handle the computers and how to deal with the damages," Sabogal says, "because they’re going to damage them. They’re going to drop them, they’re going to spill liquids, and they’re going to break them."

That’s why Palmer Trinity is a "self-maintainer" of the tablets, providing repairs and maintenance through the school.

Schools considering a tablet program have to ask themselves what they’re going to do when the machines break, Sabogal says. "Are you going to be sending units outside, are you going to hire a separate company for repairs, or are you going to be a self-maintainer program?"

"We’ve learned through experience that the parents don’t want to do repairs," he adds. "If it’s going to become a problem, then it’s not going to be effective."

Still, Sabogal notes that tablets have injected some excitement back into the use of technology in the classroom that had waned after several years of laptop-based instruction. He also points out that, while the curriculum has been developed to incorporate tablet use, students aren’t on them all day every day.

For now, choosing a tablet is largely about determining your school’s needs. Do you want to invest in one standard device for the entire campus, or rely on a BYOD scenario? Do you have specific applications that your students must access, and which platforms provide those? Will you need to provide technical support for your school’s tablet program, and do you have the wireless network to support it? How are you going to pay for the program? These questions, rather than cost or form, are likely to be the deciding factors when you choose a device. And sooner or later you’re going to have to ask them, because the tablets are coming.

Dell's Approach to Tablet Management

Although Dell recently discontinued its Android tablet Streak 7 in the United States, the company recently released the Latitude ST, a 10-inch Windows 7-based touch-screen tablet designed for users in a few select industries, including education. T.H.E. Journal recently spoke with Casey Wilson with the company's education product/solution team about managing multiple tablets across a school or district.

T.H.E. Journal: Are there managed accounts/institutional purchasing discounts that Dell offers for schools?

Wilson: Dell works with each school/account to understand specific needs and pull together an offering that makes the most sense and is competitive in the market.  We often do not provide a one-size fits all approach to discounts.

T.H.E. Journal: What are some of the ways schools can manage multiple tablets?

Wilson: There are numerous ways to centrally manage multiple devices deployed in a district. Many of these appliances/processes are dependent on the end-user/students/teachers device operating system. Dell tries to focus on being agnostic in nature with regards to providing management solutions for districts, as we understand that not every school district is going to go with the same devices and same operating systems.

We offer Mobile Device Management that can provide a single pane of glass for an IT administrator to manage student or teacher/faculty profiles on devices with mobile operating systems such as Android, Windows Mobile, or iOS. We also have a great, low-cost software appliance, the KACE Systems Management Appliance, that provides a single-pane of glass to manage Windows, Linux, or Mac OS X operating systems running on tablets, laptops, or servers. All of these solutions can make a large and wide deployment of notebook/tablet technology to students less burdensome for IT by giving them the tools to centrally deploy and manage applications and functionality so students can have the best technology experience.