Enter the iPad (or not?)
Apple’s new tablet computer has earned raves for its design, portability, and dynamic apps, but is it any better than the netbooks and laptops now fueling school computing programs? Depends who you ask.
- By John K. Waters
Few computing devices have sparked the burning gizmo lust ignited by the iPad. Apple’s latest entry into the tablet PC market didn’t generate much heat when it was first unveiled in January, but by April 3, the day of the official release, feverish customers were mobbing Apple stores. The company claims to have sold 300,000 iPads by midnight on that first day, and that more than a million apps and 250,000 e-books were downloaded to those devices. Apple says it delivered more than 500,000 iPads before the end of the first week. Demand in the US has been so great that the company postponed its European launch.
Mixed in with this nationwide hot-tech-toy fervor is the cooler consideration of the iPad as an educational tool. This device and the competing PCs set to follow it into the marketplace represent a new student-computing platform that K-12 school districts have already begun to explore in pilot programs.
It’s still early, but as educators begin weighing the pros and cons of the iPad, predictions that the device would make a three-way race out of what had been a head-to-head competition between netbooks and laptops for the increasingly discriminating wallets of K-12 are proving to be premature. It’s beginning to seem that schools are more likely to be determining how this touchable form factor complements, instead of displaces, other keyboard-bound devices in their overall student-computing strategy.
Filling a Niche
The tablet computer isn’t really new, of course. Bill Gates introduced Microsoft’s Windows Tablet PC Edition software at the annual Comdex technology trade show in Las Vegas nine years ago. Most of the leading laptop manufacturers have been offering devices designed to allow users to write on a screen with a stylus for years.
Gates predicted that the tablet wouldbecome the most popular PC type within five years of his Vegas announcement.But the tablet devices developed in the ensuing years, with their rotatable, evenremovable touchscreens, were expensive and never managed to fulfill Gates’ expectation. Few have found much success beyond niche markets.
But Apple got so many things right with the iPad that the device effectively redefines the category. It’s fair to say that it’s the first of a new generation, though it certainly won’t be the last. Next-gen competitors have already been released, and more are coming (see “Top 5 iPad Challengers,” page 44).
Tale of the Tape: How do the iPad, netbook, and laptop measure up?
Tale of the Tape: How do the iPad, netbook, and laptop measure up? Click here to see a comparison.
More importantly, unlike its predecessors, the iPad was born into a thriving software ecosystem, established largely by its smaller touchscreen siblings: the iPod Touch and the iPhone. About 1,000 new iPad-specific apps were available in the App Store on the day of the device’s launch, and software developers have been rushing to add more ever since. It’s the volume and vibrancy of these tools that is pulling in K-12 users.
“The apps that are coming out for the iPad are so innovative and different from what we’ve seen,” says Julie Bohnenkamp, director of technology for Center Grove Community School Corporation in Greenwood, IN, which is launching an iPad pilot program this year. “And they’re so easily accessible once they’re downloaded. They’re just there for the students.”
Center Grove, a district that serves more than 7,500 students in one high school, one middle school, and six elementary schools, is starting with 15 iPads this summer in a pilot program with English as a New Language (ENL) students. The plan is to launch a larger program in the fall.
“That group of students provides a small target audience,” Bohnenkamp says, “which allows us to analyze effectiveness and develop best practices. And it’s also the perfect tool for that particular group, because we can easily customize the iPad to the different languages our students come to us with. And we can enable accessibility features that turn text to speech.”
Center Grove is starting out with free downloadable applications such as Tao TranslateIt, originally created for the iPhone but adapted to the iPad. It provides one-click translations of text from one language to another. Another free appBohnenkamp favors is Notes ’n’ More, which allows students (and teachers) to use their iPads to generate to-do lists, notes, voice memos, pictures, and videos, and then collect the disparate file types into folders.
But as fond as she is of the iPad, Bohnenkamp, who also works with a netbook and a laptop, recognizes its limitations and doesn’t expect it to drive full-featured computers from the schools, but rather to augment them.
“The iPad is a wonderful device, but it can’t do everything,” she says. “I’ll pick the iPad every time for portability, research, and small projects. But when I want to work on a large project, I’ll choose a laptop over the iPad, at least in its current configuration. Students are going to need access to both.”
Likewise, Ted Brodheim, CIO of the New York City Department of Education, sees iPads and other tablet PCs sharing the computing load in his schools, not taking it all on. “Netbooks and laptops continue to have a role in our environment,” Brodheim says. “The release of the iPad fills a gap rather than replaces particular classes of devices.”
New York City provides its students with a range of devices, depending on the need. “Rather than outfit every student with a device that can be used for every possible situation,” Brodheim explains, “we provide a variety of devices that can be chosen for a specific purpose.”
Content creation, for example, is done on higher-end desktops and laptops; collaboration and research are performed on midrange desktops and laptops; browsing and editing are jobs for netbooks; and consuming media and providing “simple responses” call for interactive whiteboards and tablets. Brodheim sees the iPad fitting primarily into that latter niche as a content consumer.
“These types of devices provide a very cost-effective way to deliver digital content and tap interactive software and websites,” Brodheim says, “which engages studentsin learning.”
That’s precisely the vision Lisa Hogan, technology integrator for Maine SchoolAdministrative District 75 in Topsham, ME, has of the iPad’s role in K-12. She views it as “a fabulous consumer tool, versus a creation/production tool.
“Currently one of our elementary schools is building web pages of book reviews,” Hogan says. “These student reviews—film, text, animation—are intended to get kids excited about reading and sharing books. The kids are using Macbooks to produce the reviews, but the librarian is thinking of ordering two iPads for students to use to watch the online book reviews or to read online books. I can envision three or four kids with an iPad in the corner of the library, watching student-created book reviews and then heading off to the shelves to find the books.”
Windows vs. Mac
District 75’s elementary school teachers and secondary students all use Macbooks, which makes iPads a more natural, even automatic fit. But in Windows environments like the School District of the Chathams in New Jersey, they’re a tougher sell.
“For schools and districts already on the Mac platform, it’s a much easier decision to go with an iPad,” says John Abdelmalak, the Chathams’ director of technology. “But I have to say that for districts running Windows, that’s probably not the case.”
The Chathams serves 3,700 students in three lower (K-3) elementary schools, one upper (4-5) elementary school, one middle school, and one high school. In January, the district equipped two classrooms in its upper elementary school with six Dell Latitude 2100 educational netbooks apiece, and has since been approved to populate all of its K-3 classrooms with an additional 354 of the Dells in the fall.
“We weren’t interested in the iPad, because we wanted devices that would allow us to leverage our existing software, which is Windows-based,” Abdelmalak says. “We’ve invested a lot of money in the Windows platform, and we wanted devices that would run the software we’ve already paid for.”
Abdelmalak says that the netbooks have been a big hit in his district, and even a Windows-based tablet PC probably won’t impact his district’s netbook initiative.
“The feedback on the netbooks has been amazing,” he says. “The students and teachers love them. Now all the other teachers want them. The devices have touchscreens, which the students love, so they’re getting some of that tablet functionality. We have Smart Boards in nearly all of our rooms, and we have the Smart Board software on their netbooks. They use the touchscreen and have their own little Smart Boards. This will be hard to beat.”
Hard, but not impossible, he adds. “We’re always looking for better solutions. If a really great Windows-based tablet comes on the market, we’ll look at it, for sure. But for now, our netbook strategy is really working for us.”
The Dell Latitude 2100s have made a convert out of Shawn Nutting, director of technology and buildings and facilities at Trussville City Schools in Trussville, AL, who admits to growing up in a Mac-only household. Nutting is delighted with the netbooks.
Top 5 iPad Challengers
Julie Bohnenkamp, director of technology for Center Grove Community School Corporation in Greenwood, IN, which will pilot an iPad program this summer, concedes that tablet PCs running other operating systems could perform as well as an iPad, but she doubts that the new devices will be able to match the app ecosystem the iPad was born into. Until that happens she’ll stay on the Apple side of the fence.
“It’s not just the hardware, which is gorgeous,” Bohnenkamp says. “It’s all these apps that are coming with all this interactivity and resources. Will the libraries of apps for these other devices be as extensive? They would have to be to make a change worthwhile.”
We’ll know soon, as manufacturers of competing tablets are gunning for the iPad. Here are five of the most formidable challengers.
Fusion Garage Joojoo (thejoojoo.com): Formerly known as the CrunchPad, the device runs the Ubuntu Linux operating system and features a 12.1-inch multitouch display. It comes with a built-in still/video camera and support for Adobe Flash and Java apps, and includes both WiFi and Bluetooth. The apps are all web-based, so you have to be online to run them. Priced at $499 for 4-GB models. Began shipping in late March.
HP Slate/Hurricane (hp.com): HP generated a lot of prerelease buzz with its Windows 7-based Slate. The company debuted the device in March with few details, but after the arrival of the iPad, HP seemed to back away from it. Then, in late April, HP acquired Palm, and talk was that the company would develop a new tablet based on WebOS, the operating system behind Palm’s line of smartphones. Reportedly dubbed “Hurricane,” the device could hit the market as soon as the third quarter of this year, but HP isn’t saying.
Dell Mini 5 (dell.com): Dell is tight-lipped about the due date (expect June), but word is that the Mini 5 will run on Google’s Android operating system and come with multitouch displays and the ability to make phone calls (3G). Code-named “Streak,” it reportedly will be offered in 7- and 10-inch models. A built-in camera is also expected, as are voice-recognition software, WiFi and Bluetooth capabilities, and some Amazon book, video, and music software. No pricing has been announced.
Lenovo IdeaPad U1 (lenovo.com): A hybrid notebook billed as two devices in one. It looks like a standard notebook computer, but the multitouch screen detaches from the keyboard to become a 3G tablet. In notebook mode the U1 runs Windows 7; as a tablet it runs its own Skylight Linux. It comes with an 11.6-inch display, WiFi, a webcam, and a media card reader, and weighs in at 3.8 pounds with the screen and keyboard attached, 1.6 pounds as a tablet. The unofficial but often-cited price is $999. Expect a summer release.
Microsoft Courier (microsoft.com): Microsoft’s long-promised tablet is now set for an early 2011 release. It is expected to come with a folding dual screen that’s pen- and touch-controlled and will probably run the same operating system that powers Microsoft’s Zune HD media player and Windows Phone 7 Series. Handwriting-recognition software will be included. No pricing at this time.
“Nine-hour battery life!” he says. “Now we’re getting to something that’s viable for classroom use, because you don’t have to keep recharging it.”
Trussville has no plans to make iPads part of the district’s official inventory of supported machines, but Nutting acknowledges that several teachers and a few students are using them. “The iPad is just now showing up at our schools,” he says, “and we allow students and teachers to have them. But Apple does not play well with our network management and security software.”
Nutting does see tablets having a rolein schools, but not for text-intensive projects. “I see plenty of applications and value for schools in the iPad,” he says, “but would I want to sit down and write my thousand-word English paper on one? I think I’d scream. Of course, I’m not a digital native who can text at 80 words a minute, so who knows.”
He isn’t so enthralled by the price, either. Nutting says iPads are just too expensive for many budget-strapped K-12 districts. Currently, the basic iPad with no WiFi and only 16 GB of storage retails for $499; the Dell Latitude 2100 netbooks for the education market are available for as little as $329.
Plus, Nutting points out that the App Store model isn’t as transformative as some are saying. “The apps from the App Store are very cool,” he says, “and there are thousands of them. But a Windows-based netbook can run millions of applications.”
That earns a shrug from Bohnenkamp, who argues that students don’t need millions of apps. But they do need an engaging computing environment, and if there’s one distinguishing feature that could give schools a reason to choose iPads over netbooks, it’s that the device, with its gleaming touchscreen, is a wonder to look at and use. That blessed wow factor, the thought goes, could turn students on to doing their schoolwork.
“The iPad vs. netbook debate is still going on in my head,” Bohnenkamp says. “I’m still weighing the pros and cons. And it’s true that the netbooks can look just as good or better on paper, but the [iPad’s] computing experience is different. It’s better. And I think it might make a difference in student engagement. That’s what we’re going to find out.”
iPad vs. Netbooks
Apple CEO Steve Jobs probably deserves most of the credit for firing up the iPad vs. netbook debate. During the iPad launch event in January, he let go with this broadside: “Netbooks aren’t better than anything. They’re just cheap laptops.”
Is that so?
The iPad isn’t Apple’s first tablet. Remember the ill-fated, pen-computing-based Newton MessagePad? It was introduced in August 1993 and discontinued only seven months later.
Their attractive prices notwithstanding, netbooks do represent a compromise that has drawn some criticism. The keyboards are cramped, the screens are small, and their performance lags. On the other hand, they tend to have great battery life and weigh just a couple of pounds.
“I’ve been a big netbook proponent in the past, but the iPad has changed some of my thinking about them,” says Kathy Schrock, director of technology at Nauset Public Schools in Orleans, MA. “Having had three different models of netbooks over the past few years, I’ve seen both the pros—size, battery life, and cost—and the cons—size, processor, and video capabilities—and realize that the portability, power, and hundreds of apps available for the iPad can easily replace the netbook in schools. It can also move technology use to the next level by providing a simple-to-use, long-battery-life, instant-on-instant-off device that provides access to information, online tools, and much more.”
But Schrock also feels that iPads won’t be able to cut it on their own in K-12 classrooms. They will work only in environments that also include access to robust desktop or laptop machines, she says.
“Do students need a full laptop or desktop with a scanner, midi keyboard, FireWire port, camcorders, digital camera, video and audio production software, and a large monitor all the time?” Schrock asks. “I don’t believe they do. But as schools look to the iPad or other tablets as viable 1-to-1 options, they must remember to populate the school with pods of the powerful tools students will need for their final productions.”
Elizabeth Knittle, technology integration specialist at the Barnstable Public SchoolDistrict in Hyannis, MA, says that she was never a fan of the netbook for personal use, but she argues that it’s a great classroomdevice and that the iPad doesn’t really surpass it in performing the basics.
“Netbooks are very good if you want to do research and use basic productivity applications,” she says. “But if you want to create rich media content, you need to move to a desktop or laptop. I think you could say the same thing about an iPad.”
And yet, Barnstable is currently awaiting the arrival of 10 iPads. Knittle says they are an alternative that the district doesn’t want to ignore. “We want to determine if they have a place in our classrooms,” she says. “And that’s something you can’t really decide until you try them out.”
The district plans to work with students and teachers to test-drive the iPad’s educational applications and e-books, and explore the ways the device might be used in classrooms. Knittle says the district is especially interested in how it might work in special education environments. But she makes sure to add that if tablets are adopted by the district, they will only be part of the tech mix.
“We already use iPods and netbook carts and full laptop carts,” she says. “Each serves a different purpose. This is really about finding the right tool for the right job.”
This article originally appeared in the June / July 2010 issue of THE Journal.