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Tablet Computers in Education
Tablet Computers in Education
Understanding the needs of students and schools, what solutions are available, what advantages and disadvantages they have and what you should consider before deploying tablets within a school.

Early Tablet Computers

Tablet computing has been around for many years and has come in a number of guises, from PDA's and handheld devices to touchscreen laptops, Tablet PC's, Slates and most recently 'Post-PC' Tablets. Early tablet computers were predominantly versions of existing hardware and operating systems adapted to recognise an additional input device, usually a stylus or 'pen' or simply a physical touch or press. In early 2002 Microsoft released Windows XP Tablet edition, supporting a new generation of laptops that had touch sensitive screens that could rotate and flatten against the body of the laptop. This created a surface that could be use for direct input and often supported new functionality such as handwriting recognition. However, they failed to gain widespread acceptance and traditional laptops and PCs remained the primary computing device of choice.

Post PC Tablets

The launch of the Apple iPad in 2010 had a fundamental effect on 'tablet computing'. There was a widespread adoption of the device and from this a new generation of 'Post PC' tablet computers began to appear. Fundamentally, tablet computing had taken a new form, based on the growing popularity of 'Smartphones' and the functionality that these devices, and in turn their operating systems, provided. In essence, the tablet computers emerging were larger, more functional versions of the smartphones that preceded them.

Leading the field through 2010 and 2011 was Apple's iPad, based on its iOS mobile operating system. However, in 2011, the first generation of tablets computers produced by industry leading hardware manufacturer including Samsung, Motorola, Lenovo, Toshiba, Acer and Asus began to appear. These devices utilised Google's mobile operating system, Android. Several other tablet devices were launched based on proprietary operating systems, including Research In Motions Blackberry Playbook and HPs TouchPad.

Following on from the earlier traditional Tablet PCs, several hardware devices were launched that ran Microsoft Windows 7 OS. These have struggled to gain market share against the iPad and Android tablets, but the launch of Windows 8, due in late 2012, will attempt to address this.
Understanding the Needs

Before you look at any tablets device, there should be a clear and fundamental understanding of exactly what the needs are. Why do we need tablet computers? What purpose and function will they fulfil? How will the technology be used and managed? How will these devices fit into our existing ICT resources and at what cost? Considering all of these questions and more, and fully understanding how tablet computers could be used in an educational institution, is essential. Some of the most important considerations are noted below.

How will this Technology Help Enhance Learning?

    Learning should never be technology led. Teachers teach, technology assists.

This is an important statement, and one that is often forgotten. Focus should be placed on how the technology can be used to aid learning. There are a number of advantages to using this type of technology with students, one of which is the additional engagement that the touch interaction with the content brings. There is a clear educational advantage to be gained from better engagement, including increased stimulation, decreased 'time to learn' and enhanced knowledge retention. Additionally, tablet technology offers a change to the traditional use of ICT such as fixed computers or Laptops, allowing for additional usage scenarios and inclusion in learning activities not previously associated with ICT.
How will they be Used?

Tablet computers provide a unique opportunity to create a truly portable learning experience. Lightweight with a long battery life, they offer possibilities not previously seen with other 'mobile' computing solutions. This lends itself to better use of technology within teaching. For example, quick access to reference material during a lesson, previously difficult to achieve with existing ICT, can bring key advantages and enhance learning. Using tablets in less typical scenarios, such as field trips, workshops or physical education lessons offers opportunities for research, evidence gathering and presentation. Brining devices such as these into the classroom and everyday life for students is in itself a learning experience. Couple this with the resources a tablet computer can deliver, such as text and reference books, audio and video resources, internet research, document preparation and review, and specific eLearning applications and activities and you have a truly versatile learning tool.

How will they Integrate with our Current ICT Resources?

Tablet devices may have a different operating system to solutions currently in place in schools. This leads to many important questions such as:

    Will they support our current eLearning content & activities?
    Can we access our existing network resources?
    Will they work with our other ICT devices?
    How will we control individual user access and usage?

Fully understanding how this new technology will fit with existing infrastructure and resources is a key consideration. A school will have made significant investment over the years on ICT provisions and eLearning resources, so ensuring a devices compatibility with these is critical. Online or localised resources such as Learning Platforms, testing and assessment activities and a vast range of eLearning content is likely to already be in place, so this should be given serious consideration.

Will they Simplfy ICT Provision for Students?

Tablet computers offer some major advantages and hold the potential to simplify ICT provision within schools. However, deploying any number of devices will raise a number of questions, including:

    How will we secure the devices and maintain their integrity?
    How will we manage and monitor these devices remotely?
    How will we deploy new content and applications to them?
    How will we provide access to students existing work?

Understanding any device limitations, such as connectivity, content, accessibility or security is vital. Deploying a large number of tablet devices, just as computers and laptops, requires a system to manage, maintain and control them. Without such a solution, tablet devices could create an even bigger burden on ICT provision in schools than existing resources.

What is the Total Cost of Ownership?

The question of Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) is often ignored. Tablets devices can be expensive items themselves, but what about the cost of managing and maintaining them? What happens when these devices break or are damaged? With some devices, only proprietary content can be used, so what is the overall cost of adding new activities should they not support existing content? There may of course be positive results in implementing tablet devices. As they are primarily battery powered, the potential running costs to schools could be lower.

What Social and Legal Implications are there?

Many of these devices are primarily consumer based solutions, and thus have close integration with social networking applications that may not be appropriate for use in schools. How can this be monitored and controlled? Also, access to applications stores and marketplaces have legal restrICTions, forbidding children under a certain age to access them. How will this be policed by the schools? How can the school ensure it is maintaining alignment to licensing restrICTions on applications and content? There are a number of key legal implications which should be thoroughly research before any deployment is considered.

How can Tablets be Provisioned for Multiple Students?

Currently tablet devices are primarily focused in the consumer space, with each device being 'owned' by an individual user. This approach makes it difficult to provision devices for use by multiple students of differing abilities. Typical deployments of tablets in schools are not yet 1:1, thus there is a need for each device to be 'shared'. This leads to complications when provisioning content, applications and resources. Finding a way to allow multiple students to access individualised content on shared devices should be an important consideration.

Tablet computers hold the potential to change the way in which eLearning resources are delivered and consumed by students. Their versatility and flexibility are unrivalled, and tablet deployments are set to grow fast and in large numbers. However, technology should adapt to teaching needs, not the other way around. It is critical to ensure that bringing any new technology into the educational environment improves the provision of ICT resources, fits with the teaching needs of the faculty and students and, more importantly, has specific learning benefits.
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