Thursday, 23 June 2011

What is an iPad? Consumer delight, or education folly?

I pose the question simply because some people seem confused, especially in the education sector, not because I don’t know the answer. To me, an iPad is a large screen smartphone that isn’t even that smart, not least because it can’t make phone calls. Of course, that doesn’t make an iPad any less desirable. Anyone who has ever used one, or even handled one, immediately wants one. It is as seductive and appealing as any gadget on the market. That doesn’t necessarily qualify it as the personal device of choice for learners in the classroom. The trouble is, because we don’t agree what an iPad actually is, we don’t agree on whether we should go out and buy lots of them for use in schools.

With Netbooks it is easy. If you spend most of your time on the web, and only want to do fairly low level tasks with installed software, then a Netbook represents fantastic value for money. It is cheaper than a laptop, it lasts longer, the battery life is better and it is lighter and easier to carry around than conventional laptops. Importantly, it will run all the web-enabled content out there that any other computer will do. It will handle authentication, printing, and through a wide range of browser plugins will provide access to any feature-rich content going, be it using Flash, Java or Silverlight.

Therein lies the rub. Browser plugins. Apple has decreed that Safari on the iPad cannot be modified, so that means no plugins. Instead, the feature-rich content that would normally be displayed seamlessly on any other computer will only be available on an iPad if the content owner produces an iPad App which can then be downloaded from the iTunes Store. Apple itself then becomes the gatekeeper for all of this content.

Netbook users can browse the web, downloading plugins as they go, and view everything out there from the whole of the internet, in their browser. On an iPad it is very different. Content that would normally require a plugin will be invisible in the iPad’s browser, and instead the user has to switch to a downloaded App. So, to get the same sort of coverage, you would have to install a great many Apps – one for every site that needed it. This is very different to what we are used to. Once you have downloaded a particular plugin for, say, Firefox, you then have access to all of the websites that use the technology requiring that plugin. That is, one plugin gives access to a lot of content. With an iPad App, you just get access to the one website.

Once all the web sites have converted their content to HTML 5, it won’t be a problem. Apple has committed to its Safari browser not only being up there with the rest, but ahead of the pack. However, this day is a long way off. It would take a lot of investment to convert educational content to move away from, for example, Flash, at a time when spending on ICT in education generally is being squeezed more than at any time since the 1980s. I have read many reports of professional users getting around the lack of Java by using Citrix or remote desktop connections, effectively accessing the feature-rich content by using another computer somewhere else via the iPad as a thin client device. The infrastructure required to do this is expensive, and likely to be beyond the reach of many education users.

I am reminded of the days before the Internet when we had an icon on our desktop for each chunk of content we wanted, and there were no relationships between them. On an iPad you have an icon for each chunk of content, the only difference now being that it is delivered from the Internet rather than from a CD or local hard disk. I can’t help feeling we are sliding backwards.

On the plus side, the iPad is extremely desirable. The multi-touch screen is a delight to use – zooming in and out, for example with a flick of the fingers. Although some might say you only need to use this because the screen is small to start with, even though it is bigger than many of its Android based rivals.

The main issue for educators, it seems to me, is to be absolutely sure that an iPad does what you need it to do. As a general purpose web browsing device it has many limitations. It’s no use buying a class set and then everyone needs to access content that won’t work. In a walled-garden of Internet web sites, you can control the user experience. You only set users loose among web sites that work properly. For another set of web sites, you make sure they all have the correct installed Apps. Personally, I wouldn’t want to restrict users in that way. I am more worried about users only being able to view what an App exists for, rather than what is freely available to users of conventional, or should I say, proper computers. And just how does a teacher manage the Apps on a class set?

Compared to Netbooks, the iPad is certainly not cheap. A triumph of style over function carries a heavy price premium. Why is it then, that people want to pay more to be able to do less? Apple themselves are honest about the iPad being complementary to your main computing device. We should therefore think very carefully before making it a pupil’s main device.

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Thursday, 9 June 2011

Interactive Whiteboards: the Right Technology used in the Wrong Way

My long standing enthusiasm for wireless slates has often been confused with an out and out rejection of Interactive Whiteboards (IWBs). This isn't the case. My objection to IWBs has always been that they have been installed as whole class teaching and learning aids in place of large display screens and other methods of providing interactivity. By combining the display function with the input function you end up with a compromise and therefore not the most suitable display, and not the most suitable input device. The display is not big enough, or high up enough for good visibility to the whole of the display area from the back of a classroom, and you have to come to the front and obliterate the view for some of the class for some of the time in order to utilise the touch-sensitive surface. So as a tool for use with a typical class of 30 learners in a typical size classroom (around 56 square metres or less) it is sub-optimal.

However, in a different teaching and learning environment, with much smaller groups of pupils, I am a keen advocate of IWB technology, especially now that the hardware manufacturers have cracked multi-touch, such as with the Smart SB800. In conjunction with a short throw projector, I have seen some fantastic collaborations between learners around a board, whether this be with gifted or talented youngsters, or those with special needs. Software is key to this, of course, but the ability for learners to model, to control simulations, to try things out together is motivating, captivating and exciting. It is not just vertical boards, but table top versions too, that can offer hours of fun learning. And why shouldn't learning be fun?

The real challenge now though, in these belt-tightening times, is whether the comparatively high cost of these systems makes them unaffordable. Can schools justify the cost in relation to the improved outputs, that is, higher attainment? I suspect they will. For example, I am currently working with four schools seeking to install interactive touch-panel screens in Nursery classrooms, for small groups of children.

So I do believe that IWBs are excellent, albeit quite expensive, tools for teaching and learning. It is their place at the front of a classroom for interactive whole class teaching that I dispair over.

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Sunday, 5 June 2011

Infotech - a snapshot of the world of computing in 1988

Back in 1988 I published a book of photocopy masters for use in secondary schools called 'Infotech'. I still have a copy, so I decided to scan the pages and create a PDF version. The idea of the book was to give a comprehensive view of the ways computers were impacting on the world, with an introduction to as many applications as possible, from farming to air travel, and from medicine to war. What I find fascinating looking back is that all of this was before the Internet. It is easy to forget how things were done in those days. I've made the publication available here as an historical curiosity, to show just how far we have come in such as short time. I find it amusing that at the time I thought it was important to devote a whole page to the humble mouse! Notable omissions, apart from the Internet, were mobile and wireless technologies. Click on the cover image to download and view the PDF file. The file is only suitable for on-screen viewing, to keep the size down.

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