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.

Share this article on Twitter


James said...

Well thought commentary.