Friday, March 25, 2011

Tablet time?

So, the latest technology fad and the apple of everyone's eye right now (pun intended), is tablets, specifically the iPad.

The explosion of the popularity of the iPad, has been something that I've been watching very closely over the last year. The undeniable "cool factor" and the iPad being seen as a status symbol for administrators and teachers alike make it impossible to ignore. Apple is also very shrewdly marketing it directly to education administrators, bypassing more traditional IT processes.

Like many educational technology leaders, I have a number of concerns and am skeptical of a tablet's true utility and value as a general educational and productivity tool. However, I think there are some valid uses and applications for a tablet, including for principals to use as a tool in recording and tracking evaluations. I have been working with one of our principals to recreate the observation tools from the Dana Center in an online Google Form that can be used to easily record observations on the fly using a touch device. Our initial attempts using an Android phone were unsuccessful because of the small size of the screen, but a tablet definitely looks feasible. I also know that there are a number of specialized applications for some students with special needs that are truly powerful.

My overall concerns reflect a number of factors, some being related to the relative infancy of the iOS and Android platforms, and these may be resolved in the near future as this market matures. Here are some of my thoughts and the topics that I'm discussing with my administrators as we think about the best solutions for us...

Consumption vs. creation

Tablets are great for consuming information (checking email, browsing the web, watching video, reading, and playing games), but not necessarily the most efficient tool for creating content. The latest iOS and Android devices do support video capture and editing right on the tablet, so that does offer some unique content creation functionality to consider. You can certainly do some light typing with the on-screen keyboard, but more involved text entry and editing is cumbersome without the use of a mouse or an add-on keyboard. You can carry an add-on dock or bluetooth keyboard, but that seems to reduce the portability of the device. At that point, wouldn't a netbook or small notebook be a more practical choice?

Single user devices

In their current state, iOS and Android tablets are primarily single user devices. This makes total sense because they were initially conceived and sold as consumer devices. If you've configured a tablet to access your email, calendar and social networking accounts, there is no simple way to logout or protect these accounts before handing the tablet to someone else. All your data and information are exposed to anyone who uses the tablet. This will work OK for a 1:1 type of deployment, but not well at all if the thought is to share the devices. Until there exists a true way to implement multiple user account support on the devices, I don't see them being very useful for shared use, unlike more traditional laptops and desktops. Maybe the HP webOS devices will implement something like this when they are released? Interestingly enough, I have been using a Google Chrome OS notebook and the way it implements multiple users using Google accounts would be an interesting and compelling solution  Unfortunately, Chrome OS is not a tablet OS, at least at this point.

Centralized management

Centralized management of the tablets is another thing to really take a hard look at. We use Altiris and Group Policy to very efficiently create standardized configurations of our current laptops and desktops, deliver software applications over the network, and manage policies. It will be very difficult to effectively and efficiently manage the new tablets without this type of functionality. I know that there are some solutions emerging, but I need to find out a lot more about them, their capabilities, and their cost. Again, maybe HP will offer this as part of webOS? I can also imagine Google integrating this type of functionality into Android and Google Apps in the future.

Purchasing content and apps

The purchasing of apps and content for tablets definitely poses some challenges for an organization. Do we provide iTunes or Amazon cards to users? Do we have "official" school and district app store accounts? How do we handle personal purchases? Who is responsible for the backup and transfer of personal purchases when the device is re-deployed to another user? What are the licensing models of apps across multiple devices?

Are our networks up to it?

The impact of a number of tablet devices on our school networks is a key concern. Since these devices are wireless devices, wireless networks need to be ready to handle the increased number of clients, as well as bandwidth and traffic. A colleague has anecdotally shared that his iPad has been a bandwidth hog on his school's wireless network. We should obviously investigate this in much more detail and get hard data, but it's something to consider. As we implement better wireless security and management using 802.1x and/or RADIUS, how well do iOS and Android devices support these security protocols? Do we need to look at bandwidth shaping and QOS on the networks and at what cost?

Is this the best way to expend funds?

I'm concerned about the public and political perception of spending funds on these devices during tough fiscal times. It's absolutely essential to stay on top of emerging technological trends, but we have to balance that against increasing budgetary pressures. This is obviously a collaborative discussion that needs to happen within each district, but it's something to keep in mind.

Cool vs. effective

Lastly, I'm always trying to walk the line between tools that are cool and have a big "wow" factor, versus what really has a positive impact on teaching and learning. This doesn't necessarily have to be mutually exclusive. There is no doubt in my mind that there are some valid education applications and uses of these new tablet devices and more will develop over time. However, I think that administrators, teachers and technology folks need to avoid the temptation to adopt the latest and greatest technology out of hand without thoughtful discussions about how it will be used and what support and professional development are necessary to make sure that there is a positive return on investment in terms of student and teacher performance.

I'm cautiously optimistic and I think we will start testing out some tablets in the near future. Our initial foray will probably lean towards Android since we are already using Google Apps, but I won't rule out Apple iOS if it turns out to be the best solution for our needs. I'm also intrigued with the idea of HP webOS if it integrates well with our current infrastructure, but they have a lot of catching up to do. Windows 8 is far away, but may also turn out to be a good long term solution. The next few years could be a lot of fun ;)

I would love to hear other perspectives and possible approaches, so feel free to add comments.