Hey! We're getting iPads! Isn't that great?!?!?

iPads (and the Android and Windows tablets that will eventually follow) may very well be the 1:1 devices of choice for schools. That is, if schools can figure out what to do with them.

My youngest son's elementary school recently received a grant that allowed them to make several purchases, including 10 iPads. Kids and teachers alike were understandably excited and many shared their excitement with me, both as the former technology director for the school district and as the resident geek dad in the school.

Although it's a great step forward in a small, rural school that has struggled with technology implementations, I had to work pretty hard to hide my reservations and skepticism from them. Instead, I shared a few caveats with the people who would actually be trying to work them into the curriculum.

Don't get me wrong. Regular readers know that I'm a Mac user for a lot of reasons and even some of ZDNet's staunchest ABM (Anything But Mac) writers have found joy in the iPad. It's a really impressive first-generation device at a price that isn't too bad by Apple standards (especially after academic discounts).

But...

  • What will you do with just 10 of them in a school of 150 students and class sizes of 25-30?
  • What will you do with them? Period. What Apps? What content?
  • Does everyone understand that these run Apps and not regular applications (aside from a web browser)? There shall be no Lexia or Reader Rabbit here.
  • How will content be purchased? Who will manage content on them?
  • How will you protect them? This is a school that has destroyed several convertible Classmate tablets, designed for use in harsh conditions in developing countries.
  • How will these fit into the curriculum? What are your goals?
  • How will they be regularly charged and synced?

Truth be told, while the iPad has been a huge consumer success, it remains firmly in the early adopter category in education. Consumers haven't even completely figured out how the iPad fits into their smartphone-tablet-netbook-laptop-desktop-Kindle ecosystems, despite buying them by the millions. Schools are still wrestling with Draconian Internet use policies and outdated attitudes on cell phones, let alone being able to embrace a relatively new class of device.

I don't want to rain on anyone's parade. On the contrary, it's great to see teachers excited about technology in the classroom and inspired to engage their students in new ways. I want nothing more than for these 10 iPads to usher in new attitudes towards technology and a new paradigm of collaboration and sharing among teachers working together to establish best practices with these new devices.

Most of us know that 1:1 is where we need to head (if we aren't already there). The recent results from the Project Red study make it clear that half-hearted (whether because of budget constraints or because of stakeholder disengagement) attempts at 1:1 are essentially a waste of money. The iPad, however, if we can answer all of those questions above, as well as all of the curricular questions that go with any 1:1 rollout, stands to become the 1:1 device of choice in schools. Relatively inexpensive, light, portable, optimized for consuming content but reasonable for creating it, and the beneficiary of a huge app ecosystem, the iPad (and its successors) could do for 1:1 what the Apple IIe did for classroom computing.

Perhaps it will be those cheap Android tablets we keep hearing about that just never seem to materialize (I actually still believe that they will, but I'm no longer holding my breath...my extremities were turning blue). Maybe HP will give us some cheap Windows or WebOS slates. Whatever. Given the potential pricepoints, portability, and affinity of most sub-25-year-olds for touch interfaces, tablets are most likely going to dominate 1:1 this decade.

That being said, those tablets, regardless of manufacturer, will be no more transformative or useful to students and teachers than the netbooks, laptops, desktops, or chalk slates that came before them if we don't get our heads around great learning models that exploit their power.

Will our students be doing virtual dissections on them or will we just be trying to figure out how to pay for Apps? Will we be managing a handful of scarce resources in which students have no investment or will we be coming up with innovative ways to fund true 1:1? A lot of people are asking iPad-specific as well as general 1:1 questions. The answers are neither easy, nor are they even complete in many cases, but they are vitally important, whether to our little school in the woods of Massachusetts or a struggling urban school system looking to make a technology-driven turnaround.

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