iPads (and tablets) in K12 - When will we get it together?

An interview with John Martellaro over at the Mac Observer got me thinking...why can't we get this right?
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of talking with John Martellaro over at the Mac Observer. He had written an article a couple weeks ago about "The Real Reason Apple Wants a 7-inch iPad" which, in part, inspired my own post on the new Kindle Fire HD and its inability to change the game in education. My problem with tablets in education has, for the relatively short time tablets and e-readers have been floating around, always been one of ecosystem (or the lack thereof). John and I explored this and several other issues around the iPad specifically in education in the interview he published on Wednesday.

By the time we were done talking, he had titled the article "The State of the iPad in Education: a Giant Mess". Not a terribly flattering description, to be sure, but unfortunately fairly accurate. This isn't to say that there aren't educators and students doing awesome things with iPads. However, as long as we keep talking about textbooks (Audrey Watters is right - they're an anachronism of the first degree and Apple is first in line perpetuating this) and not talking about DRM, as long as we keep looking at tablets as glorified e-readers with mediocre apps focused on content consumption, then iPads (or any other tablet) won't be leading the charge in an education revolution.

When John and I discussed BYOD and iPad adoption, we discussed hidden costs that remain barriers to entry as well:

That $399 cost doesn't even begin to address the less obvious costs of appropriate content and device management systems, school bandwidth, teacher training/professional development, and network infrastructure required to fully leverage the hardware.

What we need are simple tools for curating and disseminating both original content and a wide variety of open and licensed content. We need teachers with the subject matter expertise to both create original materials that meet their students' needs and the resources to assemble outside materials and get them to their students. And in situations where textbooks still make sense, we need to intelligently license highly interactive materials with customizable and individualized supporting materials for students with widely varying abilities and learning styles.

Speaking of which, the real power of tablets will come when applications actively collect data on student progress and conceptual mastery, analyze strengths and weaknesses on the fly, assess learning styles as students work, and present content automatically that matches these data. It isn't going to come when Pearson digitizes all of its textbooks.

Many of the pieces are already in place. MentorMob, for example, has created a platform where it is remarkably easy to pull together disparate pieces of content in a very touch-friendly browser experience. Dell's next-generation education platform is getting at the individualized, data-driven education approach, but is still maturing. Apple has great tools for easily capturing and distributing podcasts. Google has wonderful collaborative tools in Google Apps, along with integrated device management. The list goes on.

But none of these have come together yet to make tablets in education really meaningful at scale. To be honest, I've seen more innovative use of tablets among home schoolers than I have in many schools where there are large-scale deployments.

I'll leave this with a final quote from my interview with John Martellaro:

...the relatively independent nature of study and research at the post-secondary level means that tablet devices are great tools for on-the-fly study and research. In K-12, though, our educational system is built (unfortunately) around standardized tests and proscribed curricula from publishers, states, and local decision-makers. If these curricula aren't available electronically or don't fit with student-centered computing models, then schools often can't justify the expense of tablets.

Finally, tablets remain devices largely focused on content consumption. K-12 schools are under pressure to have students create more content and participate more actively in education. There are outstanding tools for content creation on both iOS and Android, but many teachers are still struggling to incorporate digital art or mindmaps, for example, into classroom outcomes. While students intuitively use on-screen keyboards and a variety of apps to express themselves, this is uncharted territory for many teachers, again creating barriers to adoption.

Special thanks to John for taking the time to listen to me on my soapbox! You can follow him on Twitter.

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