Back-to-school lists once included erasers, loose-leaf paper, and pencils, but today’s students may also be asked to purchase or borrow sophisticated digital electronics. How will this affect future designs for personal computing?
When I bought my first iPad a couple of years ago, I got schooled on how to use it by an unlikely teacher: my friend Liz’s two-year-old son. Alex was a whiz at opening up apps, playing games on the tablet, “reading” books, and, unfortunately for Liz, downloading costly apps. (She has since taught him to recognize the word FREE and warned him he can only download an app if he sees that word. Crisis — and credit card bills — averted.)
I was amazed at how Alex’s fingers flew across the touchscreen with such ease, mostly because I come from that generation – the last that didn’t receive classroom lessons on computer use – that started first grade with pencils, notebooks, and the Dewey Decimal system and graduated from college with a word processor. The exciting world of Apple computers, voicemail, and email (and the learning curve that came with it) came a few years into my first job out of college, and we all scrambled to catch up to the technology.
Today, it’s no surprise that public school systems, universities, and educational organizations around the world are introducing tablets into the classroom. It made me ponder how all this might change current tablet designs and move the technology forward, possibly at an even faster pace.
The scope of educational projects employing tablets makes it clear that this is no passing fad: Northwestern University students in introductory Chinese classes are using iPads to look up word definitions, hear the pronunciation of native speakers, and practice writing characters via finger strokes on the device; Samsung’s Smart School pilot program is rolling out in primary schools in Kenya; Amrita University students and faculty have been using a $35 tablet called Aakash to develop UI-based content for tablets that integrates their assessment process with e-learning environments; and at Stanford University, medical students are using tablets to take notes and present information to patients in a clinical setting.
Still, a tablet in the hands of a mature, responsible medical student is quite different from a fourth-grader throwing one into a backpack every day. Knowing what an iPad costs, it seems like an expensive experiment to me.
I was surprised when I read one school system, just down the road from where I live in North Carolina, had signed an agreement with Amplify to lease and distribute the company’s tablets (designed specifically for primary educational purposes) to all middle school students in the district.
Amplify is built on the foundation of Wireless Generation, the pioneer that brought mobile assessments and instructional analytics to schools across America. To date, Amplify has supported digital learning for more than 200,000 educators and three million students in all 50 US states. The Amplify tablet was conceived as a more durable solution that allowed children access to their learning tools even at home.
“Many schools experimenting with tablet solutions are collecting tablets each night and placing them into sync carts, where they are wiped and reimaged,” said Josh Hartmann, Amplify’s CTO. “At Amplify, we know kids learn 24/7, so the tablet ought to be with them 24/7. We’ve developed a Mobile Device Management (MDM) solution that allows districts to manage policy continuously, ensuring the devices are protected and have the right software and curricular content at all times. And we offer a solution with built-in 4G LTE cellular data, so kids can keep learning whether they’re at home, at school, or anywhere in between.”
Amplify’s system allows teachers to use a simple drag-and-drop interface called “Playlist Builder” to develop educational playlists filled with digital content from their own collections, preloaded tablet content, or the Web and share them with students. The playlists are flexible so that teachers can direct content to the entire class, specific smaller groups, or individual students for personalized instruction.
“A proper deployment of a 1:1 tablet solution is a big investment, and we want to make sure districts feel their investment is safe,” said Hartmann. The tablets can be remotely locked and secured at all times and sensitive student data is encrypted. Student data can be wiped instantly from the administrative console that Amplify provides to the district.
“Even if the tablet is lost and factory-reset, it remains under the control of Amplify — we can remotely track and locate the device, and it can’t be resold as a consumer device,” said Hartmann.
The 10-inch Android device has a camera and sound recorder, allows students to read books and magazines, and offers a number of applications that teach software skills that students will use in classrooms and beyond.
It’s clear that the widespread use of tablets in schools will drive product development that emphasizes security, reliability, and durability, as well as require designs that don’t become outdated in a few months, to make the investments worthwhile for school districts. This is exemplified by the Amplify tablet distribution in my neck of the woods. It didn’t go quite as planned.
Guilford County Schools in North Carolina won a $30 million grant from the US Department of Education in December as one of 16 national Race to the Top winners. (Race to the Top is a grant competition focused on improving early learning and development programs for young children by supporting states’ efforts to design and implement an integrated system of high-quality early learning programs and services.)
With its grant money, GCS chose Amplify to supply 17,000 students in 24 middle schools with tablets over the next three years.
While students, parents, and teachers were excited when the initiative was announced last year, things have not worked out as planned. A malfunctioning charger triggered the decision in mid-October to suspend the use of the tablets, a setback for the district’s experiment in digital learning.
“We recognize that suspending the program on short notice is going to be disruptive to students, staff, and parents,” Superintendent Maurice Green said, and apologized for the inconvenience. “My decision was made out of an abundance of caution, and I decided to err on the side of safety.”
Green said a charger overheated and partially melted while in use at a student’s home. He made his decision to remove the tablets from the classrooms because of the potential safety threat and because the melting charger was the latest in a series of issues with the tablets that included broken screens on about 1,500 tablets and additional complaints of approximately 175 broken or damaged chargers, school officials said.
That’s not to say Amplify isn’t onto a winning idea. “The Amplify Tablet helps make personalization possible. It provides immediate feedback to the student and to the teacher, who can then make timely decisions about working with individuals and groups,” according to Carlo Rotella in The New York Times Magazine.
The fact is, tablet designs need to be increasingly durable if they are to find a home (away from home) in classrooms. These delicate devices need to be hardy enough to withstand daily transport in a backpack, milk spills at lunchtime, and drops during regular recess play — and still pack the computing power that can support educational applications but won’t be outdated within months. We’ll probably also see new sales channels pop up for tablets and other digital tools, making the lease-and-return system the standard.
Technology has a place in the classroom, especially if we want to remain a technology leader into the future. It’s not enough to give kids games; today’s kids are learning how to integrate technology into learning as well as playing. But first we need to be realistic about the way kids play and develop devices that are durable, safe, and capable to opening young minds to the world.