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The Hi-Tech Classroom

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This post was originally featured on The Soapbox on October 20, 2012.

With increasing frequency these days, children have their own laptops, smartphones, and now, tablets. Not only are these items useful for personal use, they are now becoming staples of the modern classroom.

When I was in high school, I took notes (assuming I took notes) in a notebook. In undergrad, I sometimes brought my laptop along to type things on. In grad school, a laptop in class is basically a necessity. But now high schools, colleges (and even sometimes primary schools) are encouraging their students to get tablets such as the iPad (most commonly) or the Kindle Fire to serve as a learning tool in the classroom.

A new iPad 3 costs at least $499. Looking to save money with the older version? Be prepared to pony up $399. The Kindle Fire HD looks like a relative steal in comparison, but it still starts at $199 ($299 for the 8.9” model). For parents of kids in public school who are feeling a lot of financial pressure from the recession, or college students who are already dreading the burden of student loans, these seem like pure luxury purchases that simply aren’t worth it right now. Let’s look at this in context.

Most people use their laptops to check e-mail, browse the web, and process text documents. In fact, these three basic uses of computers are so integral that an entire market of netbooks sprung up to allow people to do just that (and not much else) on the cheap. Netbooks are typically small, light, and lack many bells and whistles, but they also tend to cost less than or around $300. That sounds like a pretty good price for a computer, right? So why should we balk at similar prices for a tablet?

While many people think of tablets as a way to play Angry Birds in HD, that’s really only a small part of the truth. The fact is that while tablets may not run full Mac OS or Windows operating systems, they have their own OSes and apps that provide all of the basic functionality that, say, a netbook might. Additionally, tablets are about as portable as they come, sporting slim designs and light weights.

“Ok, stop trying to sell me a tablet. What’s the actual point of this article?”

Touché. While many parents might be getting upset that their kids need yet another gadget, a tablet actually has the potential to save students money both in the short- and long-term. I just typed in “biology textbook” into Amazon, and this was the first result. A roughly $70 savings on just one book between the regular hardcover and the Kindle edition.

It’s savings like these why schools are encouraging—and in some cases, effectively mandating—tablets in the classroom. The Kindle app is available on iOS, Android, and of course is native on the entire Kindle line, so any tablet by a major manufacturer should be able to get the job done.

So, then, why are most schools insisting on iPads specifically? Well for one thing, back in the day Apple used to build a ton of partnerships with academic institutions to get their computers in schools at relatively cheap costs. Think of the high school you went to. Assuming you’re not so old that your school didn’t have computers (not that there’s anything wrong with that!), it was likely that they were Macs. It’s possible that administrators are just used to using Apple products at school, and are continuing to stick with that (which was Apple’s whole plan in the first place).

An even better reason, though, is that Android is just an operating system, while the iPad is a single configuration of software and hardware. That means that setup and troubleshooting for all iPads would be the same. This is in stark contrast to the deluge of different Android products that are out there, each with their own slightly different configurations and different quirks. And with each frequently coming with a different version of the base Android OS, it can be a headache making sure that apps are compatible. Classroom time is meant to be spent learning the material, not studying the user’s manual of your new gadget—classroom efficiency may be the biggest selling point for why iPads are highly recommended.

Also, Apple holds a significant portion of the market share: more than the rest of the other manufacturers combined, in fact. As a result, it may make sense for schools to simply encourage use of the product that the most families are already likely to have. This may be why iPads win out over Kindles in classrooms, too. While I personally think that the Kindle makes more sense in a class setting (the focus is on reading books first, and other distractions second), it may be unrealistic to expect families that already have invested in one tablet to get another.

Tablets are a good value at their price, but what about families that can’t afford them at all?

This, to me, is the central point of those resisting the move to tablets overtaking textbooks, especially in primary public schools. Students at these schools come from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, and many families simply don’t have $200-$500 of disposable income to spend on a new device. Furthermore, in public schools books should be made available to students to use for the length of the class and then returned. While having an iPad/e-Reader might be nice for convenience, it should not be considered a necessity.

Plus, with textbook rentals a very realistic alternative to purchasing books outright—honestly, how many books did you continue to use after your class was over—that cost advantage between kindle purchases and physical book purchases may become moot. Many students also prefer being able to physically highlight important points and scribble notes in the margins (even though most readers now offer highlighting functions).

To me, I think that it may be a little early to start mandating tablets in classrooms. While there are some definite advantages to having them, there are drawbacks as well. Technology should be used to open new doorways and provide options to people. Oftentimes, it seems that in education, freedom is curtailed in the interest of uniformity. That would be a mistake. I think that the current technology is still too young to fully replace the value that physical books have in classrooms and at home. Thus, while allowing them in class would be a progressive move, mandating them would be a step in the wrong direction.

What’s your take? Do you think all students should be required to have an iPad/Kindle/Android tablet? Do you have one yourself?

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