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February 1, 2013
Vol. 70
No. 5

Power Up! / The Tablet Takeover

Love it or hate it, tablet computer use in your school will grow. This is a pretty safe prediction given tablet adoption throughout U.S. society.
One in five Americans now owns a tablet device—a number that doubled during the 2011 holiday season<FOOTNOTE><NO>1</NO>Rainie, L. (2012, January 23). Tablet and e-book reader ownership nearly double over the holiday gift-giving period. Retrieved from Pew Internet and American Life Project at http://libraries.pewinternet.org/2012/01/23/tablet-and-e-book-reader-ownership-nearly-double-over-the-holiday-gift-giving-period</FOOTNOTE> and may have just doubled again by the time you read this. Despite the iPad being in existence for fewer than three years, more than 84 million have been sold<FOOTNOTE><NO>2</NO>Apple Computer Company Statistics. (2012, September 22). Retrieved from Statistic Brain at www.statisticbrain.com/apple-computer-company-statistics</FOOTNOTE>; and 1.5 million of those are currently being used in classrooms.<FOOTNOTE><NO>3</NO>Graduating with technology. (2012, August 17). Retrieved from LearnStuff at www.learnstuff.com/graduating-with-technology</FOOTNOTE> Google has its own tablet, the Nexus, and Microsoft has jumped back into selling hardware with its new tablet, the Surface. High-end e-book readers like the Nook Color and Kindle Fire have tabletlike capabilities.
If you have children or grandchildren, you may have witnessed firsthand how even very young children rapidly adopt these clever touch-screen devices with seemingly no instruction needed.

Not Just for Consumption

When the iPad was first released, I viewed it primarily as a media consumption tool—good for watching video, listening to music, and reading websites, e-books, and magazines, but for little else. For those of us who see teaching as helping students become knowledge producers, effective communicators, and creative problem-solvers, a device devoted solely to information and entertainment consumption seemed a pale substitute for the powerful desktop and laptop computers already being used in schools.
Happily, my concern has turned out to be unfounded. Nearly all tablet devices on the market (as well as most smartphones) have multiple uses. I categorize them as the four Cs.

Consumption

Tablets are great devices for reading, viewing, and listening. Apps for reading proprietary e-books from Barnes and Noble and Amazon are available, as are reader apps not tied to specific vendors for reading generic e-book file types, such as EPUB. YouTube, Netflix, Amazon, and Apple all provide means of viewing streaming video content. Music, audiobooks, and podcasts can be stored and played on tablets. And of course, browsers specially developed for smaller screens allow access to nearly all web content. (At this writing, accessing Flash-based website content is possible but problematic on many tablets.) With more than 50,000 free lectures, videos, and books already available, tablets may very well threaten traditional print textbook publishers' hegemony over the curriculum.

Competition

Tablets are great gaming machines. Their built-in accelerometers, magnetometers, and gyroscopes allow screen objects to respond to tilting the entire device, not just to flicks and taps. Purely recreational games number in the thousands, and makers of educational games are rapidly developing tablet versions of their products (Oregon Trail, anyone?) as well as new products that take advantage of the tablet's touch-screen capabilities. For example, the app Intro to Math uses digital "blocks" on the touch screen to teach preschoolers math fundamentals.

Communication

E-mail, texting, live chatting, and video and audio conferencing are all possible with tablets. Unlike the immobile desktop computer or often-bulky laptop, the tablet can be used for communication when the user is standing or sitting, anywhere in the school. No computer lab spaces required.
Tablets are especially useful as adaptive/adoptive communication devices—tools that help special needs learners communicate. For example, Proloquo2Go is an augmentative and alternative communication app that allows students who cannot speak to tap icons on a screen that generate speech. At $189, this app sounds expensive, until one considers that it replaces similar dedicated devices that cost about $7,000.

Creation

The old standby use of computer technology, word processing, can be done on a tablet. Onscreen or external Bluetooth keyboards make text input possible (if a little difficult for those of us who grew up as touch typists). Handwriting recognition software, which enables the computer to receive and interpret handwritten input, works well.
The microphone allows audio note taking, and the speech-to-text conversion is amazing. The camera that faces away from the screen enables the user to take both still images and digital videos. Simple editing programs on the tablet help students and teachers create video, enhance photographs, and create podcasts.

One More C

The "Swiss army knife" character of tablets certainly helps explain their popularity with educators. But I would add another C that makes them especially useful in schools: Convenience. Tablets are small, are portable, and have long battery lives. Relying primarily on icon-driven menus, they are very easy to use, even for young children and the most technophobic adults.

A Wise Investment

Yes, these little devices can be the very devil to manage in a school system because they are designed primarily for individual use, not institutional use. And a good tablet can easily run $500, close to the cost of an inexpensive laptop computer. Although many applications are free, some of the better ones must be purchased.
But tablet computers are a great investment. Once a classroom has tablets, it no longer needs discrete interactive whiteboards, stand-alone still or video digital cameras, student response systems, document cameras, graphing calculators, or global positioning systems. One can see the handwriting on the wall for computer labs full of desktop computers. True, students who need to do lots of keyboarding, high-end video editing, or computer programming and coding will sometimes need access to more powerful computers. But for most students, and for many teachers, the tablet will do the job.
Are we selling kids short by offering them a Swiss army knife approach to educational technology? Not in my opinion. Trading a few high-powered, inaccessible, seldom-used devices for ubiquitous, convenient, easy-to-use, multifunction devices is a no-brainer. Go for access. Welcome tablets into your school.

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