Taking the Right Tablet

After an initial slow adoption, the growth of tablet computing in just a few short years has been near meteoric. Tablet computers undoubtedly have a place in education, but as Nik Tuson, managing director, Avantis explains, before deploying any solution, careful consideration must be given to the use, content, manageability and security of both the devices and the students.

LernPad-Angle_secondaryBased on its iOS mobile operating system (OS), it was the launch of the Apple iPad in April 2010 that caused a fundamental effect on ‘tablet computing’. However, in 2011, the first generation of tablet computers produced by industry leading hardware manufacturers including Samsung, Motorola, Lenovo, Toshiba, Acer and Asus began to appear. These devices utilised Google’s mobile OS, Android. Several other tablet devices were launched based on proprietary OS, including Research In Motion’s Blackberry Playbook and HPs TouchPad.

Following on from the earlier traditional tablet PCs, several hardware devices were launched that ran Microsoft Windows 7 OS. These have struggled to gain market share against the iPad and Android tablets, but the launch of Windows 8, due later this year, will attempt to address this.

Understanding the needs
Before schools look at any tablet device, there should be a clear and fundamental understanding of exactly what their needs are. Fully understanding how tablet computers could be used in an educational institution, is essential. Some of the most important considerations are noted below.

As all good ICT heads know, learning should never be technology led. Teachers teach, technology assists. With this in mind, it is clear that there are a number of advantages to using this type of technology with students, one of which is the additional engagement that the touch interaction with the content brings. Additionally, tablet technology offers a change to the traditional use of ICT such as fixed computers or laptops. Lightweight with a long battery life, they offer possibilities not previously seen with other ‘mobile’ computing solutions such as use on field trips, in workshops or physical education lessons, offering opportunities for research, evidence gathering and presentation.

Integration with your current ICT infrastructure
Schools have made significant investment over the years on a broad range of ICT provisions which leads to a number of important questions including; Will they support our current eLearning content & activities? Can we access our existing network resources? Will they work with our other ICT devices, and how will we control individual user access?

Deploying any number of devices will raise another range of questions, including:
How will we secure the devices and maintain their integrity? How will we manage and monitor these devices remotely? How will we deploy new content and applications to them? How will we provide access to students existing work?

Deploying a large number of tablet devices, just as computers and laptops, requires a system to manage, maintain and control them. Without such a solution, tablet devices could create an even bigger burden on ICT provision in schools than existing resources.

Total cost of ownership
Despite having a lower price point than laptops, tablet devices are still expensive but it is when you consider all the necessary add ons that you arrive at the true cost. For example, what happens when these devices break or are damaged and can only proprietary content be used? When we bring in these additional costs, especially the potential of having to buy new learning content, the cost starts to escalate.

It is fair to say that the majority of tablets have been designed for consumer based application and thus have close integration with social networking applications. The legal age limit for accessing Facebook is 13 years and therefore schools must consider how they will monitor and control such usage. There are a number of key legal implications including access to content which must be thoroughly researched before any deployment is considered.

The fact that typical deployment of tablets in schools is not yet 1:1 presents another consideration. Inevitably each device will be ‘shared’ as will its content, applications and resources. Finding a way to allow multiple students to access individualised content on shared devices has to be addressed.

Deploying and managing
Once devices have been purchased their deployment, monitoring and management requires careful planning and consideration. Some of the key considerations are noted below.

Mobile connectivity
With the portability of tablet devices, there is an increased need for mobile connectivity. Providing wireless connectivity for a greater number of more portable devices across a wider geographical area, when most school’s wireless networks were designed to support a small number of devices, is a completely different consideration. Added to this is the question of the necessary bandwidth to support mobile access to media rich internet websites and content. Can the fixed network structure support this? Should we consider ‘on-device’ content deployments so this infrastructure is less impacted?

Schools’ duty of care brings in other issues. Ranging from content filtering and anti-virus software, to restricted desktop access and student profiling; mobile tablet devices do require such consideration and management.

Content and application management
With tablet devices and the emergence of ‘app stores’ introduces a new method of sourcing and delivering applications and content. Again, these stores have been designed for the consumer market and as such do not allow schools to use traditional methods of purchasing and licensing and teachers must consider whether the content is aligned to the teaching curriculum. Furthermore, without specific content and application management and deployment solutions, delivering new content to multiple devices can be problematic and time consuming. Ensuring that devices can be updated and new content deployed en-mass requires critical reflection.

Considering the options
There are a range of different tablet based devices available, each with assorted benefits and limitations. Understanding each device, its key features, and how it can be used within the school environment will assist a school with its choice of tablet computer deployments. So let’s look at the options.

Apple iPad
This device has created a massive demand for tablet computing and has seen early adoption by schools, due mainly to the intuitive interface and the range of new applications. Key advantages include the high quality, easy of use, a large range of applications, a reliable OS and good battery life and performance. Its
main limitations are that it is proprietary, single source hardware with a lack of support for existing content, connectivity and network resources. Limited configurability, means it is difficult to secure and costly to manage and provision content on multiple devices.

Android Tablets
Based on Google’s open source OS, many top manufactures including Samsung, Motorola, Lenovo, Toshiba, Acer and Asus have released high quality tablet computers running the Android OS. The key advantages are that there are multiple hardware manufacturers and varied price points. They support Adobe Flash content and external USB devices. There is also a greater level of support for network resource and connectivity. The flexible OS allows customisation and easier management and control. Its main limitations are its proprietary content is more limited and market applications are not curated.

LearnPad
This device has been designed specifically for schools to provide a high quality, safe and secure tablet computer to allow students to access existing eLearning content as well as other school network resources. LearnPad takes full advantage of the new generation of ‘apps’ and content being developed for mobile devices. Central monitoring and control was a fundamental aspect of design. The key advantages include that fact that it was developed on Google’s Android OS ensures the most cost effective and flexible platform, as well as being available on a number of different hardware vendor devices, thus providing schools with a choice. It features an integrated secure web browser, with an ‘on-device’ white-list of approved websites. Teachers can create interface profiles for individual students, year groups or even subject areas. Once created, profiles can be applied either at the device itself, via QR codes shown to the built in camera, or deployed to a group of LearnPads via the management portal.

LearnPad is designed to make ICT heads’ job easier with a content updater service, which calls into the management portal on a regular schedule to look for new content, applications and profiles. In addition, LearnPad comes pre-installed with a range of eLearning activities and applications, all aligned to the teaching curriculum. These activities can be added to via the online activity store.

Windows Tablets
To date these devices do not offer the same level of ‘touch’ interaction that is achievable on other tablet devices which has led to poor adoption. However, with Windows 8 due in late 2012, Microsoft hopes to provide a more compelling tablet device that may offer schools better integration into their network environment. The key advantages are their closer integration with existing network infrastructure and greater support for existing content. There are multiple hardware vendors with good external device support. The main limitations are that they are more expensive than other solutions, with a more system intensive OS. Many existing applications are not suited to the tablet format or may not run on specific hardware.

Looking to the future

Nik Tuson, the

Author - Nik Tuson

Tablet technology will evolve far faster than we have seen with previous technology. We will see new applications, new hardware, lower costs and ultimately new uses of this highly adaptive and intuitive technology. From simple replacement of printed material, to the engaging and interactive world of new applications, change will come rapidly and with it we may well be able to finally realise the ‘one device per child’ scenario, bridging the digital divide forever.

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