Design Principles for Using Tablets in the Classroom

If you are in the field of education you have by now clearly seen the writing on the wall where tech bloggers (mostly not related to the education profession or field at all) cry out that the iPad powered education is a foregone conclusion. Isolated examples aside, the adoption is still a long way from being as ubiquitous as computers but all indications and the potential of the device show that it will eventually happen. There are several obstacles until we get there, but one of the important and less discussed issues involves the design of the tablets which currently are mainly aimed at the mass consumer market. Here are some aspects worth considering thinking about producing or (more likely in this case) buying tablets: what to look out for in tablets for education.

1. Durability

Tablets are shiny and thin. While that’s great in the consumer market where adults take care of the toys they paid with their good money, it may have disastrous consequences in the hands of kids of any age. This does not mean that technology for education has to be designed for a war zone but fragile items are not suitable for education. The iPad for instance has generally a solid design but the glass is fragile and an add on case is a must (which increases the cost of the tablet).

The damage from an impact is only one aspect of durability. Students usually carry heavy bags (the aim of the tablets is to reduce that load but that will take some adaptation from the industry). The pressure of heavy textbooks may cause significant damage. Also scratching is a major problem, and some tablet designs that are made to look glossy and shiny may incur damages beyond the cosmetics.

An ideal tablet will have three components for durability:

  • Back: solid strong metal that is scratch resistant (not necessarily shiny)
  • Edges: Durable plastic to cover for the impact of dropping the tablet on the side, especially where ports are would require more protection (imagine an iPad with iPhone bumper case).
  • Glass: Gorilla glass with protective shield (something like Zagg’s products). I think a cover like the Apple Smart Cover is an excellent idea as well and it really does clean the screen.

2. Display

While consumers may decide if this is worth the price for them in education the decision is clear: you MUST have high resolution displays for classroom use.

  • In-Plane Switching (IPS): Students often work in teams, which means that the device is being looked at from different angles. Many tablets already come with the IPS type of technology which allows for that but in educational contexts this is a must have.
  • High Resolution Display: The new iPad has been making the claim for the use of Retina Display. While consumers may decide if this is worth the price for them in education the decision is clear: you MUST have high resolution displays for classroom use. To understand this think of which area the display really helps: reading text. There is no need to say that reading is a major part of instructional work, and being able to easily see the smaller text is highly important.

3. Curated and Controlled App Experience

We need experts in their content areas to sit together with technology coordinators and bring a curated list of pps that make full use of the tablets affordances while providing pedagogically sound classroom experiences.

In normal circumstances I am a supporter of more open platforms such as Android but in educational settings the risk of unwanted material can have more potential harm to kids. It is therefore important to have an operating system that can maintain an ecosystem of applications and allow administrators to change system settings. Educational ecosystem means more than the apps themselves, they require administrative access to the way students experience the tablet platform. If you are not involved with the educational system you might think this is too much of a Big Brother idea, but in fact educational access to technology is heavily moderated as with many aspects of the lives of students. While this discussion is better left for another time, one could argue that the dangers of malicious apps is a place where protecting students through over administering might be a justified argument.

The only issue however is not controlling what comes in. We need experts in their content areas to sit together with technology coordinators and bring a curated list of pps that make full use of the tablets affordances while providing pedagogically sound classroom experiences. Especially in an environment where having a lot of apps in the app store is considered a mark of success curation becomes more and more important. Most apps designed for education do not receive feedback or any contribution from educators so this is a need that the education professionals need to fill.

4. Ports and Connections

So far the tablets are designed to function by themselves and most of the connections are an afterthought. However tablets need to be able to connect to other devices in different ways. Some examples include:

  • Projection: This is a major part of all classrooms right now and being able to show the content of the teacher’s or student’s tablet is an important need. This is currently possible with many tablets but Apple requires an additional dongle to connect which increases the costs [ A sidenote here: if in fact you begin to consider all the costs that go into making iPads truly classroom ready you need to include a case, camera and monitor/projector dongles, keyboard etc which easily add up to the price of a laptop.] On the other hand Apple is also leading the way with Airplay technology. If a classroom has an Apple TV for instance iPads can mirror their screens through Airplay, taking away the need to physically connect. (Airplay with iPad is such an incredible game changer I will need to come back to it in another post.)
  • USB/SD Cards: Photos and many other sorts of data transfer right now is done though portable storage devices which are used in cameras and many, many other smaller gadgets. Although students can always throw the files into the web and access with their tablets this adds a few extra steps and not all files are easily transferable. Requiring less internet connection is also a good idea for the classroom environment.
  • Probes and other devices: Probes let you collect data from the physical world and connect via USB to your computer to store, analyze and graph this data. Considering the lack of usb ports, tablets become useless for use with such devices in especially the science classrooms. Proprietary connections require a large user base, and are costly but companies may in the future make connection tools with their devices with tablets. Still it would be much easier if the tablets came with standard ports.

Considering all these points then what is the best tablet for a classroom right now? The answer is there isn’t any yet. Tablets are still too limited to be fully functional and because of this they will remain high cost experiments for school districts that can afford it and for others it will be an item significantly low on the priority list. If the iPad is one additional device students can use for a handful of tasks it will not spread as widely as tech bloggers currently believe. Schools don’t have budgets for two laptops per student, and because of that unless tablets replace laptops or become cheap enough to be viable they will continue to be toys for rich schools.

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