I have seen it with my own eyes in my function as a coach for new technologies. A lot of schools are adopting new technologies to let their students make a gradual transition from traditional textbooks towards electronic devices. For now, the trend is limited to private schools, but we can already see how tablets are getting ready to slowly but surely conquer all the classrooms and the reactions from teachers and students are predominantly positive.
Seen from outside the change appears to be simple: Instead of a textbook we are using a tablet which can run different interactive contents. It seems like all there is to is it, is the fact that millions of trees are being saved in the process. But reality is more complex and there are many important decisions to be made by the school staff making this change: Tablet computer or ebook readers… What is the adequate device for our students? What types of learning contents can we run on these devices?
Let us take a look at ebook readers first. The Kindle range by amazon, the Nook, the Sony Reader, tablets made by household appliance or electronics manufacturers, the spanish BQ… there are many options. Because in many cases the key factor is the content, we have to distinguish between those terminals equipped with a screen for black and white electronic ink and those coming with a color screen that makes them more similar to a tablet computer.
Tablets with an electronic ink screen are designed to show text. They can also open diagrams or graphics and even pictures in black and white but their resolution is limited. On the other hand, their battery life is much longer, they are cheaper and the screen is not tiring the eye even if we are using it continuously for many hours. In general, they also allow you to store much more text than devices with a color screen. And many of these tablets enable you to highlight text, add comments, look up definitions in a dictionary… all this makes them perfect tools for students and they may also complement other aspects of their everyday life.
All this makes these terminals look like to be a good choice for schools, particularly because of their low price, but we have to be aware that the students are limited to using very specific kinds of files. They will not be able to view animated content or watch educational videos; and all images will be converted to a grayscale. It is the perfect choice, but only if we are willing to reduce the learning experience to text and graphics with an occasional image which will be shown in black and white. The number of applications available is limited as well depending on the platform and model we choose. This may become a problem if we are looking towards the long-term future.
There are ebooks with a color screen, the Kindle Fire being the best known example, which allow us to browse the web, give us access to a wider range of applications, watch films, play games and look at digital magazines, which go far beyond the limits of electronic ink and include dynamic content like films and colorful, animated image sequences. Being focussed exclusively on a specific kind of content, they can not be included in the same category as full scale tablet computers like the iPad or the Galaxy Tab, but they do provide more flexibility to teachers wanting to include games and educational or interactive videos.
Another possible solution is providing students with general use tablet computers like the iPad. Many schools have opted for this solution which is more costly (there are cases where students were forced to make this investment, like in a school in Andorra), but one which opens the doors to a much greater variety of contents. And the key is not necessarily in the hardware: Apple has a few very exciting initiatives like iBooks Author which allows teachers or any other person to create and distribute books from a Mac to iOS devices free of charge.
These platforms make electronic books possible to go far beyond text: Explanatory videos can be integrated directly into the text. Three-dimensional diagrams that may be manipulated with a touch of a finger, interactive graphics, picture galleries… and of course we have to mention all the educational applications available in the App Store. For now, this strategy has given Apple very good results: They sold more than a million tablets from April to June 2012, the application iTunes U was downloaded 14 million times, more than 700 elementary schools are giving classes using this platform and more than half a million multimedia files were downloaded: slides, videos, interactive text books and other contents.
Google has its own solution for Android as well, where schools can even rent the books instead of buying them, which helps schools and students save money: Google Play Textbooks. Clearly these tablets have many advantages for the schools, because they do not merely make the traditional textbook electronic but show us all that can be done with a multitouch screen. Unfortunately there are drawbacks: The price is much higher even though the companies do provide special offers to these institutions and battery life may not be enough if the device is being used for an entire day at school. We also have to keep in mind that these terminals are usually bigger and heavier.
Tablets and ebook readers are the clear protagonists of this revolution taking place in the classrooms, but laptop computers will continue to be present as complementary devices. They are less mobile, their battery life is usually inferior and their use is not as easy as using Android or iOS; but with them there are no more limitations when it comes to creating content. In fact, as mentioned earlier, ibooks author requires a Mac computer in order to launch and distribute content for iOS through the iBooks Store. And many people continue to prefer a physical keyboard when they have to spend various hours writing a text.
But there are ways to strike a balance, making good use of cloud services to simplify laptop operating systems, like in the case of Chrome OS. Google has reduced its desktop operating system to a simple web browser with no more than a few accessories, following the trend of more and more services moving to the web and they stopped worrying about the development of native applications for their platform.
Whether using laptops, ebook readers or tablet computers, the trend is undeniable: We are seeing less and less text books in elementary and higher schools. And the strength of each platform in this market will depend on what they have to offer to students; starting at an early age and continuing until they are about to graduate from university. The hardware is already there and the battle will now take place in the software field, among the developers of content and the catalogs that offer it. And it will change education as we know it, whether it is being viewed on electronic ink screens or colorful LED panels.
The mSchools programme is a multi-year, multi-faceted mEducation initiative by the Mobile World Capital Barcelona. The mSchools programme is designed to lower dropout rates, improve student attainment in schools across Catalonia and throughout Spain and, ultimately, to better prepare students as they pursue further education and employment in today’s digital world.
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