- A tablet is a mobile computer that relies upon mobile apps to function. The screen is typically 7 inches or wider.
- Smartphone is a mobile computer that relies upon mobile apps to function. The screen is typically 5 inches and smaller.
This is the basic description of a tablet, once known as a handheld computer. Featured on the original Star Trek television show, and in all the series that followed, the padd set the standard for what would become today’s computer tablet.
Personally, I’ve had just about every computer out there, and when I discovered handheld computers, which eventually became mobile computers, smartphones, and tablets, I was in heaven. In the beginning, these small mobile computers fit in the hand and were excellent for reading ebooks. As they became more powerful, they became laptop replacements.
Above all else, the greatest reward of moving from laptop to tablet was weight – and portability.
This article is not designed to be a complete dissection of how to use tablets in education, but to represent a few interesting tidbits I uncovered while preparing for my presentation on using tablets in education, specifically for college students and educators.
The article is divided into three sections, all specifically targeted towards the student and educator:
- Buying a Tablet
- Mobile Apps for College Students and Educators
- Tablets in Education: Pros and Cons and Studies
Buying a Tablet
There are two aspects to consider when choosing and buying a tablet.
Hardware Dictates Size and Power
The first part is the hardware. You need to consider the size and weight in relationship to how you will use the tablet as part of your everyday life as well as your school work.
- Will you read books on it? Will you write, research, complete your homework on the tablet?
- Will you carry it safely in a briefcase or shove it in a purse or backpack?
- Do you even carry a briefcase, purse, or backpack? Are you a shove-it-in-your-pocket person?
- Do you tend to drop things? Are you rough with your gear?
- Do you want something that you can hold in your hand like a paperback book, or do you like the idea of reading a magazine?
These questions will help you determine the size and type of tablet to choose, but let’s take it a step further.
Will you be using it to take notes, as a calendar, read text books, watch videos…?
If you watch a lot of videos as part of your work and research, then possibly a larger screen might be more like a television, so you don’t have to strain your eyes with a smaller handheld device.
Reading with it? Will you be reading in bed, at a table, while commuting on a bus or train? Consider the size of the device based upon your reading activities and usage.
If you are going to be taking notes, doing heavy writing, graphics, and research, basically using it as a laptop replacement, consider one of the new powerful quad or quin (5) processors tablets, or consider a convertible tablet like the Lenova Yoga or Windows Surface 2 that comes with a keyboard. It’s a tablet and laptop combination.
With the introduction of smart pens, tablets now convert handwriting to text, speeding up the process of note-taking and writing in general.
Voice recognition now requires little or no training, adopting easily to most accents for the most common languages, allowing the dream of Star Trek to come true as interaction with a tablet as a mobile computer is now through tactile process with fingers and pens, and voice. And the tablet will talk back to you, too.
The more you wish to write and type on the device, the more likely you will be to use a stylus/pen and handwriting capabilities as well as a good on screen keyboard or the ability to connect a USB or Bluetooth keyboard and mouse to the tablet.
A USB micro adapter cable connections the tablet to traditional computer devices such as keyboards, mice, portable hard drives, cameras, etc., so if you are a power user, considering choosing a powerful device with a USB or USB micro input, and not a proprietary input.
The Magic is the Apps
The second thing to consider when choosing a tablet is the applications or apps, more correctly, mobile apps. There are apps designed specifically for tablets, highlighted as featured table-specific apps now in the Google Play store, but most mobile apps will work with a tablet, though they tend to force themselves into the vertical rather than horizontal format.
What are you going to use on your tablet? What are you going to do with it?
Most tablet apps require little hardware power for writing, basic research, video watching, playing games, and reviewing class notes. However, if you are into heavy duty gaming, graphic design, photographer, and require apps that make a demand upon the processing power, storage, memory, and capabilities of the tablet, you are going to need to take that into account.
For instance, as a teacher and trainer specializing in web publishing, I need a device that will handle web content as well as some serious photography and graphics capabilities. I need to have a standards USB connection to link to keyboards, portable hard drives, etc. I need the ease of transferring data back and forth from computer to computer through USB connections, wifi network connections, and Bluetooth. I need Bluetooth for mice, keyboards, microphones, cameras, and other devices. I need speed. I want as much power and capability possible. I need long battery times as I travel extensively.
In other words, I ask a lot of my tablet so buying a $300 Kindle Fire isn’t going to work for my needs. I need something closer to the $600-1500 price range. Just recently I chose the brand new Samsung Galaxy 10.1 2014 Special Edition with the maximum RAM and storage on a micro SD card.
WIFI or Network Plan Contract
When it comes to making your final choice, you have to confront the decision of whether or not to go with a paid network plan, often tying you to a mobile/cellular company for a two-year minimum contract, or the cheaper wifi.
When you choose wifi for your tablet, there are no additional fees to connect to the Internet. However, you are a the whim of what open wifi network is available.
If you choose to go with a cellular data plan, the cost is approximately equivalent to cell plans, though sometimes they are cheaper. The cost of the tablet, however, will increase.
Then there is the hotspot option. This is a small mobile device attached to a cellular plan. The costs are cheaper than the mobile phone plan, and the device will allow 5-25 devices to connect simultaneously. You buy a wifi tablet and connect via the hotspot.
There is an alternative. Open Garden is a mobile app that turns your non-hotspot smartphone into a hotspot for free. It is available for iOS and Android. Install it to your phone and tablet, following the instructions to connect the two together through Bluetooth, and your wifi tablet will connect to the web through your phone. No extra charges.
It works beautiful. I’ve used it in a car driving down the freeway, in parks, in the woods, wherever I could get cell phone access. It isn’t the fastest system as it is based upon the speed of your phone’s Bluetooth and the network speeds of your location (3G, 4G, etc.), but it works, and it’s free.
It’s a powerful tool and they recently updated Open Garden to include multi-path and chaining connections.
Where to Buy a Tablet
Go to Best Buy, Office Depot, Office Max, Staples, Fry’s Electronics, and similar stores to put your hands on the device before you buy. Experiment with it. Imagine yourself using it. Work with the stylus, pen, and your fingers to get a feel for it. Use apps you would use if you bought it.
Reading about it, watching videos, none of these things will help you unless you can put your hands on it and decide from there.
Once you have decided, I’ve found that Amazon.com and Best Buy have the best prices (though check sale prices at the other places). If you are certain you know which one you want, and you trust the likes of Craigslist or ebay, you may order it through there, just know before you buy.
Information on Buying a Tablet for Education
Some of the following articles are designed to address issues buying tablets for K-12, but some are for college as well. All offer good tips and general recommendations.
- Laptop vs. tablet: which is better to take with you to school? | The Right Click – Yahoo News Canada
- Top 10 Tablets – Best Tablets Available Now – LAPTOP Magazine
- Beyond the iPad: Schools’ Choices In Tablets Grow | MindShift
It is the apps that really make a tablet special.
There are many educational apps that help a teacher teach and a student learn. Below, I’ve included a general collection of articles recommending specific mobile apps for college students, but here are a list of apps worth considering, some I’ve highlighted in my presentation on tablets.
- Note Taker HD App (Apple): Excellent app for taking handwritten notes, writing and organizing your notes, adding graphics, diagrams, and photos.
- Studious (Android): Excellent for the student to track homework and school-related events and assignments, helping them to keep track of their homework and tests.
- Catch Notes (Android): Excellent note-taking app. Allows handwriting, typing, photographs, drawing, etc. to help you organize your notes in streams.
- Canvas by Instructure (Android) or Canvas for iOS: The official app for Canvas.
- TapNotes – Meeting Recorder (Android or iTunes: Note-taking app that allows students to record their meetings, lectures, or interviews with their mobile devices and quickly play the exact segments they need. Allows entering notes at different places along the recording.
- Evernote (both): The long-time system for taking notes on the web, saving web pages for online and offline access, photographs, graphics, and everything you need to research and record information online. Available for desktop, browsers, and all mobile app systems.
- BodyXQ (both): World’s first in depth interactive look inside the body in 3D.
- NearPod: Free but requires logging into their online system, Nearpod is a could-based content management and interactivity tool for real-time sharing. Teachers can monitor classroom activity, create interactive content and presentations, share it with students and control their experience, and students interact with the content and teacher through the mobile device.
- WordPress Mobile: WordPress for a variety of mobile devices.
- Grace – learn what you love (Android): One source for online educational resources and video channels.
Educational App Recommendations
This list are articles with good recommendations for a variety of educational apps specifically designed for college and university students, and educators.
- College Apps | Back to School – Consumer Reports
- 25 Apps You’ll Need to Survive College
- 10+ Free Tablet Apps to Help You Go Back to School | Android.AppStorm
- Top Best Back to School Android Apps for College Students | HEAVY
- 10 Great Apps for College Students Studying Education | Concordia University – Portland Online
- Best Apps For College Students – Geek Sugar
- 10 Android apps for back to school | ZDNet
- 10 iPad apps for back to school – ZDNet
The following are a variety of resources for more information, apps, and help with tablets. If you have any recommendations, please let me know and I’ll add them to the list.
Tablets in Education
When I was growing up and starting school, libraries and the ancient Encyclopedia Britannica, a Goodwill rescue missing H-I, and a ratty dictionary were my sources for self-learning if I chose to learn more about a subject than what was handed out in class or through dated text books. Today, “Google it” is a verb, and never have we had so much information about so much stuff available at our fingertips.
Watching Star Trek as a child, I dreamed of a computer in my hand. With the development of the earliest handheld computers from Palm, known as PDAs, Personal Digital Assistants, I had my first Star Trek like tablet – I was in heaven.
I saw the future of tablets and handheld computers early. I could read books easily, okay, not so easily but easy enough if there was a digital copy available. Textbooks and technical books were among the earliest digital books as geeks around the world scanned their text books and converted them into OCR text. Project Gutenberg offered free ebooks, mostly old ones in public domain, many of them classics. I could watch movies and television shows, often downloaded from international file-sharing networks, later deemed to be copyright infringers and shut down as pirates. Still, the technology was there and we were all experimenting with what would eventually become today’s tablets and laptops.
In the early years of social media and web publishing, some savvy teachers saw the future of education as a form of social and crowd-sourcing. One geography teacher in Australia had his students use Twitter to find someone in an area of the world they were studying, ask them to answer questions and take a picture or two of historical landmarks there, and tweet them back to help them write about the place and learn more about it.
In “From Twitter to tablets: my best lessons using technology,” Geography teacher David Rogers explained in The Guardian that while teachers use technology to deliver high quality lessons, why shouldn’t the same technology be used by students?
We often find ourselves wanting to make a visual impact when introducing a new topic. Inspectors are on the lookout for student independence and collaboration, but we all know that needs a spark. We use a combination of Flickr and internet radio stations. When introducing Thailand to year 8, we simply type the country name into the search function and hit slideshow. We combine this with an internet radio station to challenge students to identify the country and it’s main features as seen through the eyes of Flickr users. What aspects of the country are missing? What are the similarities? What evidence is there? Does the place look inviting, scary or inspiring? Is this place really like this?
This approach has led into creative writing pieces and does engage pupils’ senses. The important thing is not to show the learning objectives first. Writing “we are learning about Thailand” on the board would simply spoil the fun.
He goes on to showcase how technology teaches the student how to research, create, curate, and communicate the lesson for themselves, fellow students, and the teacher.
In one of Roger’s examples, he talks about live Blogging from the field as he takes his high school students on field trips to explore, record, and report on the spot. Think of the application for other classes including nursing, cooking, business, and computer technology.
Adoption of tablets and smartphones in education is happening at a faster rate than any other academic technology, including use of the Internet and Internet-based learning management systems. Apple announced that in the first quarter of 2012 it sold 500,000 MacBook laptops to schools and 1 million iPads to high schools and colleges, doubling iPad sales from to schools during the same quarter last year.
The same year, Apple released iBooks 2, a mobile app offering free and low cost e-textbooks featuring interactive images, embedded video, and study aid tools. They teamed up with Pearson, McGraw-Hill, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and the paid price for most of the e-textbooks is $14.99 and lower. While surveys then reported that most students preferred a print book over digitial the idea of carrying no books around and saving money was expected to boost tablet sales, and the statistics report it did.
At Clark College’s Computer Technologies department, students have access to free e-textbooks for most of their classes through a special grant program. While some students still want the book, many of those students are now using tablets instead of just laptops just for the books.
Experiments with tablets and smartphones in the classroom have been going on for more than five years in the United States. Last year, approximately USD $40 billion was spent by non-profits, educational organizations, computer manufactures, and school boards to get tablets into schools across the country.
- A School’s iPad Initiative Brings Optimism And Skepticism : All Tech Considered : NPR
- Putting people first New qualitative research report on tablet use in UK schools – Experientia (October 2013)
- School Districts Grapple With Glitches in Computer Tablets – WSJ.com (Oct 2013)
- No Child Left Untableted – NY Times (Sept 2012)
- 5 Lessons from a Year of Tablet Research | UX Sears
- Tablets Trump Laptops in High School Classrooms – US News and World Report (August 2012)
- Hillsborough schools tweaking policies on phone, tablet use – Tampa Tribune (January 2014)
- Tablets and iPads | EDUCAUSE.edu (collection of reports for k12-higher education)
- LI schools step up use of tablet technology (Middle School – August 2013)
- Report: Students Use Smart Phones and Tablets for School, Want More — THE Journal (May 2013)
- Public Libraries | Should They Give Away eBook Tablets? TeleRead
A key quote I found from among the research, studies, and testing in schools came from Robin Britt, Personalized Learning Environment Faciliator and trainer of the massive tablets-to-students program in North Carolina, who said:
Now your job is not to dispense knowledge. It’s to facilitate learning. No longer is the teacher the bottleneck between students and knowledge. Rather, the teacher architects the environment — in the classroom, on the tablet, online, everywhere.
Going through these examples of classroom usage, these were the highlights.
Tablet usage in the classroom:
Some statistics for tablet usage from a study of elementary and secondary school students using mobile devices revealed that 70% of middle school students use a laptop for learning, with 47% using smart phones, 25% using small tablets, and 23% using larger tablets. By high school, the numbers jump with 60% using smartphones, 19% using full-size tablets, 17% using small tablets, and 70% using laptops.
Many of the teachers were against the inclusion of tablets in the classroom, and here were their concerns:
- The tablet would “take over” the classroom, putting the teacher second.
- Overvaluing technology and undervaluing face-to-face interaction
- Over-stimulation, which may lead to sleep deprivation and inability to focus,
- Learning curve for the teachers (and some of the students).
- Doubts in the process of “transforming the teaching experience.”
- Ability and incentive of students to hack the system.
- Privacy concerns, from student personal data to data collection.
- Increase sedentary lifestyle.
Research found that while some of their concerns were justified, the benefits were greater than their expectations.
- Ability to customize the educational and teaching process to suit individual students and classes.
- Ability to allow self-pacing for student learning.
- Puts responsibility for learning in the hands of students to control their learning experience.
- Students with learning disabilities, shy, and other reticent behaviors often bloom using technology.
- Learning material updated instantly by teacher, publisher, or other sources, bypassing the 6-year textbook update and purchase cycles.
- Tools for research, discussion, practice, and demonstration of mastery to allow students to come at studies from different perspectives.
- School district and educational services can track student and faculty activity to improve the process.
- Stimulate imagination and curiosity, improving research skills.
The dream of technology curing all the ills of education goes down the drain when reality and practicality conflict with that dream.
The dream is that a student will move from class to class with nothing more than a tablet in hand.
Over 15,000 tablets were handed out in North Carolina middle-schools, and students or staff broke about 10% of the screens by dropping, stuffing them into packbacks and purses, and breaking the cables, causing a recall of all the machines. Teachers and students felt academic improvement, but need machines that will not be damaged so easily.
Tablets lost or stolen also accounted for a good percentage of loss.
students and teachers had to return their devices due to students hacking into the system. Los Angeles Unified School District planned to distribute tablets to 30,000 K-12 students, and it took them only a few days to bypass the filtering software, especially designed to prevent such hacking, allowing the students to access Facebook, Pandora, and other filtered websites.
One 16-year old student said he didn’t see what the problem was. “There’s nothing to do on it besides academics. They just want it to be a big old book.”
There will always be problems with security and privacy issues until a system is created that defies hacking. And people will always break things, which means tablet designers and developers have to come up with lighter and stronger technologies that bounce.
In time, technology will match our needs and demands for portable computers, especially those that fit in our hand. In the meantime, keep testing and breaking them, and letting the manufacturers, developers, and industry know what you what from their devices. You dictate this market exclusively.