Tablet 101 – How Did We Get Here? (Pt. 1 of 5)

In this first installment we will look at the evolution of the tablet landscape and its push into the world of teaching and learning.

Using tablets to teach is nothing new in educational circles, and depending on one’s definition of a tablet, these have been around for thousands of years!  Technologically speaking, these devices started out as a small section of the computing market just a few years ago, but have exploded and currently make up 50% of the global PC market (Canalys, 2014), and will have an estimated impact of nearly 75% of the market by 2017 (Wolfe, 2014). The early adoption of these devices into classroom settings was very successful (Mock, 2004, Willis & Miertschin, 2004), yet any kind of widespread adoption remains limited.  For example, of the 155 million iPads sold as of 2013, only 6% of those were being used in classrooms (Leonard, 2013).

From an instructional perspective, the ways in which students in P-12 classrooms critically think, problem solve, collaborate, communicate, and access and analyze information are drastically different from the ways in which their teachers developed the same skills.  This is an important distinction.  While the skills may be the same (or similar) to previous generations, it is the way in which P-12 students are required to perform these skills in the 21st Century that mandates a progressive ethic and changed world-view.   As college-level educators of future teachers, it is imperative that we model the regular, practical use of progressive forms of technology in our own teaching and interactions with pre-service teachers as well.  The inclusion of highly portable and interactive devices sets the stage for the development of 21st Century learning and promotes more widespread implementation and adoption.

The resounding issue in early and widespread adoption of tablet technology in educational settings has always centered on cost.  Traditional tablet PCs and the hybrid tablet-notebook PC are expensive when compared to desktops and laptops and shrinking budgets in educational settings demand a maximization of power to cost.  Early tablet devices consisted of full laptop computers with a touch-based screen to enable the use of a stylus for data entry.  These devices were too large and too heavy to be used in classrooms with small children, and size limited the portability options for teachers.  Smaller handheld computing options such as the Palm Pilot and the Apple Newton offered less expensive alternatives (but still expensive for their time), but lacked the computing power to do more extensive tasks beyond email and scheduling.

Over time, netbooks were introduced as an option for highly portable, small, and light devices capable of nearly all the tasks a traditional laptop could accomplish – but at a much cheaper price.  To date, netbooks remain a very popular and viable solution for educational settings looking to increase student access to computing and to enhance portability.  Important to early childhood educators, the smaller form factor of these devices allows for a scaled workspace comfortable for little hands.  However, netbooks also carry the same challenges associated with traditional computing.  Viruses, complex operating systems, system settings, file structures, durability, and compatible technology ecosystems in schools are typical obstacles when working with traditional computing platforms, and these issues are just as likely and prevalent with netbooks.  In short, there is a very real need to find a computing option for educational settings that eases some of these tensions and allows for widespread integration.

In 2010, Apple introduced the iPad tablet, billed as the bridge between the smartphone and the netbook.  It is small, portable, less complex, and provides enough computing power to accomplish a range of creative and productivity-based tasks.  The iPad elevated the attention on tablet computing beyond a small subset of users into a much broader audience.  The iPad has created a rush to produce competing devices and currently only represents 36% of the 195 million tablets sold in 2013 (Gartner, 2014). This competition provides educators and students many more choices when considering the best device for meeting educational objectives, but with over 100 varieties to choose from (all with distinct operating systems and marketplaces for applications and media) the choice can be daunting. But many schools have spoken. in 2013, the Apple iPad claimed a 94% marketshare in the educational sector (Cheng, 2013) and it is easy to see why.

When considering the struggles of classroom teachers, candidates, and teacher educators as they attempt to strike a balance of computing power, varied data entry, portability, and price, the Apple iPad is a natural choice. Though similar in its function to the widely popular iPod Touch, the iPad (Air and Mini versions) has added an increased screen size and more applications to enhance the productivity of the device.  iPad-specific applications are designed to maximize the new screen real estate (9.7 inches in the Air and 7.9 inches for the Mini as opposed to 3.5 inches on the iPod Touch), but the iPads can also run the iPod Touch/iPhone specific applications as well making a pool of over 1,000,000 applications available for the tablet interface. While this is an exciting prospect, those 1,000,000 apps are not all critical nor beneficial to the daily practices of classroom educators. Sifting through the noise to find the hidden gems that perfectly align teacher needs and app functions leaves many PK-12 educators and their pre-service professors paralyzed.

With this in mind, we will explore and analyze the implementation of the full Apple iPad (both the full size and the Mini versions) into two teacher education contexts: 1) data collection and observation during field placements and clinical experiences, and 2) the modeling of tablet-specific teaching practices for the purpose of training pre-service teachers to use tablets in their own teaching and learning.  To deconstruct the process, we will utilize the following as a structure for reflection and analysis:

  1. Why integrate the tablets in the teacher education setting?
  2. What are the implementation stages (including training and staged roll-out of devices in the field)?
  3. What applications can be used to promote 21st Century teaching and learning?
  4. How have teacher candidates, mentor teachers, field instructors, and PK-12 students implemented and interacted with the devices?
  5. What are suggestions for further research and application development?

The challenges and experiences from the implementation of this project and the collective wisdom of the participants, have helped to facilitate a dialectical understanding of the viability of these devices as tools for promoting 21st Century teaching practices.

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