Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

15 September 2010

What’s the right technology for schools?

Clark @ 6:39 AM

At the end of a conversation the other day, the topic turned to technologies in schools.  I was asked what I thought about the iPad in schools, and as I thought it through, I saw both pluses and minuses.

Let me, of course, make this generic to tablets and PDAs. And not smartphones, as there are problems with phones in schools that I don’t want to get into.  Having a wifi PDA (e.g. iPod Touch) is good enough for the issues at hand.

Now, many years ago Elliott Soloway decided that the form-factor of a laptop was not appropriate for kids, and created what ended up being the GoKnow suite of PDA apps.  Back then he was working on Palm devices and then Windows PDAs.  I think he had that right.

However, now that there are tablets, I think they have advantages for schools too.  They’re not too big (by and large), and are better for both content consumption and creation than laptops or even netbooks (though an additional keyboard might be handy).

As I thought more about it, I’d like the tablet in class (and maybe at home), but I’d like a PDA when kids hit the road.  Elliot had sensor-equipped PDAs being used to collect river pH measurements. There a host of reasons to get kids out gathering data and working on projects, including problem-based and service-learning type projects.  Having the devices available for accessing answers to questions when on field trips or taking notes also makes sense.

You can have these as separate devices, synching them into a common database, but I was reminded of an early proposal for a processor ‘block’ that could plug into a variety of devices, and your files would remain on the ‘block’.  You could do it with a U3 system, I suppose, but I really want that processor with it for consistency of OS, etc.  For example, running an OS (WebOS, iOS, Android, etc) on a PDA (w/ camera, etc), and then the PDA could be plugged into a tablet and the tablet would take over as the I/O channel.  Some may not get it, but I think it’s preferable to having to sync two devices.

This, I think, would provide the portability for field moves with screen real estate for creation and communication.  Of course the device would be equipped with a camera, microphone, wifi, bluetooth, etc, and a suite of software, but I really think that one platform isn’t enough, and two is too many, and a PDA is too small for creation and consumption and a tablet too small for fieldwork, so what you want is a hybrid hardware platform. Could there be a happy medium, perhaps, but I’m not sold.  What do you think?


  1. Its an interesting question; I think the answer hinges on whether you mean _today’s_ schools, or some proposed improvement over the way learning currently gets done.

    The way I see learning done in schools today (and admittedly I don’t see much of it, so I could be right out of line here. Or at least out of date.) content creation is simply not something that is much of a priority on campus itself. You send the kids to school to have information thrown at them, and then they go home to do any creating that they’re going to do with it (papers, projects, etc.) Even in things like science labs they have a tendency to do nothing at school but generate the data, with the true content creation happening elsewhere.

    It should be fairly obvious that I don’t think this is a particularly good thing, but its still the way it looks. I’ve seen a couple of articles about tablets in schools lately, and every time I can’t help but wonder if they’re changing the culture (and giving the poor teachers the time, tools, and training to change the culture) along with the technology.

    Comment by Rob — 15 September 2010 @ 11:32 AM

  2. Last semester I noticed that my students use their iphones constantly to access the internet and find answers. I think it would be very important to use the pda’s or tablets in class to teach the skills needed to access information and evaluate information.

    This semester I just got a SONY touch reader. With it, I can read articles, highlight important parts, take notes, and then download these on to the computer and arrange the notes and quotes. I see a real potential for reading and writing instruction, especially for teaching critical reading skills and spatial writing abilities (i.e. hyperlinks). I know that many of the pads have this capacity also. Imagine bringing the text into the field, writing notes on what you are observing and then down loading it to integrate reports, readings, and analysis. It brings learning to a higher level.

    Of course, this would require a different style of learning and teaching and I could see the abuse or misuse of ipads, ereaders, or pdas in the classrooms.

    Comment by virginia Yonkers — 15 September 2010 @ 2:59 PM

  3. I work in a school and have had an iPad for about 6 weeks now. It is “good enough” in most respects and enables about 80% of laptop functionality while providing portability, long battery life and instant on which makes a huge difference in classroom management. Our students are using them well according to the teacher most closely involved in the pilot.

    The negatives indicated were lack of printing, lack of USB and lack of access to network drives. I’m beginning to think printing is “old” tech anyhow – but these problems are all solvable (we won’t need USB sticks with our own cloud for example and wireless peripherals are already available).

    Classroom management is an issue but that is why we still employ teachers of course.

    There are some pretty creative apps for video editing, podcasting, artwork, brainstorming – all those lovely social tools too.

    Apple’s control of the app store and, in fact, the closed nature of the ecosystem is a worry as it’s counter to the way school’s/organisations are going (open to debate about this). I think another player (eg Android) might eat their lunch in spite of their head start – it’s easily programmed and a bright student could write all the custom apps a school needs. But so far, no other players. If a realistic competitor does not arrive before Christmas I think it could be game over.

    As for the camera – I’d love a swiss army computing device but I think cameras are a certain shape for a reason – they are not iPad shaped anyway. Certainly a front facing one for Skype etc would be useful. Maybe tethering a flip-type device is a better idea?

    Certainly an interesting space.

    Comment by Richard Jones — 17 September 2010 @ 1:59 PM

  4. My daughter started 6th grade in September. In our district, that’s the beginning of Middle School. Last night, I was writing up some notes using NoteTaker HD (great app, BTW) and a Boxwave stylus on my iPad. She was curious about what I was doing, so she looked over my shoulder a bit. Then she asked if she could try it.

    She started writing a little story, then turned to me and asked, “Can I have one of these for school? It would make things so much easier.” In her school, she is not allowed to carry a backpack, but is only allowed to return to her locker during set times in the schedule as she changes classes. In most of her classes, she is not issued a textbook, and her teachers use photocopied worksheets and activities. Most of her homework is issued the same way. My 11-year old immediately saw the application of an iPad to her school life. She immediately jumped to being able to carry just one device for all her classes. She realized how easy it would be for teachers to post electronic versions of their worksheets for her to complete using an app like GoodReader (with it’s PDF annotation features). Well, she didn’t know about GoodReader, but she did say, “wouldn’t it be cool if my teachers could send me the worksheet and I could just draw and write on it using the iPad instead of paper and pencil?” She also noted that many of her teachers already post assignments to SchoolFusion (the school’s portal site), so it wouldn’t be anything too new for the teachers. Then she brought up having access to books, remembering that I have read a few books on the iPad using both the Kindle and iBook apps. The battery life of an iPad would easily get her through the whole day. Her final statement was “I could get rid of my backpack, my locker, and everything else and just carry this! Dad, buy me an iPad, please?!?”

    Having seen the betas of iOS 4.2 for the iPad, printing is coming and several apps have handled the network file sharing issue in innovative ways (DropBox anyone?). And this is all without using an app written expressly to support this kind of use. Imagine what could be done with an app that was built specifically to support students? Would love to see some pilots of this, but given current budgets, etc., in public schools, I don’t expect I’ll see this in my district any time soon.

    Comment by Stephen Martin — 15 October 2010 @ 7:33 AM

  5. Great feedback!

    Rob, you’re right that it’s hard to get it into schools, and I am talking about an enlightened classroom, not the average. Sigh. But there are classrooms where students are doing active things, just not enough.

    Virginia, yes, it’s sort of like in the organization: managers worry that employees will waste time with social networks, mobile devices, etc, instead of helping them be motivated about getting work done. I reckon it’s the same in the classroom: you’ve got to get the kids involved in engaging and meaningful activities, but they do need to get to be capable using the tools.

    Richard, since you wrote, Apple’s both relaxed restrictions, and iPad’s breaking sales records. Fingers crossed.

    Stephen, yep, I’d love my kids to have *anything*: e.g. iPod Touch form factor, iPad, or anything inbetween rather than deal with lockers, and tons of books.

    Comment by Clark — 18 October 2010 @ 11:24 AM

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