We already have laptops. Do we need iPads too?

When the 210 members of 5/6 Learning community moved into our $3 million gift from the BER government program last year, we walked into a facility with a dedicated computer lab with 30 desktop computers, a “Learning Street” and classrooms with another 30 odd desktops, 3 laptop trolleys totally 45 laptops, 11 iWBs and free access to a range of flip cameras, digital cameras and microphone recorders. During the year, all the teachers received personal laptops and an iPod Touch as well, which students were also able to access. That’s a heck of a lot of tech compared to previous years.

The question was then asked – what about iPads? Despite the fact my personal iPad was forever by my side in all learning and teaching settings, I still found myself asking – We already have laptops. How is the iPad going to be a better experience? Do we need yet another ICT device to add to our collection of gadgets? So let’s then look at the argument for more laptops rather than iPads.

During the year, the laptops became indispensable aids for learning for our 5/6 students. The open spaces of our new building allowed the freedom for children to find a quiet place for independent research or content creation while also being able to easily bring their work on the laptop to any available teacher or other student for feedback or support. At other times, small groups would gather around a laptop and collaborate on projects, brainstorm ideas, edit each other’s work and present their work quickly with each other. The students had easy access to web 2.0 sites for content creation and were able to independently integrate AV recordings with their work. The students were free to use any technology that was available and many were at a level of expertise beyond the teachers in the level.

So the freedom, portability and sharing argument in support of the iPad is covered by laptops here then? They were already getting their work done effectively? Access to already available digital AV recording devices made creative work a snap? (access to software and web 2.0 tools will be covered in a separate post) If we are going to spend up big again, surely we should continue along the laptop path. It’s worked so far so “Why get iPads?”

“The court would now like to present its case in defense of the iPad”

For me, one of the biggest advantages the iPad has over the laptop model is ease of use and accessibility. The touch interface and app system makes it so easy to access learning tools. On a typical laptop set up at school , you have to open the lid, turn it on, wait for it to load, log in to your account, click on the Internet shortcut or scroll through levels of start menu items, type in the website address or click on the bookmark to get access to Google Maps for example. On the iPad , you click on the home button, hit Maps and you’re there. Want a dictionary? Same. Calculator. Tap-tap-on! Need to find a bible reference (work in Catholic school)? Ditto – just hit the bible app icon and you’re in. 20120120-000248.jpg The time saved using iOS ( or even, dare I say it, Android ) can really add up in a busy day at school. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea but the instant access to the specific task oriented app is a winner and a time saver. Even the instant “touch what you need” interface as opposed to scroll and click system of standard computers makes a difference. Also, returning to work later on in the day is as simple as returning to the app, not logging in again, finding the program and looking for your file on a laptop.

Another no contest is the access to AV tools on the iPad. Sure, laptops have built in microphones and cameras but using them is way more cumbersome. The laptop camera is really only for face to face video conferencing and recording tools that are preinstalled on most laptops are unsatisfactory. Of course, we have the cameras and microphones at school to do the job but by the time, you connect to the laptop, Windows goes thorough its ‘Wizard’ magic and you wait for a GB or two of video, photos and audio to copy over to the computer and then find it in the software you use, anyone on an iPad has finished their project before you have started. In today’s visual learning environment, this is a huge advantage.

Viewing media or work on an iPad is also superior to the laptop experience. The full screen set up on an iPad coupled with the touch interface of flick and change makes viewing photos, websites, texts and documents much easier than the scrolling method of standard computers. The multitouch resizing and panning enables focusing on specific parts with great ease. In terms of sharing and collaborating, the physical size and design of the iPad wins over the limitations of the vertical one sided viewing experience of the laptop. Laid down flat, anyone in a group can see the screen and passing it around is so much easier than a heavier, flip top laptop. Inputting anything on a laptop means complete control over mouse and trackpad/mouse. On the iPad, any touch will do. These might seem like little things but especially for little children, it makes a difference to their learning experience.

Laptops have never been great for reading. Yes, clearly we do read text on them constantly, but I have to say, since I’ve had my iPad, I barely use my MacBook or iMac for any reading or research. Let’s face it, we like to hold what we read. we want to focus just on the text, not all the other distractions on a laptop. Reading on an iPad or any other tablet for that matter is just like holding a book – with added advantages. As a learning experience I love being able to access a text on the iPad with an app like iBooks or Kindle for ebooks or Goodreader for documents and be able to annotate, highlight, look up definitions all with simple touch.
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Some would argue that without the ability to have two apps open at the same time side by side it’s harder to take notes from the Internet. That’s true but there are now apps for that anyway. I suppose it is personal preference for some but for me, the research/reading experience on an iPad kills the laptop again.

Final point for me to make is the one issue that Apple products rarely if ever win – affordability. As a long suffering Mac man in Australian schools, I have always lost out with the number crunchers in the PC v Mac debate on sheer dollar numbers. However, the 32 GB iPad cost the same as the laptops we have at school at present. The bigger deal for me though is the price of apps. Putting aside the plethora of excellent free apps as a basis for the argument, I’ve always been amazed at the amount of money spent on software licensing for multiple users on school computers. Mac or PC, the prohibitive costs of software puts so many potentially great programs out of reach of the students and teachers. So much money and effort is put into turning what is essentially Adult Work software (AKA Microsoft Office) into useful children’s software that there is very little left for other software. Without web 2.0, we would probably have about 6 useful pieces of software on our laptops. That’s all we can afford other than crippled demos.

Apps on the other hand are ridiculously cheap. Even if we have to purchase an app per iPad every time we download, it’s not even close to the cost of licenses on computers. Yes it’s extra money buying new software instead of installing already owned software on new laptops but eventually upgrading comes at a cost anyway. IPad app upgrades are free. So many more options are accessible for such small cost on iPads (and yes other tablets too but I’m arguing on behalf of Apple’s tool here) that it can greatly impact on learning opportunities. 50 different 99¢ or $2-3 apps x 100 iPads would still be cheaper than a Microsoft Office or iWork upgrade. In my opinion, in a battle between laptops and iPads on price alone, Apple finally wins a cost war.

So that’s my first post on “do we NEED iPads?” I think I’ve convinced myself that the iPad can be a different and better learning experience to add on to our already impressive ICT inventory. If its a choice between new laptops or iPads, I’m going with the iPad.

But what do you think? Have I been too negative towards laptops? Is my iPad bias showing too strongly? Please leave a comment to add to the debate. I am very interested in other opinions based on different experiences. This is only the first round. I’ve still got the other six points from my original introductory post to raise. Some of them are harder to argue. Hope to hear from you.