The iPad competition: sell us the educational advantage, not the tech specs

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During the week, I attended an ICT Network meeting. A Lenovo sales rep attended the middle session to spruik their latest products, including a laptop/tablet hybrid, which we could at least see and their latest Windows 8 based tablet, which we couldn’t because it has not been released yet. Later in the day, one of our network leaders spend some time showing us the new Windows 8 on his laptop and his Samsung Galaxy (whatever the small one is called).

As I sat there respectfully paying attention, I spent most of my time thinking why do proponents of iPad alternatives spend so much time selling the technical specs that outmatch the iPad and so little time telling us how their preferred product will improve the way our students will learn compared to the iPad.

I’m not trying to be cute here – the iPad is not a perfect product by any stretch of the imagination.( I’d really like a file system structure built in. And a a way better management system for deployment school wide) Despite the Apple themed header of this blog and the heavy emphasis on the ipad, I’m neither an Apple Evangelist nor a “refuse to use Windows” fanboy. My point is this. The iPad clearly got a substantial jump on its rivals and have a major presence in a lot of schools. By now many schools have been using the apps that have to varying degrees changed teaching practices, improved engagement and provided new ways of demonstrating learning. They would have worked out how to get content to and from the iPad without USB connections for data sticks or cards. Many schools would have made substantial investments in iPads and apps. Inboxes are crammed, Scoopits are inundated and Twitter feeds are awash with countless articles on the success stories of iPads in schools (as well as the problems, to be balanced).

In this environment, the iPad opposition has to do something more to sell themselves. What is it they’re selling to schools?

The half laptop/half tablet mutant – if you want something to work like a laptop, get the laptop! We have iPads and laptops. We know the difference. We use them for different purposes. Sticking them together and carrying around both at the same time just seems pointless to me.

Tablets with real keyboards – I know there are plenty of iPads being attached to keyboards. I get it ( but don’t see the point personally). But it’s not Apple’s selling point, it others. The opposition, though, make it one of their main selling points. Again, tech specs. Again, if you want a physical keyboard, get a laptop.

Windows 8 – not going to turn this into a Apple/Microsoft thing. I’m only talking about tablets. I regularly use Splashtop to access my Macs on my iPad. It works for a quick connection to do a few tasks on my Mac from another room but using a full computer desktop system on a tablet is not a great experience. I also occasionally use CloudOn, the online version of Microsoft Office. Again, it works and all the features are there but I can’t last five minutes using all those tiny icons and menu items on my iPad using my finger. The touch interface is a pain with a menu based scrolling window system. I know Windows 8 has the whole tile based touch interface. On a Windows tablet, that makes sense and will make it as user friendly as an Android or iPad. But I keep hearing about how it’s going to allow for a full Windows experience. The demo I saw this week was about how you can switch the tile based interface over to a “more Windows 7” look. So again I ask, if you want the Windows look so much, just stick with a laptop/net book.

Tech Specs – Android vendors have been using this for years with their phones and more recently their tablets and for many it has worked. But a USB port isn’t going to transform learning. An SD card slot isn’t going to engage an 8 year old. Near field communication chips wasn’t on the mind of this primary school kid who made this Solar System video using Explain Everything and iMovie on his iPad. Tech specs may excite the technicians and techie teachers at school but the students just want a tool they are familiar with and use to help them learn. I’m not saying Android and Windows tablets won’t do that. I’m saying no one is selling how they can. They’re just selling the physical features. Physical specs of computers and tablets don’t help us learn. Usability, accessibility, portability and useful software do.

Apps – other than portability, the ease of touch for young students and the integrated audio visual tools of tablets, for me it’s all about the apps. Apple makes the iPad, but dedicated developers make the apps that make it worth having. We’ve used them, advertised them, rated them and there’s a truckload of them ( a lot not worth having of course.) Android has plenty of them too, many of them the same. It might be that I’m not looking, but it just doesn’t seem to be as important to Android vendors to push the apps for education as it does the tech specs. I would actually like to see a Galaxy in action being used for classroom purposes so I could make a comparison. If any readers can direct me to good examples I’m happy to take a look. Same for Microsoft’s Surface. Of course that will take a while because there are next to no apps at the moment – they’re at the iPhone 1 stage of development. Yes, you can use Office, I assume. But we’ve been using that for 20 years in school. Has it really made a difference? If you are going to sell me an alternative to the iPad, give me something groundbreaking in EDUCATION, not something I’ve been using for two decades on a different screen.

Microsoft cornered the market in PCs years ago and won’t get passed. They have business covered. Android will continue to win the numbers game ( but not profit ) in mobile phones. iPods crushed all opposition in the music player market. That’s all irrelevant though here. Ultimately, despite its substantial advantage at present, Apple may get surpassed in the consumer tablet market by Android or, who knows, even Windows 8 tablets in the future. In schools, though, I hope it’s because of a compelling educational argument. We’ve already spent the last 20 years filling up schools with labs of computers that were never fully utilized. I hope we don’t end up with schools full of tablets bought because of tech specs and technician preferences. Hey, I don’t want schools full of iPads that aren’t being used effectively either. All I’m asking is that companies and tech leaders pushing for iPad alternatives start selling the educational benefits of their products not just the price or physical features. We want products that will help us learn. Apple hasn’t got that 100% right either. Lets make sure these things improve education. That’s the bottom line.