Just Say NO to iPads for Education, Part 4: There’s NOT an App for That

“There’s an app for that!”

Or so the commercial catch-phrase / sales-pitch goes.

The only problem is: it’s not true.  Now, I’m not going to deny there are a lot of great and useful little apps, for a variety of purposes.  Having a smartphone can be sort of like having a digital Swiss Army Knife, complete with tools for taking notes, capturing and organizing data, looking up information or tutorial videos, finding your way around, and all sorts of other things.

But the problem — especially for education — comes when you look at what you lose in order to gain those apps.  People like to point out that there are “so many apps” for the iPad, but when you stop and look at the numbers, you are actually getting access to a lot less, despite the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of apps out there.

This is especially true and important when it comes to education.

“But there are so many apps for iPads — more than anything else!”

False. Over the course of about 3 years, there have been about 300,000 apps developed for the iPad.  That is “a lot”, but it’s all relative.  People are simply ignorant about the reality — especially people who have not been working with computers, but for some reason have suddenly jumped on board with the iPad as if it allows some sort of functionality we didn’t already have.

First of all, let’s get one thing straight: an “app” is nothing new. It’s just a marketing spin (notice that the word “app” is in “apple”??) on the word “application”, which is another word for “computer program.”  So, to set the record straight, “app” = “program”; they are synonyms.  Thus, apps have been around for as long as computers have existed… for over half a century.

So, let’s look at what you are really getting (and losing) access to, as a net sum, if you buy an iPad:

  • iPad apps: 300,000 (700,000 if you include all iOS apps such as ones designed for iPhone)
  • Android apps: 700,000 (same as Apple

But  how does the number of iPad apps compare to what you could access if you used, say, a Mac or PC?  Because, believe it or not, long-life laptops (aka ultrabooks) work well for education.

  • Windows has over 4,000,000 apps (yes, 4 MILLION)
  • Mac has… ??? (less than Windows, but more than iPad and Android.  Still, I haven’t been able to find an actual number)

So, in essence, by deciding to use a tablet instead of a long-life, low-cost laptop, you are not gaining access to tons of apps… you are losing access to lots of apps.  Millions, to be exact.

but wait theres more

And then there’s the little matter of Flash…

iPads do not support Adobe Flash. They never have, and they never will.  Steve Jobs said we don’t need access to Flash but, unfortunately, that’s just not true — especially for education.

One main problem is that the general public is pretty ignorant about Flash.  People simply don’t even know what it is or how often it is being used.

Myth #1: Flash is just a type of video. It doesn’t matter because it can be converted to other video types and HTML5.

If Flash were a type of video, this would be true.  But Flash is not video. The reason there is so much confusion is because, over the past few years, one of the top uses for Flash was to embed Flash video files. The first big user of this was YouTube.  But Flash was not designed for video, and that was never its main purpose.  Flash video (.flv) is a completely different file type than regular Flash (.swf) is. Flash video didn’t even exist until Flash version 6.  This means Flash had been out for many years before Flash video even existed.  

So, what is Flash and what is it used for?

Flash has been around for nearly as long as the World Wide Web has! It started nearly 20 years ago! (the web was invented in 1991/92, and FutureSplash aka Flash came about in 1995.)  It runs using a free browser plug-in that is installed on 99% of computers.

Primarily, it’s a vector-graphics (not raster, which is what video and JPEG images use) animation and multimedia program with built-in interactivity features. Vector graphics mean the graphics are defined using shapes and mathematical formulas — this tends to create a “cartoon” look, and is useful for animation. It’s also useful because the graphics can be easily scaled to any size without losing integrity — they will retain crisp, smooth lines and curves even if you zoom in infinitely.



Myth #2: Anything currently in Flash will be converted to HTML5 soon.

It’s true that video was never really a great use of Flash, and anything that is simple video or audio can be easily done using HTML5 instead.  But, as I pointed out above, Flash is not just for video.  Here are the types of things Flash has been used for over the course of the nearly two decades it has been in use:

  • Interactive multimedia web experiences (often for branding, including sound, animations, and visuals; also allows for smooth, vector-style embedded fonts, improving the visual experience further)
  • Interactive simulations, such as for science concepts. Examples: FOSSWeb, ExploreLearning
  • Educational tutorials, including embedded features such as audio, quizzes, etc. Like learning Open Heart Surgery
  • Games (one of the most famous being Farmville, but educational examples can be found at Cisco’s PacketVille, PBSKids.org, and many, many other websites)
  • Interactive visualizations. For example, news media for the 2012 US Presidential Election had live electoral maps that could be clicked or rolled over for more data. These maps were using Flash (and therefore would not work on an iPad.)   Another example would be a Rock Cycle Interactive
  • Project-based learning tasks, such as Math by Design
  • Web-based productivity tools, used for video editing, map creation, ebooks, timelines, slideshows, charts, graphs, concept maps, and all sorts of other tasks.
  • Thousands upon thousands of SCORM-compliant e-learning and lesson modules for learning management systems require Flash.  The main SCORM creation tools — Captivate and Articulate — created the modules as Flash format.

Many of these RIAs (Rich Internet Applications) for education are free; often they were developed using grant money from governments, universities, and departments of education.

Converting such applications to HTML5 would be no small task.  You can’t simply click a button and make it happen.  Converting videos is easy; converting entire interactive experiences is a different process entirely. It would more or less have to be completely re-programmed.  That’s a lot of time and money required to re-create something that still works perfectly fine on 90% of devices.  Why would you invest a lot of money to re-invent the wheel when 90% of people can still use it as it is? It doesn’t make sense, speaking from an ROI perspective.

In fact, more often what is happening is that some of these things are being released as apps — NOT converted to HTML5. The reason for this may be because Flash now has a tool to allow conversion to app format.  This still requires time and money, but a lot of the work that has been done can still be used and tweaked slightly to get it to app format.

However, one problem is that they then charge money for the apps, when the web version is absolutely free. For example, Starfall.com has many great (and free!) online resources for early readers.  They require Flash, so they won’t work on iPads.  Some of the content is now available as apps… if you pay $2.99 for each app. So, if you spend $6 you can access about HALF of what anybody who doesn’t use an iPad can access for free.


Myth #3: Flash is dead. It’s obsolete.

This idea stems from the fact that in 2011, Adobe announced that they would stop supporting browser-based Flash for mobile.  And, a few months ago, they removed Flash installations for Android from the Google Play store.

However, saying that this means “Flash is obsolete” is misleading for a few reasons:

  1. It doesn’t change the fact that there are MILLIONS of existing Flash resources that aren’t going away.
  2. Flash continues to work fine on actual computers.  99% of computers have the Flash player installed on them.
  3. 90% of all devices are NOT mobile, so Flash still works fine on those devices.
  4. Flash is still being used to develop apps. In fact, there’s a good chance that if you are on an iPad, at least one of your apps was made with Flash!
  5. Even on Android mobile devices, Flash still works.

When a company says they will “no longer support” something, it doesn’t mean that it goes away. It means that the company will not devote the resources to updating, maintaining, or continuing to evolve that product or feature. What this means is that, going forward, Adobe will not continue to make tweaks and changes to browser-based Flash to ensure that it works on a variety of screens and mobile devices.

However, those Android devices that already have Flash pre-installed will still be able to access all of those thousands upon thousands of great (and free) educational resources.

Even if you don’t have Flash installed, there are still ways to install it — it’s just more complicated and difficult than it used to be through the Play store.

The point of the matter is that, moving forward, new resources are going to be moving away from web-based Flash. They will start to use HTML5 (which lacks the functionality of Flash and often cannot do the same things) or will export the Flash file as a stand-alone app.  That’s fine. It’s the way it should be done. But it doesn’t change the fact that, if you use an iPad, you will (a) have to wait for those things to be developed — and by the time they are, your iPad may be obsolete; (b) you lose out on all the great resources everybody else still gets to access.Flash jobs

And if Flash is “dead”, why did Google go out of their way to be sure they included it in Chrome OS for their Chromebooks?

Why does a Monster.com job search result in over 1,000 jobs currently looking for Flash developers??

Myth #4: There aren’t very many educational sites that require Flash, anyway. We won’t really need it in education.

The number of websites that use Flash is staggering.  As you might expect, something that has been around for over 15 years is going to have a lot of content.  But I bet you don’t know just how much Flash is out there.

According to Opera’s MAMA (Metadata Analysis and Mining Application) assessment from just a few years ago, about 1/3 of websites on the internet use Flash:

Flash Usage

Since it is so suited to interactivity and multimedia, I would venture to guess that the number is even higher for educational sites… I would say at least 50% of educational websites use Flash. This includes the big names like PBS, Nova, BBC, Scholastic, and many more.

This means that when you use an iPad, you lose access to over 100 MILLION WEB RESOURCES. So, you have access to 700,000 apps but lose access to MILLIONS of web resources (most of which are free.)

At the current rate of development (100,000 apps per year), it would take 1,000 years for the number of apps to catch up to the number of Flash resources out there.

Some people have adopted the iPad, only to find out later just how much they really do need to be able to access Flash when it comes to using web resources for education. In fact, there is such high demand for Flash that there have been multiple “cloud browsing” apps developed for the iPad — just so that people can access Flash! Examples include Puffin, SkyFire, iSwifter, CloudBrowse, OnLive, and more…

In fact, teachers and students need Flash so much that iSwifter came out with a cloud browsing app specifically for education, called “Rover.”  The only problem is, using Rover uses WAY more bandwidth (and processing power… and battery life) than would be used just by getting a Flash-enabled device in the first place:

Perhaps this is why Google has gone out of their way to ensure that Flash is included and kept up to date on its Chrome OS for Chromebooks.  Because, for education, we need it.  Maybe not in 5 or 10 years, but for now… we do.



There is this little concept in engineering called BACKWARD COMPATIBILITY.  This means that, even if your device is looking toward the future, it needs to work in the present. iPads fail in this regard.  Not only do they not include a USB port to have access to standard hardware (pretty much every other device — including Android phones and tablets — still have USB), but they prevent you from accessing a third of the internet.

Sure, as we move forward, people will start to develop things in HTML5, apps, and other formats.  That’s going to be a time-consuming process; it’s not going to happen overnight. And it doesn’t erase the fact that there’s a lot of good stuff out there that is still great to use.

As time moves forward, we are starting to move toward e-books. Does that mean we should go ahead and burn all paper books because we don’t need them anyway? I mean, after all, ebooks are the way of the future, right? But what about all those printed materials that aren’t available as an ebook? Does this mean we have no use for them??

roadsIf somebody came out with a new car and said “Look, this is a great new car. But you can’t drive it on 33% of the roads out there.  And it’s more expensive than the cars that work fine on those roads. But don’t worry! In the future you won’t need those roads. And there will be other roads built which you can drive on. Trust us.”  Would you buy that car??

baby_bathwater1All I’m saying is, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

If there are great education materials and resources out there, and they work, and they are free to access… why would we want to prevent our students from having access to them?

And how can there be “an app for that” when iPad apps only represent 17.5% of the number of Windows programs and 0.7% of the number of Flash web resources available on the Internet?

Cloud Computing is a Dirty Word


This is Matthew Gudenius and I’m here to explain why Cloud Computing is a dirty word.

Okay, now that I have your attention… yes, I’m well aware that cloud computing is not actually a dirty word. It’s actually not even one word, it’s two.

However, it’s a phrase that’s getting thrown around a lot these days, mostly by companies trying to sell you their cloud computing services. People are starting to automatically assume that cloud computing is a great thing and that we should all be using it, but that’s not necessarily the case. Specifically, I’m going to be addressing the use of cloud computing at institutions with many users, such as schools.

Before you can decide whether cloud computing is truly a good solution for you or your institution, you need to understand what cloud computing is and how it works.

Cloud computing refers to a variety of services that let you run programs or store your data “in the cloud” – what does it mean to be working “in the cloud”? “The cloud” refers to the cloud bubble symbol that is generally used in visual diagrams to represent the interconnected network of computers and servers that make up the Internet.

So when you are “computing in the cloud”, it means that you are manipulating a program or file that is actually being stored or run on a remote server, not your own computer. In essence, you are using your computer like a remote control to get something done on a computer somewhere else in the world.

There are certainly some benefits to be had from this:

  • You can access the program or data from anywhere in the world, on many different types of devices.
  • You can easily collaborate with other people from around the world on projects and documents.
  • You free up storage space – you don’t have to use up tons of space on your own device.

In some ways, I love cloud computing. I was doing cloud computing 15 years ago, before people were calling it cloud computing. When I needed to easily access my files from any computer, I would log into my Yahoo email account and email the file to myself as an attachment, so I could then get to it from any other computer I might use. I’ve also been storing all of my photos on Flickr for several years now, and I also use Google Docs on a regular basis. In fact, I used Google Docs to plan the script for this video! These are all examples of cloud computing.

But there are some major drawbacks and limitations which many people don’t realize, and this is where cloud computing’s dirty little secrets come out:

  • There can be privacy and security issues. For many purposes, this isn’t a huge concern, but it can be if you are dealing with sensitive data or intellectual capital. I am focused on schools and learning, so generally speaking the built-in security measures of most cloud computing are good enough for me. But they might not be if you are working with sensitive business or government materials.
  • For some users, like school students, cloud computing may not be much of an option because the online services require personal information or email accounts to log in. This often means cloud computing is simply not an option for people who want to protect their privacy, or for people like children whose privacy must be protected according to laws like the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.
  • Reason number 3, and this one’s a biggie: probably the biggest limitation of cloud computing is that it can use up far too much internet bandwidth. This stems from how it works.

Cloud computing requires high-speed, broadband internet… and, depending on what you are doing, it may require very large chunks of data to be sent. This is especially problematic at institutions where you have many people sharing one internet connection. To understand why, you need to know the basics of how transferring files or accessing websites on the internet works.

You can find some great online videos that quickly explain how the internet works in easy-to-understand terms. Some examples are BrainPop’s internet video as well as YouTube videos by WydeaWonders and AaronTitus, so I’m going to borrow some footage from these to explain it to you in very simple terms, which will show why Cloud Computing can be a very bad thing.
Whether you’re at home, at an office, or at a school, if you are using the Internet, you are connecting through something called an Internet Service Provider, or ISP. The ISP allows your computer to go out and access other computers by sending and receiving data packets that reach their final destination by hopping from computer to computer on the internet. You can think of it kind of like a big network of roads, and the data being sent out is like little cars driving on those roads. If you want to get something from the internet, like watching a video on YouTube, the YouTube computer has to break that video up into lots and lots of little packets and send them to you. As you receive each one, the video slowly gets built and you can watch more and more of the video.

Obviously, the speed at which these packets travel is important. Generally we refer to that speed as bandwidth. You can think of bandwidth like the number of lanes your highway has. The more lanes it has, the more cars can travel simultaneously, so you avoid backups or delays.

Now, every Internet Service Provider has a limit as to how much bandwidth you can use. If you have a broadband connection, the FCC defines this as “high-speed Internet access that is always on and faster than the traditional dial-up access. “ But how fast it is and whether you have enough bandwidth to do cloud computing is a little more complicated.
Let’s look at an example. If you have broadband internet at home, you might have, let’s say, a connection speed of 6 megabits per second. This would be like having a 6-lane highway where each lane carries 1 megabit of data per second. So, what does this mean? It means you’ve got a whole highway to yourself, so you probably won’t have any problems with things like streaming videos and cloud computing. If you go watch a video on YouTube, that video might be 50 megabytes big, which is equal to about 400 megabits. So, since we can transfer 6 megabits per second, it will take about 67 seconds, or a little over 1 minute, for that entire YouTube video to download and run on your computer. You can watch little segments of it as they arrive, that’s what the loading bar at the bottom of the video tells you… it tells you how many packets you’ve received and how many you’re still waiting for.

But what if you live with your family and you are sharing your internet over a wi-fi network? This means maybe you are trying to watch the YouTube video at the same time that your son is downloading a song on his computer. In this case, you have to share the highway with whoever else is using your internet connection. So at that point you only get to use 3 of the lanes for your data packet cars and the other person gets the other 3 lanes to download their song. Once the song or video finishes being sent, those data packets are no longer on the highway and the full bandwidth is cleared up again for the other person’s packets.

This might not be much of a problem at home, where you can have a high-speed broadband connection shared by just a few people. But it can be a major problem at a workplace or school, where you might have hundreds of people trying to use the internet at the same time — you will get the same problem as too many cars trying to merge onto a highway with not enough lanes.

So let’s look at an average school. A recent internet speed test of K-12 schools in Virginia found that the average download and upload speed was about 20 mbps. So let’s say we have that connection and we only have a few users using the internet. Most likely, there will be no problem, because the highway is wide open, like a 20-lane highway with just a few cars on it.

But what happens if you have 100 people using their devices? If those users are working locally — that means they would be running programs on their computer and saving files on their computer or even the local network — it will have no impact on your internet connection. But the problem comes when you start doing cloud computing by working or transferring files through the internet.

As an example, let’s say there are suddenly 100 iPads doing a photo project. Since iPads can’t easily access local network folders, and they don’t have USB ports to store the photos on flash drives or external hard drives, you don’t have much of an option — iPads pretty much force you to use cloud computing to send those photos through the internet and store them somewhere you can access, like Dropbox.

And it doesn’t matter which cloud storage system you are using — there are many out there, such as iCloud, Dropbox, Google Drive, and Microsoft SkyDrive — but you’re going to run into the same problems with any of them.

So if we had 100 people trying to upload or download their photos from Dropbox, suddenly our 20 lane highway doesn’t look so sufficient. So what happens? Well, the photos are broken into little data packets like we show with our cars here, and since there are 100 users but only 20 lanes, the packets have to take turns merging into the flow of traffic. This has completely saturated our 20 lane highway, and the packets still have to queue up and wait their turn to be sent, which slows down the internet connection for everybody.

Since photo files on the newest iPads take up about 2 megabytes, this means they require 16 megabits of data to transfer, for each photo. Well, we’ve only got a 20 mbps highway, and we have 100 people trying to use it simultaneously, so each person’s packets have to take turns which means each person can really only transfer their photo at about 2/10ths of a megabit per second. With each person sending or receiving many, many packets, what we get is a traffic jam. Suddenly something that should have taken only 1 second to transfer now takes 80 seconds for every user, or nearly a minute and a half just to access a photo. And while this is going on, it also slows down or prevents other users from accessing websites, watching online videos, or really using the internet for any purpose at all.

This whole traffic jam happened because of cloud computing… if we had just saved and transferred the images locally instead of using Dropbox, the internet would still be clear for other purposes like accessing websites.

Now, you might think it’s pretty unlikely that 100 users would simultaneously try to transfer a photo to or from Dropbox. And you might be right. But it’s not unlikely that you could have a whole class of 30 students doing such a task at the exact same time. And as we move toward 1:1 computing in schools, it’s going to be very likely that 100 users will be trying to do something on the internet at the same time. As you can see, right now this means that cloud computing simply isn’t feasible if you have 100 or more users trying to use a 20 megabit internet connection.

Of course, it also depends on what you’re trying to do. As you can see, transferring full-size digital photos through online storage like Dropbox uses up a lot of internet bandwidth. But transferring music and videos takes up even more. On the other hand, if you‘re simply storing a typed document, or if you’re working on an online document like through Google Docs, then there are not nearly as many packets being sent, and it probably won’t bog down the internet connection.
A huge internet bandwidth hog is streaming media. This includes teleconferencing like Skype as well as streaming videos like YouTube, Hulu, Netflix, and Khan Academy, but it also includes streaming music services like last.fm, Pandora, and Spotify.

This chart shows the general bandwidth requirements for different online content. As you can see, streaming video requires close to 2 megabits per second — and that’s the minimum, with much higher bandwidth being preferred. And keep in mind, this is the requirement for just ONE device to stream video. These types of services may work for you okay at home, but remember that’s because you are using a broadband connection by yourself or only sharing with a few people. At a school or business, you are sharing that internet with everybody around you, and streaming music and videos are complete bandwidth hogs.

The LG website for wi-fi internet capable blu-ray players indicates that you should have a minimum of 1.5 mbps in order to stream video, and that even this speed is going to result in low quality, with preferred speeds of 3 megabits or higher. Obviously, that’s not acceptable for an institution that likely has dozens or even hundreds students and teachers sharing the internet. If just one classroom of 30 students were to use streaming video, it would require more than twice as much bandwidth as the average K-12 school in Virginia has!

There is also a new type of cloud computing that poses a particular problem for shared internet connections, and it’s a service called cloud browsing. Cloud browsing refers to services and apps that allow you to access online content and features you wouldn’t normally be able to use. In particular, these apps tend to be designed for iPads, because there are millions of websites iPads can’t access due to use of Flash, Java, Shockwave, Unity, or other web plugins. Since people still want to access these Flash websites, several companies have come out with apps that claim to let you run Flash websites on your iPad. Examples of these apps include Rover, iSwifter, Puffin, SkyFire, and OnLive Desktop.

All of these apps work the same way. What they actually do is let you remotely control another computer, and it sends you a non-stop streaming video of what is happening on that computer. This is especially bad for bandwidth because it’s just like streaming a video, except the difference is that the video never ends! If you’re watching a movie on YouTube, that movie has a certain size — maybe 50 megabytes — and once all those packets have transferred to your computer, the streaming stops and you don’t have to worry about hogging the internet anymore. This is not the case with these cloud browsing apps! As long as you keep the app open and running, it sends you a non-stop large video feed to your computer. For example, OnLive Desktop requires about 3 to 5 megabits per second or the video quality starts to suffer. Using these numbers, you can see that if we used one of these programs like OnLive, Rover, or iSwifter at a school with a 20 megabit broadband connection, as few as 4 or 5 iPads running these programs would use up all of the internet bandwidth for your whole school!

So, I hope you are starting to see why “Cloud Computing” can be a dirty word. It offers some advantages, but there’s a price to pay, and even though these tasks might work okay for you at home on your personal internet connection, they shouldn’t be used at all at many schools and offices that have to share one internet connection for dozens or hundreds of users. This includes teleconferencing with Skype, streaming videos like YouTube, online file storage like Dropbox, and cloud browsing with apps like Rover or OnLive.

In fact, I’m not the only one to point out these cloud computing drawbacks and make these recommendations. The FCC has released a Digital Textbook Playbook of recommendations for schools looking to transition to digital learning environments. This guide book specifically points out that schools should evaluate which content is best served locally and which would be better served from the cloud. Many people nowadays give a definitive answer that going to the cloud is definitely what we should be doing, but the FCC notes the same drawbacks I’ve pointed out in this video… for example, they point out the large amounts of internet bandwidth needed for cloud computing. In this example, the show that if you just had two classes of 30 students using streaming video, it would require at least 30 megabits per second… this is 50% more bandwidth than the average school in Virginia has for the entire school. And that’s just referring to 2 classrooms, or a total of 60 students. What if we wanted to do 1 to 1 digital computing for all the students in the school? Given our current internet speeds and infrastructure, it simply isn’t possible.

And that’s what makes Cloud Computing a dirty word — it’s a phrase that’s being thrown around as if it’s something we should automatically adopt… but if you are a school or other large institution and you do this, you are probably going to be facing some dire consequences.

So, what can we do? Well, there are several things you can do to work around these problems without having to do live cloud computing and use up all your internet.

#1) You can store your files locally. This means you save the file on your computer or device. This means you do not need to worry about internet bandwidth at all, but the limitation is that you can only access the file on that device. If you want to take work home with you, you have to either have your own portable device that you take with you everywhere, or you can store files on a portable storage media like a USB flash drive.

#2) Local area networks can serve many of the same functions as cloud computing, letting people store and share files on the network at much faster speeds without impacting internet usage. That school with a 20 megabit limitation on internet transfers can easily have a 1000 megabit — also known as a gigabit — network connection. This means storing and transferring files on your local network would be 50 times faster than using online storage like Dropbox! The drawback is that those files will only be available to students and teachers while they are at the school — not from home or other locations.

#3) You can download and save videos and digital content instead of streaming them on demand. By saving them to your computer or your local network, you can reload and play them at any time without using any internet bandwidth. One tool that can help you do this is RealPlayer, which you can download for free at www.real.com.

#4) Of course, these things are difficult or impossible to do with iPads, so I strongly recommend that schools and institutions avoid using devices like iPads that have you use cloud computing to store or transfer files. You can see more about the problems and limitations of using iPads by watching my video series titled “Just Say NO to iPads for Education”

PBL: Not What You Think It Is

Over the past several years, “PBL” has really caught fire as a buzzword in schools. First of all, what is PBL? That’s a tricky question to answer, because there are actually two commonly-accepted and widespread uses of the acronym in education:

  1. Problem-Based Learning
  2. Project-Based Learning
They are slightly different: problem-based learning focuses on using various activities with an end-goal of solving a relevant “real world” problem, whereas project-based learning goes a step beyond and essentially insists that authentic skills and tasks are done to either solve a problem or create a useful product. Either way, the basic premise is the same: we don’t want our students to be getting knowledge just for the sake of having knowledge. The whole idea is to use those standards-based  skills in meaningful ways that can solve problems.

Just “doing a project” or “solving a problem” is not enough to count as PBL.  A key component is that the problems — and the types of solutions students create — should be authentic. In other words, they should mimic the types of tasks people do in careers, outside of the classroom walls.

This concept is not new. In fact, it was proposed a century ago:

…there should be a natural connection of the everyday life of the child with the business environment about him… The child should study his commercial arithmetic and geography, not as isolated things by themselves, but in their reference to his social environment. The youth needs to become acquainted with the bank as a factor in modern life, with what it does, and how it does it — and then relevant arithmetical processes would have some meaning– quite in contradistinction to the time-absorbing and mind-killing examples in percentage, partial payments, etc., found in all our arithmetics. — John Dewey, The School and Society

I’m a big proponent of PBL and always have been, but it is such a popular buzzword these days that I think a lot of people are throwing it around and claiming to be PBL without even really understanding what it means.

Here are some examples:

  • Question-and-answer worksheets: Worksheets, pretty much by definition, are not “projects.” While they may be useful as tools to guide students in research and planning phases of projects, the fact remains that research and planning itself is only one small (but critical) component of PBL.  By itself, it is neither problem-based learning nor project-based learning. Even if the problems on the page are disguised as “real-world” tasks, this makes them no different than old-fashioned “word problems.
  • Online scavenger hunts: Scavenger hunts can be useful to practice locating information using various digital media.  But what problem is solved by merely finding information? Finding information doesn’t solve problems — using the information in certain ways does.  This is why you will not find any job description that includes “scavenger hunts” — online or otherwise — in its list of duties and responsibilities. Although learning how to find information is important, the focus of PBL would be the next step: how to use that information to create a useful product or solve a problem.
  • Real-world scavenger hunts: Just like online scavenger hunts, I know of very few jobs where there is any relevance in simply “going out and finding things” (repo man, maybe?)  There are several ostensible lessons which involve finding shapes, colors, etc., and while those types of activities (not projects) may reinforce identification or classification of certain concepts, it doesn’t represent an authentic, relevant task or problem we would solve in the real world.  The only way such an activity could be an authentic PBL task would be to extend it into, say, a scientific study to solve a problem — finding populations of plants or animals, for example, and using that data to draw conclusions or propose solutions to existing problems (such as environmental impacts).
  • Pirate-themed treasure hunts??  This is billed as “project based”, but I’m not sure (a) whether pirates even really did this type of activity in their daily routines; (b) why using the activities of cut-throat brigands and thieves constitutes a “real-world” or relevant skill to be practiced via a project. Is “pirate” really a viable career path for our students?!
  • Using technology for note-taking or acquiring knowledge.  In this video example, the claim is made that, since students are using technology tools (iPads) to help them gain knowledge via concept maps and personal organization tools, it counts as PBL. False. Acquiring knowledge, keeping notes, and organizing ideas may all be useful skills and activities, and they are certainly requisite parts of PBL.  But doing these tasks, alone, does not create a product or solve a problem.  Furthermore, when technology is used, it is best to expose students to the actual technology tools being used in the authentic context by actual practitioners in that field — if you look at what people use in the real world for their jobs, it’s not iPads.
So, to all of you describing your lessons and activities as “PBL” just because it’s a trendy buzzword and you think it sounds good, I suggest you critically evaluate whether those activities address real-world problems or create authentic products using actual techniques and tools of the trade.


To learn more about Problem-Based and Project-Based Learning, try these resources:

Just Say NO to iPads for Education, Part 3: Logistical Limitations / How iPads Reduce Productivity

As a teacher, my biggest concern is ensuring that my students are getting the knowledge and 21st century skills they are going to need to compete and survive in the world today. That means when I look at technology, I look at it for what it is: a tool. Like any tool, its use should be driven by a specific need, and those needs are based on what needs to happen in my classroom and what my students need to learn.

It has nothing to do with following trends or fads, or blindly using a tool just because other people are using it. It has nothing to do brand loyalty, or falling for advertising and sales pitches. It has everything to do with (a) what educational needs do I have; (b) what are some simple, effective, and affordable ways to address those needs; (c) are there are any alternatives that are more effective, more efficient, or more affordable?

In other words, I conduct a needs assessment and do my homework, putting in due diligence to determine whether technology can help address those needs, and if so, what different technologies can do so.  I am only going to adopt and use a technology if it provides a reasonable return on investment — ie. it improves efficiency or effectiveness of learning — and there is not an alternative device that does the same thing at a more affordable price, or does a better job at the same cost.

Unfortunately, this is not what schools (and even government institutions, who sure know how to waste money like nobody else) are doing when they decide to purchase iPads.  If they did, they would come to discover that the iPads are less efficient than some other tech solutions, and more expensive than alternatives that can provide the same kinds of benefits (ie. Android tablets.)

Every educational technology I can think of offers its own challenges and limitations. Although there is still not an ideal, utopian 1:1 technology for schools, iPads are especially problematic due to their limitations.  In short, iPads were not designed to be a productivity or education tool, and as a result there are problems caused for management, deployment, tech support, and limited productivity.

Here are my Top 5 most pressing issues that cause iPads to be a poor choice for logistical and productivity reasons:

  1. The lack of a physical keyboard means more time (and frustration) creating written documents.

    Despite the fact that we are living in a multimedia age of YouTube and Podcasts, creation of typed documents is  till extremely important. If you ask anyone who knows me, they will tell you that I have been advocating for “media literacy” — including knowing how to produce multimedia content like graphic design and videos — for a long time (like the past decade).

    However, that doesn’t mean that these products can necessarily replace writing.  Words, as abstract symbols, have the power to convey ideas and connotations that simply can’t always be expressed using visual formats.  And even for most audio-visual products, it all begins with writing.

    Our students need to know how to be effective writers more — not less — than ever before. The only difference is that these days the production needs to be typed with a keyboard, not handwritten.Herein lies a problem for tablets: they use a virtual keyboard instead of a hardware one. There is a reason why we still use keyboards after all these years, over 100 years since the QWERTY keyboard first showed its face on a typewriter. The reason is this: it works. When a tool is effective, you don’t mess with it.

    Benefits of a hardware keyboard over a virtual, screen-based one include: (a) easier touch-typing technique — being able to sense key edges and location through tactile sense alone improves efficiency; (b) easier to erase and correct mistakes; (c) comfort and potential ergonomic benefits — keyboards provide some shock-absorptive cushioning for your fingers, whereas tapping on a hard  surface all day may introduce discomfort or stress to your hands.

    It should be no surprise, then, that various studies (like this one) have found that lack of physical keyboard (combined with poor auto-correction, difficulty editing and copying/pasting/moving text) slows typing, limits productivity, and increases frustration when using tablets.  Sure, you can buy a bluetooth keyboard, but now you have introduced an additional cost and suddenly are left with a device that has the same — or worse — portability as a laptop, so what was the point??

  2. iPads are not conducive to saving work, taking it home, or printing it out.

    When it comes to being able to easily save work, print it out, or submit it to the teacher, iPads are one of the worst choices out there. On Windows computer environments, files can be stored, moved, and printed very easily. One system you can use, for example, is by setting up each student with an Active Directory account, in which they can have a protected folder on a server accessible through the LAN (local area network).  Using this system, students can save their work on a central server and access it from any computer on campus; it can be set up so students work is hidden or protected, has automatic backups made, and can be accessed by teachers, or teachers can create hand-in folders for students to submit their work to.  This is personally how I have been doing things for the past 8 years as a computer teacher.

    One limitation with this setup is that students cannot access those files from home. However, students can use inexpensive portable storage devices (flash drives aka “thumb drives”) to transfer or store files as necessary.  This technique can even be used on Android tablets because they have USB ports. iPads have neither LAN directory access nor USB ports, which means you basically have to send any files you create (photos, videos, documents, etc.) through the Internet. A few cloud-based methods people are using include DropBox and apps like DropItToMe.  While these are nice services and I have nothing against them, this can be a huge problem for schools because schools have a limited amount of bandwidth on their ISP, and that bandwidth is shared by all teachers and students at the school (for more details, see my video “Cloud Computing is a Dirty Word“).

    Why limit yourself by using a device that requires using internet bandwidth just to work with files?  Android tablets and ultrabooks can also use DropBox or cloud storage, if so desired, but also have other methods of file management which don’tbog down your school’s internet connection.

    Likewise, iPads can only print files to printers with specific wifi/AirPort capabilities… and even then, it’s not easy to specify which printer to print to. The printers at many schools do not currently work for this purpose, which introduces yet another additional cost to get this feature to work.

  3. Installation and maintenance of apps, and general IT management of the device, is a major hassle.

    Computers — actual computers (laptop, desktop, ultrabook, etc.) — were designed as enterprise solutions. They were designed as productivity tools, by and large to (*gasp*) get work done. Not to watch videos, not to listen to music, not to play games;  not as entertainment devices.It should come as no surprise, then, that computers have great tools for being managed in settings like businesses — and schools. Anywhere you might find multiple people sharing a network and using computer resources.

    On laptops and desktops, you can easily: (a) install identical images on multiple machines to quickly install identical  software and settings across multiple devices; (b) lock down usage to specific applications, or prevent users from accidentally messing things up; (c) monitor and track users and usage; (d) generally, to maintain control and prevent abuse or mistakes.All of this is difficult (and sometimes impossible) on iPads. As Therese Mageau, Editorial Director of T.H.E. magazine, points out: “Tablets are basically consumer devices. There was no thought in their design for needs like file structures for storing/organizing user work; security features to lock down against unsafe use; supporting multiple users on the same device; purchasing hundreds or even thousands of apps on a single account; managing those apps on hundreds or even thousands of devices.”These devices simply were not designed nor intended for schools or business, and therein lies the rub. Teachers and administrators (because, let’s face it, nobody who actually knows anything about computers would have gone out and bought iPads for schools) decided to buy a home entertainment device and try to use it as an educational and productivity tool.  Gee, no wonder it doesn’t work.  That’s trying to make a square peg fit in a round hole.  Why? For what reason?  What do they do that, say, netbooks couldn’t have done (and at a lower price)?

  4. Lack of commonly used web plugins like Java and Flash is still a majorproblem.
    There is so much misconception and lack of understanding about what Flash is an why it’s important to education, that I plan to devote an entire topic just to that. However, let me start by saying:(a) Flash is NOT a video format. Anyone who thinks that all you miss out on by not being able to use Flash (which is the case for iPads)  is YouTube-style videos is very ignorant or delusional. Flash is an entire interactive multimedia system, and has been the #1 choice for games, tutorials, and simulations on the web for over a decade.

    (b) Flash is far more prevalent than you think it is. Just a few short years ago, Opera web browser’s MAMA (Metadata Analysis and Mining Application) found that fully one-third of websites use Flash.

    (c) Flash is even more important for education. If 1/3 of the whole Web uses Flash, I’d say the number for educational websites is more like 50%+.  I haven’t seen any hard numbers in this area, but I can tell you that for every educational app I have seen, I have been able to find about 20 Flash-based websites that can do the same thing… usually for free.  Flash was not only essential for web-based games, tutorials, simulations, and activities, but was also the main platform used by programs like Captivate and Articulate for creating thousands of SCORM-compliant eLearning modules.  (Captivate is now transitioning to HTML5, but that doesn’t fix the fact that thousands of current SCORM modules still require Flash in order to work.)(d) HTML5 is not replacing Flash very quickly. In fact, very, very few of the educational sites I have used have switched to HTML5 (hint: I can count them on one hand.)  Many more have actually released a stand-alone app instead, but even then the number is small (and they charge money for the app, whereas the Flash version online is free.)

    (e) Some people claim you can get around the Flash limitation by using apps like Rover, which use cloud-based video streaming to allow you to access Flash sites. These apps will either fail or completely bog down internet bandwidth when used on a shared internet connection, like at schools (see my “Flash on iPad? Review of Rover”video.)  It is not really a solution that should be considered by use at any educational institution, it is really only sufficient for use at home.(f) Want examples?  Check out my videos STEM Websites… DON’T Work on iPad, English Language Arts Websites DON’T Work on iPad, and History / Social Studies Websites DON’T Work on iPad. (I also use several great websites about art, artists, and classical music with my students — which not only do not work on iPads, but don’t even have comparable apps to replace them.)

    With over 100 million Flash websites out there — developed over the course of 15-20 years, with millions of dollars in funding — how long do you think it will take to convert them to apps or HTML5? And what incentive do they have to do so, considering that 90% of devices can still run Flash perfectly fine??  At the current rate of app development, it would take hundreds of years for the number of apps to catch up to the number of Flash sites.

  5. Despite popular belief,  iPads are nota good choice for PBL (project-based learning).A big claim by people when rushing to the defense of the iPad is that “it’s not just for games and videos! You can do project-based learning on it!”  I call shenanigans. Sure, you can do some projects on iPads. You can do basic document creation, plus some creativity-based things such as ebook creation, artwork, or taking digital photos  and videos and utilizing them in certain ways.The problem stems primarily from ignorance over what “project-based learning” (or PBL, for short) actually is. A lot of teachers simply think that “doing projects” or making products constitutes project-based learning. This is not true.  If it were, then we have all been doing project based learning all along.  Nearly every teacher I know requires his or her students to create products and do projects at some points, whether it is science fairs, models and dioramas, or artwork.This, in and of itself, does not define PBL. I tend to agree with the definition given at PBL-Online.org, a product of the Buck Institute and Boise State Department of Educational Technology: “Project Based Learning is an instructional approach built upon authentic learning activities that engage student interest and motivation. These activities are designed to answer a question or solve a problem and generally reflect the types of learning and work people do in the everyday world outside the classroom. “The key phrases here are “authentic learning activities” and “work people do in the everyday world outside the classroom.”  In other words, it’s not enough for learning to involve a project. That project or activity must be relevant to careers outside of academia.  In short, PBL is a fusion of fundamental standards-based learning, wrapped in a new form of vocational education. This means students should be using the tools and learning the techniques that practitioners in a field would actually use.  As I pointed out in Part 3 of “Just Say NO to iPads for Education”, iPads are not replacing computers in “the real world” and do not reflect the software or techniques being used by professionals.  Therefore, it does not fit the “authentic activities” and “real world” requirements of PBL.

Perhaps all of these limitations are why there are now many people waking up and smelling the coffee, pointing out that iPads where not all they were cracked up to be, like saying “Stop Buying iPads, Please“, or reports on the ineffectiveness of iPad pilot programs:

“…the iPad, with the slow finger-typing it requires, actually makes written course work more difficult… early studies indicate that these finger-based tablets are passive devices that have limited use in higher education. When the University of Notre Dame tested iPads in a management class, students said the finger-based interface on its glassy surface was not good for taking class notes and didn’t allow them to mark up readings. For their online final exam, 39 of the 40 students put away their iPads in favor a laptop, because of concerns that the Apple tablet might not save their material.” ( iPads for College Classrooms )

No wonder tablets are being used for consumption and entertainment, not for productivity:


Now, a lot of people are trying to scramble to come up with work-arounds and solutions for all of these problems — mostly, it seems, so that they can  save face in light of the poor purchasing decisions they made.  A better solution would have been to take the time and do the homework to choose technology solutions which don’t have these drawbacks and limitations in the first place.

It is completely backwards to choose a tool first, and then figure out what it can be used for — yet this is precisely what schools and educators are doing with iPads. They take a “buy first, ask questions later” mentality, and who suffers from it? The students… and school budgets… and the taxpayers who are funding this mess.