When talking about “The Paperless Process,” we really need to keep in mind that:
- there is no singular “right way” to go paperless — there are several possible solutions here;
- the “paperless process” is not a single process, but a series of processes that represent the whole collection of myriad tasks and jobs we must accomplish in a classroom.
Learning can be a chaotic process, and school tends to have a whole slew of varied tasks and demands — whether this means the many different subjects that students learn in a high school or university setting, or all of the various subjects and tasks they must learn in elementary school: reading, writing, math, science, history, geography, art, music, even physical education.
These different tasks have different needs and demands, so it may be obvious that different technology tools will address those needs to different degrees. A device that may work very well for reading and writing tasks may not suffice at all for art, science, or math tasks.
This is why versatility of hardware, software, and processes and procedures must be considered. Really, we can look at the varied needs of a paperless classroom as two sides of the same learning coin:
1) Content Consumption (Acquisition) — How is knowledge and information delivered to the students? These days there is a lot of talk about “flipping” the classroom, e-books, and “gamification,” but it all boils down to one thing: how do students acquire knowledge? Do they do it independently, or guided by a teacher? In reality, a paperless device and paperless classroom should allow students multiple paths to obtain knowledge, including online websites, e-books, videos, interactive tutorials, simulations, practice games, and assessment tools.
2) Productivity (Application) — The other equally-important (or more importan, in my opinion) side of the coin is: what can students do with that knowledge? How can they apply it, to show that they can extend lower-order skills to higher-order problem-solving tasks, and to be productive 21st-century workers and citizens? In reality, this is the end result we want from school — not mere acquisition of knowledge, but the ability to actually use and apply that intellectual toolkit in “the real world.”
I have been teaching students using technology for many years now, and one thing that I have always dreaded over the past decade of using edtech is: being absent. Now, I’m pretty sure every teacher gets some level of anxiety when he/she can’t be in the classroom and must trust our precious students and lessons in the hands of a stranger. But when you add technology — and all of the challenges that come along with it — to the mix, that feeling is compounded. What if the substitute teacher is not tech-savvy or even computer literate? What if something goes wrong in the class?
Well, in the past, I would type up very detailed instruction guides — basically, tutorial packets — with step-by-step screenshots, annotations, and other illustrations along the way. As you might imagine, that is a very time-consuming task! It would take me 2-3 hours of work just to get 6 hours off! (Obviously, I avoided being absent as much as humanly possible.)
However, now that my students are in a 1:1 classroom, I can take a different approach: I can simply make a short recording, giving them all of the instructions myself! Obviously, I don’t want to throw any major curveballs by introducing entirely new concepts and procedures to the mix, but this can be a great way to ensure students have a resource they can refer to if they get stuck or need a reminder of how to do something, and you don’t need to depend on the sub to be able to explain it all. Best of all, it only takes about 30 minutes to do… much faster than the detailed sub plans I was creating!
Windows 8 has some pretty nice features for multitasking in the classroom. This comes in particularly useful for online research and document creation, as well as for going paperless with active digitizer stylus-enabled (“penabled”) hybrid devices such as the Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2 we are using.
In this video, I show a few of the simple ways to efficiently multitask using multiple apps at the same time:
1) Swipe from the left to rapidly switch between running apps (some can be running in the background), or to bring up a list of open apps.
2) Pull the apps out onto the left or right side of the screen to “dock” them into a pane or panel and be able to use two apps (or more, depending on screen space) simultaneously.
As many schools and districts are proving with their wallets, Chromebooks can be an enticing device for the classroom. And why not? They offer the promise of easy management and cloud-based learning in a cost-effective, affordable device. What’s not to love?!
But before you succumb to the siren’s song of these promises, you have to keep in mind that there are also some limitations and caveats:
In short, there are three major reasons Chromebooks could be good 1:1 devices in the classroom:
- Affordability. Chromebooks are some of the most affordable devices out there (tied for affordability with some Android tablets)
- Manageability. Since everything is done online (instead of using apps installed on the computer), it is easier for IT staff and teachers to maintain Chromebooks because: (a) you don’t have to deal with the sometimes-tricky management of purchasing and installing apps and software (which can be a challenge on Windows, Mac, iOS, or Android devices); (b) virus and malware worries are basically nonexistent; (c) Chromebooks automatically download and install any updates they need (OS, browser, etc.)
- Educational website accessibility. Since ChromeOS supports Flash websites (in addition to HTML, including HTML5), Chromebooks are able to access and use many more online educational sites and services than iPads or Android tablets can (technically, Flash still works on Android, but getting it installed is another story…) For example, Chromebooks can access sites like History.org (Colonial Williamsburg), Pixton and GoAnimate animation and comic creation tools, and all of the resources at PBSKids.org (like Sesame Street, Curious George, Wild Kratts, Sid the Science Kid, Clifford, etc.), as well as games and activities like those found at Scholastic. These educational resources can be accessed easily via Mac or Windows devices, but not via iPads.
However, there are also some major limitations of Chromebooks, which are not as well-publicized:
- Not all Chromebooks are created equal. There are a variety of manufacturers, brands, and models. The only thing you can be sure that one Chromebook has in common with another Chromebook is that they both run on Google’s operating system, Chrome OS.This is important to keep in mind, because some Chromebooks are more powerful than others. Some of them have longer battery life than others. Some are more expensive than others. For that reason, Chromebooks are not always cost-effective! Some are over $500 while other, nearly-identical ones, are $199!
- Chromebooks require a significant amount of bandwidth from your school’s internet service provider. Unlike other devices, Chromebooks essentially do everything online (“in the cloud”), so this means all files are being stored online, and anything on the computer gets transferred through the web. All of that — plus watching videos, creating artwork or documents, etc. — uses up a lot of bandwidth. [To learn more, and to help determine how much bandwidth you’d need at your school, you can use the Bandwidth Calculator provided by the US Department of Education]
So, as you can see, under the right circumstances (long-life, low-cost Chromebooks; high-bandwidth infrastructure; and especially if being used for students over 13 years old), Chromebooks can make a great 1:1 device. But will they allow you to truly go paperless??
My answer to that used to be a flat-out “NO!”, because the standard laptop/netbook format that most Chromebooks format doesn’t allow for the following useful abilities:
- Handwriting / drawing
- Built-in camera for photography / video production
As I discussed in my previous post about considerations when choosing a paperless device, the above features are very compelling (if not absolutely necessary.) Not if you simply want to supplement a traditional paper classroom with a 1:1 computing device… but if you want to completely replace the tasks done by paper? Will you want to have a touch-screen and, preferably, a good stylus pen for writing/drawing? Possibly. Probably.
Well, this is where things get interesting: Chromebook manufacturers are starting to offer hybrid devices that have touch-screen capability. Not only that, but it’s encouraging that devices such as Acer’s C720P boast all-day battery life and a pricetag under $300! For a Chromebook that has a touch-screen!
Why this is good news:
- The touch-screen allows ease of use for younger students
- Touch-screen is a better interface than mouse/keyboard for certain applications: virtual music instruments, art applications, etc. (mouse/keyboard is still better for many things, like creating Google Docs)
Why it isn’t great news:
- Touch-screen is still going to suffer from the same limitations as iPads when it comes to writing/drawing; lack of active digitizer means any stylus you get isn’t going to offer fine-tip precision. A touch-screen Chromebook, just like most other touch-screen tablets, isn’t going to be great for handwriting or precision drawing.
- It costs $100 — or 33% more — just to get that touch screen.
Having said all that, it’s still only 1/2 the cost of an iPad, and less than 1/3 the price of a MacBook, so we’re headed in the right direction. Now, if we we can just convince them to add in decent photo/video camera capability and an active digitizer for true writing/drawing abilities, and if we can get more online app accessibility to children under 13 years old (in a way that is still safe and protects their privacy)…
When that day comes, then we will truly have an ideal paperless classroom device.
As noted in the previous post, there are a few areas of concern when using Windows (or Mac) computers: namely, these operating systems are designed to allow the user to have a lot of control over everything they do — including things we may not want our students to do (intentionally or, more often, accidentally), like moving shortcuts or icons, deleting/uninstalling software, or installing unapproved software apps.
One major first step to prevent such behaviors is to establish a Technology Acceptable Use Policy (a.k.a. Agreement or Contract) for students and parents to sign. This document outlines the fundamental rules and requirements for using 1:1 devices in the classroom, and outlines possible consequences for non-compliance. By signing the document, students and parents acknowledge that they are aware of the rules and will abide by them.
However, even with the above measures in place, accidents do happen (and sometimes students — especially adolescent ones — can make some poor decisions.)
For these reasons, it is a good practice to install software on the devices that will prevent such problems from occurring. One way is to ensure that students have a non-admin login, which would prevent installation of software and would minimize malware threats. However, it doesn’t prevent moving or deletion of desktop icons and shortcuts, and it can cause problems when admin access is needed — for example, if a website plugin needs to suddenly be updated.
The solution I have used over the past few years to avoid these issues is called Deep Freeze, by Faronics. This software freezes the configuration of a computer so that, upon reboot, any changes that occurred are undone and the system is restored to that designated “frozen” state. This does not actually prevent changes from occurring on the machine. Students can log in with admin rights, can make changes to the system, can update web plugins, or could even install software on the fly if they need it — however, none of those actions will stick. They will not persist forever; when the computer is restarted, all of the changes made while frozen will be wiped out:
Tips for Using Deep Freeze at School:
- You can set “Allow Windows Updates” setting to automatically ensure that, while the rest of the computer is frozen, the Windows OS is not frozen and can be updated as normal via Windows Updates (otherwise, you will have to unfreeze the computers and manually check for updates at scheduled times.)
- You can also allow scheduled update time slots and scripts to make sure certain programs can automatically update. This can be useful for software that requires updates, like Flash (and other Adobe software. But especially Flash.)
- Students will need to be taught that they cannot rely on saving and accessing their files locally! If you save any work to My Documents, for example, that work will be erased and will disappear with the computer is rebooted! The solution to this is to store files outside of the local device: you can create student folders on the LAN (local area network for the school), which will allow students to access those files from any computer while at school. An even better solution could be to use “cloud storage” solutions such as Microsoft SkyDrive or Google Drive. This is part of Google Apps for Education, which is popular because it is free for schools and provides 30 GB of storage space for every student. It is the solution we — like many other classrooms — are using.
Click here for technical details and documentation regarding how you set up automatic Windows Updates or updates for other programs, while keeping computers safely frozen.
You may have noticed in my previous posts about the needs and requirements of 1:1 paperless devices that I did not mention “management/maintenance” as an important consideration.
The reason for this is because, although it actually is an important factor to consider, we have to keep in mind the following:
- The priority for choosing a device is the educational experience; the #1 priority is to improve learning and productivity, and all other factors (including pricetag and IT management) are, in my opinion, secondary to this primary goal. Even though they are still very important, it doesn’t do much good to get a device that is “cheap” or “easy for tech support and maintenance” if the device isn’t very useful in the classroom.
- There is not an “unmanageable” device. Every major category of device — Mac, Windows, iOS, Android, Chromebook — is manageable; it may simply be a matter of different methods and (sometimes) additional software or systems that may be necessary.
I am going to start by pointing out some of the IT setup/management/maintenance benefits and limitations of each of the above , and then explain some ways that Windows devices can, in fact, be fairly easy to manage and maintain — no more difficult than iPads, Android tablets, or Macs.
Having acknowledged the challenges of each popular 1:1 solution, we can see that there are always considerations to keep in mind — and there are always solutions to each problem, some may just take more time or specialized software than others.
In the upcoming posts I will explain how you can streamline use of Windows 8 devices (like the Lenovo Thinkpad Tablet 2) for use in your school, and minimize the work required to install software and reduce anxieties about students accidentally (or intentionally) “messing up” the devices (through actions as innocuous as moving around desktop icons, or as worrisome as virus infections.) These are the 4 basic types of tools you may want to consider if using Windows (or even Mac) devices:
- Cloning / imaging software to simplify software installs onto multiple devices, and ensure standardization (in our case, we are starting by using Acronis True Image; there are several other options)
- “Freezing” or “locking” software to easily prevent or roll back any changes made to the computer, essentially “freezing” it in a state that you desire (we are using Faronics Deep Freeze to accomplish this)
- Anti-Malware software (optional), such as Sophos or Norton. Due to the improved Windows security and firewall features combined with software such as Deep Freeze, antivirus software may not even be necessary but could be an optional “extra precaution.”
- Classroom Device Management / Monitoring software (optional), such as SMART Sync a.k.a. “SynchronEyes.” There are a few different programs that will allow you as a teacher (or an admin) to be able to see each student’s screen, track their behaviors and activities on the devices, take screenshots or broadcast student or teacher screen to other devices, send and retrieve quizzes, polls, or files from students, set filtering and restrictions for apps or websites that are accessible to students, and more options. This type of software is not necessary for a 1:1 or paperless classroom, but it can certainly be nice to have.
A couple months ago, I remember waking in the middle of the night, my heart racing and my mind muddles with thoughts and anxiety. I couldn’t stop debating whether I had made the right choice for technology; I kept thinking of all of the things that could go wrong:
- Windows 8 was a new operating system. Would it really prove to be as manageable as previous versions were in the classroom? (Note: I didn’t list “manageability” as one of the requirements for the paperless devices, and the reason is because they are all manageable, and they all have their own tips and tricks and ups and downs when it comes to set up, locking down for security and preventing student tampering, etc. Windows has a bad reputation in some of these aspects, and some of it is valid but it’s actually not a problem if you do it the right way — more about how to do that in a future post…)
- Would the devices prove durable enough to hold up in a 6th grade classroom? (I didn’t even order protective casing, since it would make the tablets unable to work well in the keyboards, and would significantly add to the cost, and ThinkPads have a reputation for durability…)
- Would using Bluetooth keyboards be a problem??
This last question is what really kept me up at night, and the reason why is because hybrid devices like the Tablet 2 offer a bit of versatility in the variety of configurations you can go with. This sounds like a good thing — and it can be — but it means the complexity of decision-making is increased, because you are not only considering the main device (the tablet), but also the peripherals you will need to go along with it. For example, without a keyboard or stylus pen (and maybe even a mouse, for desktop-style computing), a Windows tablet isn’t much better than an iPad or Android (although at least it can access 100% of websites, unlike the Android and iPad).
However, even when considering something as simple as a mouse or keyboard, there are a variety of options to choose from. The Tablet 2 — like other similar tablets — has both a USB port (but only one!) and built-in bluetooth for wireless connectivity.
At first thought, wireless (bluetooth) may seem like a great solution for a classroom; who wants wires everywhere, tangling things up and getting in the way, anyway?
But it’s not that simple. For one thing, wireless devices to not get their electricity from the computer like a USB peripheral would, so they must be charged separately. It’s difficult enough to set up a good way to charge the computing device itself, so adding a second device that needs to be charged complicates things further… and what do you do if it runs out of batteries in the middle of a project?
Another problem is a scientific one: Bluetooth works by hopping around different frequencies in the 2.4 GHz range. This range happens to be the same as the frequency used by most wifi signals (802.11b and 802.11g, for example).
Since the Bluetooth keyboard is constantly changing frequency (and because it has a relatively weak/short range), this helps it prevent interference with signals from wifi and other bluetooth devices. However, the more devices you use in a given space, running in the same frequency range, increases the likelihood of interference.
So, Bluetooth offers some benefits — ease of use, lack of wires to tangle or snag — but also some serious drawbacks to consider: they must be periodically charged (usually with internal batteries), and if you put too many of them in one space (like a classroom) you can run into problems of signal interference, which could slow down typing or receiving wifi packets/data. These are the kinds of thoughts that keep you up at night, especially when you decided to go ahead and bite the bullet and order the $110 Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2 keyboards.
For the record, I am well aware that $100+ is ridiculous for a keyboard (I already thought the iPad keyboard was excessive at $60+) However, we had chosen the matching Lenovo keyboard for a few reasons:
- It seemed durable and comfortable to use — the keys are more solidly secured than cheaper models (which were flimsy and could be popped off), and the size and spacing is more like a laptop keyboard
- Ease of setup and compatibility with the device; since it is designed to go with the Tablet 2, it works fairly well as a stand to set up the device as a “laptop” format (although I would never recommend using it on your lap), and simplified the procedure of setup.
Now, I was up at night in a cold sweat double-guessing that decision, both because of the excessive pricetag and the potential problems. So… what were the alternatives we could have used?
1) Instead of going with the expensive Lenovo keyboard, you could opt for a different, less expensive Bluetooth keyboard designed for tablets. This would have presented some of the same problems (battery charging, potential interference), but at least would have a more reasonable pricetag.
2) Instead of using a Bluetooth keyboard with inexpensive USB mouse (plugged in only when necessary), we could have opted for a plug-in USB keyboard. This could range anywhere from an inexpensive tablet case/stand ($10!) to a full-sized desktop keyboard (not ideal for space-saving and manageability purposes in a classroom, and the tablet would still need a stand)
That’s where the dilemma came in. We could save about $100 per student — and avoid the Bluetooth issues — just by using a cheap case with built-in USB keyboard! We ended up deciding against this option, simply because the durability of these super-cheap keyboard cases was questionable — the USB cable is thin and flimsy, and the keys are compact and possibly could break or fall off. Additionally, the fold-out stand means that the case falls flat much more easily than the Lenovo keyboard/stand does. Were these potential headaches worth it?
The verdict is out on that one. I would say that, if you want to try a paperless 1:1 solution like I am, and you are cash-strapped and budget-crunched, it would certainly be worth it to give these less expensive USB keyboards a try (and let me know how it goes!) Overall, I would stand by the assertion that, if you can choose between a plugin keyboard and a Bluetooth one for a classroom, the USB option is still preferable in many cases. What we opted for was to try to Lenovo keyboards designed to go with the device, with the understanding that if they didn’t work out for some reason, we would return them within our return window for refund and we would keep plug-in USB keyboard in mind as a backup “Plan B.”
So far, it looks like the Lenovo keyboards may end up working well. They have been in place and used for about a week now — 30 of them simultaneously in the same room (however, would they still work okay if there were hundreds of them being used in rooms adjacent to each other, or in a large lecture hall?) They are working well as stands for the devices, and seem to be functioning fine without interference problems.*
This all just goes to show you that, when you are considering using tablets, the decision is not as simple as just picking “the right device” — you have to consider how you will address all of your needs, and this can include things like keyboards, mice, display systems (monitors, projectors), or other peripherals you will likely need to use in a 1:1 classroom.
* I do need to note, however, that two of the 30 keyboards don’t seem to be able to connect to the tablets. They turn on and blink once, but do not continue to blink showing that they are transmitting/waiting for Bluetooth sync, and they are not being detected by the tablets. Could it be that a small percentage of these Lenovo devices are DOA/lemons?
The main 1:1 paperless device considerations I addressed in the previous post were:
- eBook accessibility
- All-day battery life
- Document creation
- Multimedia (photo/audio/video) production
- Access all websites
- Handwriting / drawing capability (notes, artwork)
- Compatibility with peripheral devices
The needs of my classroom — a self-contained, multiple-subject, 6th grade classroom — are varied and run the gamut from reading, writing, and research to science labs, art projects, and video production. I need a device that can be used for typed documents and standard “computer” purposes, can access every online educational resource available to us (including Flash or Java ones), but in going paperless I also need one that allows for writing, drawing, art, and multimedia production. In other words, I need a device that can do it all. I want my students to be able to have their cake and eat it, too.
This is where hybrid or convertible devices shine. With touch screens, accelerometers, built-in cameras — and sometimes active digitizer pens, as well — these devices allow you to get any of the benefits of a tablet, but they also feature full-fledged operating systems that allow for the unrestricted website access, productivity software, and keyboarding capabilities of a laptop or desktop computer.
But even in the subcategory of hybrids/convertibles, there are a lot of different options: some are touch-screen ultrabooks with larger screens and full-powered processors; others are netbooks (“netvertibles”), with smaller screens and less powerful processors, but much better battery life; while others primarily take a tablet format, with long battery life and built-in cameras, but keyboards must be added or attached separately. There are even different operating systems available on these devices, but the vast majority are running Windows 8.
After researching and trying out several devices, the one I chose to best fit the needs of my classroom was the Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2:
- Very slim, lightweight, and portable
- Rugged, rubberized casing with strong screen (Dragontrail glass)
- Durable, capable, natural-feeling keyboard (sold separately)
- Decent front and rear cameras (2 megapixel and 8 megapixel)
- Capacitive touch + active digitizer for accurate writing/drawing
- USB, HDMI, SD storage, and SIM card slot
- Supports the greatest range of peripheral devices (anything that works on Windows via bluetooth or USB)
- Access 100% of websites, including Flash, Java, Silverlight, etc.
- 10 hours of battery life (even with non-stop use)
- Separate keyboard must be used
- Lenovo’s keyboard is expensive ($100+) — but you can use any bluetooth or USB keyboard
- Weaker processor and graphics than laptops/ultrabooks
My first inclination was actually not to use a tablet-format device. Because online research and typed document creation are such essential parts of the 6th grade curriculum, I felt it would be preferable to have a device with keyboard attached (while still including touch-screen tablet and writing/drawing capabilities.) There are actually very few options in this configuration; most of the devices that have active digitizer pens are in tablet format.
However, there was one very intriguing option: the CTL 2go PC NL4, which is a device built to spec as an Intel Classmate PC:
This is a “netvertible” (convertible netbook that can also be used as a tablet) that was designed from the start to be used by children and schools. As such, it has lots of classroom-friendly features, including ruggedized casing, spill-resistant keyboard, and installed software apps for IT management, teacher administration, and classroom activities including camera applications and art/drawing software. There’s a lot to like here, and I love the idea of the Intel Classmate PC: a device that “does it all” and specifically addresses the needs of students and teachers in a classroom. Unfortunately, the execution and hardware decisions involved in architecting this device prevent it from being a viable choice for my classroom, due to sub-par built-in camera (less than 1 megapixel resolution) and, especially, insufficient battery life (4.5 hours).
Various other options were contenders, as well — all of which are versatile devices, but each of which has some important drawbacks to consider…
1) CTL 2Go NL4 – Intel Classmate PC (Win 8)
As mentioned above, the first — and most tempting — device for a 1:1 paperless classroom was the CTL 2go Convertible netbook/tablet PC. Previous generations of this device used a resistive touch screen instead of a capacitive one — this worked well for writing, but not for finger-touch interactions or multi-touch gestures. Additionally, older versions of Windows (before Windows 8) were rather clunky and not ideal for touch-screen formats. Finally, the older 2go PCs had weak Atom processors which were barely sufficient, and struggled to handle some tasks (including art and drawing apps that used the pen!)
The newest iteration, the NL4, has fixed many of these issues, due to now using a capacitive touch screen (good for fingers) combined with active digitizer (good for writing and drawing), as well as a more powerful processor. Unfortunately, the Celeron processor it now uses has meant a sacrifice of several hours of battery life, for not much of a boost in performance (3.4 Windows Experience score — compare this to 3.2 for the Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2 which gets 100% longer battery life on a single charge.)
- Rugged, child-proofed design: built-in handle, durable casing, spill-resistant keyboard.
- Slightly more powerful processor (Celeron)
- Camera swivels to be used front- or rear-facing
- Includes Intel Learning Series Software Suite of educational and management applications
- Capacitive touch screen plus active digitizer stylus
- Built-in keyboard
- Access 100% of websites, including Flash, Java, Silverlight, etc.
- Lots of input and output ports: audio, USB, ethernet, HDMI, VGA, SD Card
- Only 4.5 hours of battery life
- Celeron processor is still not very powerful
- Low-quality camera
2) SAMSUNG ATIV SMART PC 500T (Windows 8)
The Samsung ATIV Smart PC 500T is a very similar device to the Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2, with many of the same benefits and drawbacks. The pricetag of the Samsung was more attractive — especially when considering the cost of keyboard. However, the build quality of the ThinkPad has received much higher marks and better reviews than the 500T, which has had some reports of various issues and questionable durability.
- Very slim, lightweight, and portable
- Less expensive than competitors, and comes with keyboard
- Decent front and rear cameras (2 megapixel and 8 megapixel)
- Capacitive touch + active digitizer for accurate writing/drawing
- Access 100% of websites, including Flash, Java, Silverlight, etc.
- USB, HDMI, SD card
- All day battery life
- Questionable build quality
- Weaker processor than laptops/ultrabooks
- Not attached to keyboard
3) Microsoft Surface Pro (Windows 8)
It would have been nice to have a more powerful processor for full-fledged computing capabilities without lag or limitations. One device that would make that possible (while still offering tablet capabilities, keyboard, and active digitizer) is the Microsoft Surface Pro.
The Surface Pro essentially has the exact same hardware as a full-fledged laptop or ultrabook — it features a Core i5 processor, the same chip found in a Macbook or Mac Mini. But it also works as a touch-screen tablet, and has an active digitizer for accurate writing and drawing with pen.
The more powerful processor has also translated into a higher pricetag (though still more affordable than a Macbook, and on par with top-end iPad), and more importantly, low battery life. However, looking into the future, the next generations of Surface (or similar device) may be the ideal classroom solution, because the newest processors (such as Intel Haswell line) will be full-powered chips with much better energy efficiency, resulting in all-day battery life.
- Powerful Core i5 processor
- USB, HDMI, SD card, etc.
- Can serve as laptop, tablet, or drawing/writing tablet
- Access 100% of websites, including Flash, Java, Silverlight, etc.
- Run all of the full-fledged productivity Windows software
- Active digitizer with over 1,000 levels of pressure sensitivity
- Surface “keyboard” is not as good as larger physical/mechanical keyboard (however, any bluetooth or USB keyboard can be used)
- Insufficient battery life (about 4 hours)
4) Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 (android)
The Galaxy Note 10.1 is an Android tablet like many others, but a big difference is that it includes the S-pen active digitizer which opens up opportunities for precise, accurate, and natural writing and drawing, similar to this above devices. In this way, it is similar to the ATIV Smart PC 500T, but running Android instead of Windows.
- Less expensive than some of the other options listed here
- USB, HDMI, SD card, etc.
- Capacitive touch screen plus active digitizer (S-pen) for more accurate writing/drawing
- Can be used with either bluetooth or plugin keyboards
- Android OS can be more secure than Windows in many ways
- OS may be easier to use for students
- Many more touch-apps than Windows 8 / Metro
- Long battery life
- Flash is no longer “supported” on Android, making it harder to install and use (but it can still be done)
- No Java, Shockwave, or Silverlight websites can be used
- Processor is not as powerful as Surface Pro or ultrabooks
- Unable to run Windows apps, or to access any peripheral devices that require Mac or Windows drivers
5) Apple iPad (iOS)
The iPad was one of the first — and also one of the most popular — tablet devices being used in schools. For this reason, and because there are many apps available, it can be a tempting choice for a 1:1 classroom. You could certainly try a paperless classroom with iPads — it will likely work better as a paperless solution than a standard netbook, ultrabook, or Chromebook would, due to lack of any writing/drawing capabilities at all on those devices. However, there are several limitations that make it less than ideal and cause some tasks to be difficult… and others impossible.
- More educational touch-screen apps than Android or Windows
- Pretty secure and intuitive OS / interface
- Has a lot of support resources (like teacher blogs, websites, recommendations, and lesson plans) available on the web
- Newer models have better processor than Atom (which is on par with A5 chip in iPad 2)
- Long (all-day) battery life
- Decent-resolution front and rear cameras
- Pricetag (although smaller and older models — iPad 2 and Mini — are more reasonably priced)
- Not as powerful as ultrabooks or Surface
- Lack of USB port; much more limited choice of peripherals
- Google Docs/Drive works better on other devices
- No active digitizer means writing and drawing cannot be done in a precise or natural way — even the best stylus pens lack pressure sensitivity and do not have a fine-tip (some mimic a fine-point by surrounding it with a clear pad that must push/slide around, making for an unnatural experience)
- Cannot access 20% of websites (even higher percentage for interactive educational sites); Does not support Flash, Java, Shockwave, Silverlight, etc., so cannot access various educational websites, resources, and games (BBC, Scholastic, NatGeo, PBS Kids, Colonial Williamsburg, SumDog, etc.)
Choosing the best device (or set of devices) to meet all of the needs of a paperless classroom is, perhaps, the most critical piece of “going digital.” As such, it requires some serious due diligence, homework, and consideration of all of the possibilities — and limitations — of the myriad technology options out there.
The first thing that should happen, like with any scenario of trying to choose the proper tool to solve a problem, is:
- Identify the problem(s) that need to be solved. This is also known as a “needs assessment.”
- Identify a list of possible tools you could use to meet those needs, and evaluate each possible solution to find the one.
I’m going to present these 2 steps in reverse order, by showing all of the possible options that exist and then whittling them down as we go through the list of needs for a paperless classroom.
Possible Devices / Solutions
The variety of available technologies to use in school has never been greater than today. There are various types of devices that meet different needs: not only desktop computers, but now smartphones, tablets, laptops in a variety of formats (ultrabooks, netbooks, etc.), and even hybrid/convertible devices.
Of each type, there are many manufacturers, form factors, and configurations, but the most important thing is to recognize the types of devices and what they can and cannot accomplish. So, let’s look at the basic overall choices we have:
|smartphone||A pocket-sized computer with touch-screen and cellular service for phone calls and internet; usually iOS or Android|
|desktop computer||Usually Mac or Windows PC, in a range of options, power, and price|
|laptop computers (ultrabooks)||Generally now called “ultrabooks” but this is more or less a marketing gimmick. They are essentially the newest generation of laptops; they tend to be thinner, lighter-weight, and longer-lasting than older laptops, but “ultrabook” is essentially the same as “laptop”|
|netbooks||Just like ultrabooks (laptops), but are smaller, inexpensive, less powerful, and have longer battery life|
|Chromebooks||Chromebooks actually have the exact same hardware as ultrabooks or (more often) netbooks, but have more limitations due to running ChromeOS|
|tablets||These often run iOS or Android operating systems, though they can also run Windows or other operating systems. They can have important differences, so we should differentiate between them: iPad, Android, or Windows RT tablet|
|hybrids / convertibles||These devices come in a few forms: some work primarily as tablets that can also attach to a keyboard and be used as an ultrabook/netbook, while others are primarily ultrabooks that have additional tablet features (such as capacitive touch screen.) Most of these hybrid / convertible devices run Windows 8|
Assessing the Needs of a 1:1 Paperless Classroom
Despite the fact that I just went ahead and listed the variety of possible devices you could use for 1:1 computing in your classroom, it is not a good idea to choose a device first and then figure out how you are going to use it. What sense would that make?
You wouldn’t go to Home Depot and say “Oooh, that’s a shiny, expensive chainsaw right there… I think I’ll buy it! I don’t have any trees or anything I need to cut, but I’m sure I can find some way to make use of this thing!”
Of course not; it would be a waste of money, and if you were trying to build a deck, you would be better served by a hammer or electric screwdriver or table saw, or all of the above. On the other hand, would you buy these tools if you were trying to repair your toilet?
Technology is a tool, and when we select a tool, we start by knowing a problem that we want to solve, and then we look for a tool that will provide a good solution to that problem (and when such a tool doesn’t exist, we tend to invent one…) So let’s look at what needs we have for a 1:1 classroom — and, in particular, for a paperless environment — and use that to whittle down the options listed above:
One of the biggest buzzwords and most-touted features of 1:1 technology in classrooms has been the ability to use eBooks. Personally, I don’t think eBooks should be the main focus; to look at new technology and simply think of how it can give us a digital version of the older technology is limiting. “Paperless” does not just mean “eBooks”, because reading is not the only thing students do in a classroom. However, eBooks are one important piece of the paperless puzzle, and they do provide many benefits over printed texts: built-in reference and organization tools; multimedia video, audio, and animation supports; even quizzes and checks for understanding. And that’s to say nothing of the fact that they may be more affordable, require no physical space, and are easier to keep up-to-date. Having said all of that, the good news is this: eBooks will work on any and all of the above devices! You don’t need a special brand name or type of device to use digital texts. Programs like Amazon’s Kindle Reader, B&N’s Nook App, Follett Shelf, and Scholastic Storia provide plenty of options for eBooks and digital texts, and can be used on Mac, Windows, Android, or iOS. [Although tablets may give a slight advantage here because the touch-screen and portrait-mode orientation can make for a more natural transition from printed books to a digital one, due to the reading habits we have and what we are used to.]
As I’ve discussed in a previous post, one great benefit of a paperless classroom is that it can actually save you money (or, at the very least, pay for itself) in the savings you reap due to not purchasing textbooks, Xerox machines, paper, pens, pencils, paints, art supplies, etc. However, this is only true if a cost-effective device is selected.
Keep in mind, technology devices do not last forever; regardless of type or brand name, laptops and mobile devices last only about 4 years before they should be replaced either because they have worn out* or simply grown obsolete. So the cost per device always should be an important consideration. It’s difficult to state an exact price point, because it may depend on individual circumstances and needs at your school. Generally speaking you can find a device that does everything you need in a classroom for $600 or less (unless you need a powerful, specialized computer, such as for HD video editing, professional music production, or creating 3D graphics and animation), so that seems like a reasonable cap, although spending less would be even better.
With strained budgets, programs being cut, teachers losing jobs or gaining furlough days, and class sizes growing, it is imperative that we be as frugal as possible. Staying under $600 would eliminate the most powerful ultrabooks and computers from our list, but also culls other expensive devices: iMacs ($1000+), Macbooks ($1000+), Surface Pro ($900), high-end iPads ($700 for iPad Retina 64 gb), Chromebook Pixel ($1300)
3) All-day battery life
Most classrooms at most schools were not designed for modern technology, and do not have the electrical infrastructure and power outlets distributed effectively around the room, enough for each student to plug in an entire class set of devices. Thus if you want to have a true 1:1 paperless classroom, right now the only real solution for many teachers is to obtain a class set of portable, battery-powered devices that can make it through the entire school day (6.5+ hrs) without being plugged in.
This really narrows the options: desktop computers are out of the question, as well as most ultrabooks, which have processors that use more power and end up providing only about 4-5 hours of battery life. Currently**, this really narrows our choices down to smartphones, tablets, netbooks, convertibles/hybrids, and perhaps a select few Chromebooks. If you happen to be in a modernized classroom (or perhaps a lab) with plenty of power outlets, then lucky you! You may very well opt for a more powerful device than the ones here (those devices also tend to be more expensive… but not always. Touch-screen ultrabooks can be had for under $500)
4) Document creation
Document creation is important in school. It always has been, and it always will be. You can see evidence of this all the way back to the days of ancient Greece. Despite the new advances in technology that allows for media literacy and production, there are some things that visuals, audio, and video just can’t convey.
There will always be a place for written words because, unlike concrete images/movies, words have the power to be symbols of vague, ambiguous, complex, or connotative ideas. This was all taken into consideration and is why, despite adding elements of media literacy, the Common Core standards still have an enormous focus on writing.
This means any 1:1 device will want to have decent document creation software students can access. For a long time, the standard has been Microsoft Office… you can also download and install a free version of MS Office tools called OpenOffice. Many schools are now opting for cloud computing to do this, using Google Docs/Drive. This can be a great solution, but requires the school to have significant internet bandwidth; it is also more limited on iPads.
They have also placed an emphasis on using technology to do that writing. Students are expected to create typed documents using keyboarding skills… starting in 3rd grade! The implication of this is obvious: keyboarding is an important skill to have, and being able to create typed documents is essential in a classroom.
Having a virtual, touch-screen keyboard does not replace the need for a physical keyboard; studies by Google and Opinion Matters have shown that using touch-screen keyboards both slows down the text input and is the #1 cause of frustration for tablet users when trying to type longer documents (500 words or more). The implication is clear: all students (other than those in primary grades, K-2) need access to a physical / mechanical keyboard.
The best keyboards will be those for desktops, laptops, ultrabooks, and some convertibles. Tablets also can benefit from separate keyboards (wireless bluetooth ones or, preferably, USB-connected ones); however, this does add an additional expense and also makes management more difficult as there are 2 devices to manage per student, whereas netbooks, ultrabooks, and convertibles have the keyboard attached.
5) Multimedia production
Typed documents are not the be-all and end-all of student production. Students can demonstrate knowledge, help other students, and make genuine contributions to society via authentic products such as artwork, websites, audio recordings (podcasts etc.), animations, and videos. This ability to create relevant, useful products and be able to publish and easily share them with the world did not exist 20 years ago, but now it is an essential 21st century skill for being real-world ready in our increasingly global, competitive, and collaborative environment.
Most computing devices will allow us to create multimedia products, but some may be more difficult and require additional peripheral devices like handheld cameras or microphones. This also complicates the issue of device management, so ideally a 1:1 solution would be one that includes a decent built-in camera that can be used not only for web conferencing (which is what front-facing cameras on laptops are used for), but also for digital photography and videography. In this regard, tablets have the advantage.
Netbooks and ultrabooks tend to require additional cameras to be purchased, and Chromebooks are even more limited, because the vast majority of Chromebook-accessible media production apps specify in their Terms of Service that they can’t be used by students under 13 years old; in fact, I haven’t been able to find a single decent video editing app that is allowed to be used by elementary-school students on Chromebooks. Chromebooks also require transferring very large video and photo files through the web to work “in the cloud”, which requires large amounts of bandwidth.
6) Access to a variety of online websites, resources, tutorials, simulations, and games
The tools that have been used to enable these advanced features include technologies like Shockwave, Java, Flash, and Silverlight. Of these technologies, Flash has been prolific: in some countries, Flash is required for 1/3 of all websites. Currently, the percentage of sites using Flash is slowly declining because the newest version of web browser languages (HTML5) has incorporated many of the same multimedia features that were not previously possible. However, Flash is still required for about 17% of all websites (Flash was used in 25% of websites about 5 years ago, so the percentage is declining… slowly. There are currently 1,000+ job postings on Monster.com listing “Adobe Flash” as a required skill to get the job, so I guess it’s not dead yet…)
The percentage of educational websites that require Flash is much, much higher. It is often required for the games, simulations, and other engaging educational activities on thousands of sites, like:
- PBS Kids
- National Geographic
- Colonial Williamsburg
- Education City
- MIT Scratch programming system
- …and many more
Although online sites and services will start to be developed using HTML5 and other device-independent technologies, it will take a long time to get access to as many good resources as we can currently find (most of them free of charge) thanks to more than 20 years of development. [This will also be slow to change because Flash currently works on about 90% of all devices; most devices are Windows or Mac computers. Only about 10% of devices are currently Android or iOS devices. Source: NetMarketShare.com.]
This presents a major limitation for certain devices, but especially iPads. Chromebooks can access Flash websites, but not Java, Silverlight, or Shockwave; most Android tablets are capable of running Flash, but it is no longer easy to install since it has been removed from the Play store. (Click here if you’d like to learn how Flash can still be installed and used on Android tablets.)
There are “cloud browsing” apps for iOS, and these allow you to access Flash websites, but these are not good solutions for schools because the way they work is they actually connect to a server that provides a non-stop video feed — this will tend to be laggy and low-quality, in addition to causing Internet bandwidth problems:
7) Handwriting and drawing capabilities
The main thing holding classrooms back from going truly paperless is the simple fact that you can’t solve all of the classroom needs via touch-screen, keyboard, and cameras;
sometimes good old-fashioned handwriting, sketching, and note-taking are essential activities. What this has led to is a paradigm in which schools and teachers are incorporating educational technology, but merely using it to supplement the existing books and (especially) piles upon piles of lined notebook paper and printed worksheets. This is not a great solution, both from a monetary standpoint and an environmentally-conscientious one: These classrooms are actually creating an even bigger carbon footprint by using both paper materials and technology! Why supplement those materials when you can entirely supplant them?
Of course, the reason is because most devices don’t truly allow you to effectively use it as you would a piece of paper. Some people are trying to make capacitive touch-screens (like iPads) work for this purpose, but it is not very effective because:
- The type of stylus pen you would use with this type of screen has to have a broad, rubbery tip — you cannot get a fine pinpoint tip like you would with a pen or pencil; this makes handwriting clumsy and unwieldy. It is the equivalent of trying to write with a rounded, unsharpened crayon. While that may be okay for primary students, it becomes a problem as we need to write larger amounts, more quickly, and fit more words into a small space.
- In addition to lacking precision, capacitive stylus pens for iPads (as well as most, but not all, Android tablets) also do not have pressure sensitivity. This may not be required for many tasks, but it greatly benefits the natural, intuitive feel of “going digital” with various art media, such as using pressure sensitivity to control pencil darkness, airbrush/ink flow, and texturing effects.
- iPads and similar devices do not have a way of detecting when you are using a stylus; one problem that can arise is that your hand or arm touching the screen can count as “drawing”; you can’t naturally rest your hand and write or draw like you would do with paper.***
All of these problems are solved by using a device with an active digitizer. An active digitizer is a type of stylus system in which a special layer under the screen detects the pen.
- The active digitizer stylus has a fine tip like a pen or pencil, but never needs to be sharpened.
- It can be used with pinpoint accuracy, and is usually pressure sensitive, up to hundreds or even over 1,000 levels of pressure sensitivity.
- It can even have an “eraser” button on the back that is used just like a pencil eraser.
- It is detected when it hovers above the screen; this, in addition to a clickable button on the pen, allows it to serve the same functions a mouse would serve, and opens up possibilities for efficient shortcuts and menus in the applications.
This technology is not new — in fact, here’s a video of the Toshiba Portege Tablet PC you could get with these active digitizer pens about 10 years ago (many years before iPad or even iPhone):
Some people might wonder: Why do we need handwriting and drawing at all, if we have more advanced tools that we can use to communicate, such as typed text, audio, and video? The fact of the matter is that being able to manipulate handheld writing and drawing utensils allows us to very quickly jot notes, combine thoughts and ideas with images, and to create and label diagrams. You could do some of these things with a mouse and keyboard, and the final product may even look more polished; but it is a longer, slower process.
Examples of when handwriting and drawing prove invaluable are: observation journals, science logs, and notebooks, where sketches and notes must be quickly recorded, possibly with drawings, diagrams, and labels to accompany notes. There are also certain tasks which are greatly enhanced by precise stylus control — including creating artwork, graphic design, and photo manipulation. Finally, using this system also allows for an easy transition to digital format, because teachers can use or reuse existing materials — they can simply download PDFs (many curricula provide these online), or scan their existing sheets and materials as a digital, virtual copy which can then be written on directly in the computer.
8) Peripheral devices
You may need to access a variety of other devices that could improve learning in your classroom. For this purpose, not all devices have the same capability. The best bet is to have a device with USB ports (the more, the merrier); these allow a variety of existing tools to be plugged in, including music instruments (like keyboards), professional-level cameras (such as Digital SLRs), or scientific instruments like digital microscopes:
Desktops and ultrabooks are going to be best for this, although Android and Windows tablets almost always have at least one USB port. iPads do not have a USB port; they can work with some peripheral devices, if those devices have been designed specifically for iPad, but that selection of peripheral devices is much more limited. Chromebooks have USB ports, but devices that require Mac or Windows to install software will not work.
As you can see, there are many considerations to weigh when choosing a 1:1 device, and it gets even trickier if you are trying to go truly paperless in your classroom. There is no single device that is the best solution for all of these needs — each has its strengths and weaknesses. Some classroom tasks (such as ebooks and digital photo/video work) are better served by tablet format, while other tasks (such as document creation, web browsing, and using peripherals) are a better experience on laptops. A classroom is often a complex place, with many different types of tasks and purposes to fulfill — this is especially true of multi-subject classes, such as in elementary grades — and we want to ensure that we choose a device that can meet all of our needs. This really limits the selection significantly.
In the next post, I will explain about which device I chose, why, and some other alternatives I considered.
* I own a 15-year-old IBM ThinkPad laptop that is still functional, but not in a practical sense (battery no longer holds a charge, and monitor screen has given out); I also have an 8-year-old Toshiba Portege which I still use, but it would not serve me well as a primary device.
** New processors are coming out very soon that are more energy-efficient versions of the current powerful processors, such as Intel’s Haswell chips. In the near future, we may just see devices that provide full-fledged computing power and all-day battery life, so if you can wait to decide on a device, it may be wise to hold off until summer of 2014.
*** Some apps do have “hand detection” but really all this does is prevent second or third touches from affecting things once you have already started writing or drawing with the stylus. Once you lift the stylus, or if your hand touches the screen before the pen does, it becomes a problem.