Why Paperless?

I will try to make this post as succinct as possible, starting with this statement:

We need to go paperless.

That may be a controversial statement, but I fail to see why it would be.  The only valid argument against going paperless is the one presented here:

The fact of the matter is that paper was invented over 2000 years ago, and by this time it is obsolete.  Paper should have already gone the way of the abacus. Let me explain why:

1) Paperless makes a classroom more productive. Computers can improve both the efficacy and the efficiency of communication, collaboration, and productivity in many ways.  If technology didn’t do this, we simply wouldn’t use it.  Here are some of the various ways modern computer technology — especially that which allows for paperless work — provides a benefit over old-fashioned traditional methods in school:

  • Parent communication can be expedited and made much easier and more timely through electronic communications. Posting information on websites allows parents to stay up to date anytime, anywhere, without asking the teacher for additional info (and can also be translated to other languages automatically); using email allows teachers to send information to many people at once, to communicate instantaneously and save postage costs, and to avoid playing phone-tag
  • Automated reports about grades, attendance, and/or behavior can provide timely information to both students and parents, without requiring any extra effort from the teacher. This timely formative data can quickly help guide students back on track.
  • Online polling, quizzing, and assessments allows the both the teacher and the students to get instant data and feedback, while improving accuracy (for example, students no longer can be influenced by peers raising their hands or holding up other responses) and saving time due to automated grading, organization, and representation of the data.
  • Storing and organizing lessons and student work becomes much easier. In physical format, paper is very limiting; if the teacher wants to retain records of student work, this means either the student/parent cannot have the work returned to them, or the teacher must make copies of it — and then file those away, and filing cabinets and classrooms run out of space. Using digital storage allows for easily categorizing, tagging, logging, and sharing work. Teachers can keep enormous amounts of lessons, resources, and exemplary student work — even amassing it from year to year — without running out of space or running into problems with relocating it in the future (as long as a good organization system is used — I will give practical tips for this in a future post.)  Student work can be accessible by teacher, student, parent, or even made available as an example for the whole world online — with minimal time and effort.
  • Students learn the 21st century skills required to be employable in today’s global economy.

2) Paperless is good for the environment. This is a controversial statement, but one I am going to stand by. One argument against going digital goes something like this: Computers are worse for the environment than using paper is, because they contain various heavy metals and toxic substances and the computers get discarded and replaced every few years, with limited options for recycling, leading to serious issues of waste.

This is a valid argument. However, the problems with this  are:

  • Using paper is not environmentally-friendly, either. Nearly 4 billion trees are cut down for paper every year, representing about 35 percent of all harvested trees. As we already know, trees not only contribute to wildlife habitats and ecosystems, but also help to create oxygen and regulate CO2.  Even if all of these trees came from tree farms, their removal impacts the environment, and replacing them at the rate they are being used does not seem sustainable.Even more concerning, however, is what happens to the paper after it is used. The options are limited — we can reuse it as much as possible (for example, I have always instructed my students to completely fill each side of their paper, and to use both sides — front and back. Then I also save used papers for any small scraps that can be used as scratch paper for things like math work), but the fact remains that the general destination of used paper is either a garbage dump/landfill or, preferably, a recycling center.  Unfortunately, people absolve themselves of environmental conscience by thinking recycling solves the problem. It doesn’t. Especiallin the case of paper.  Recycling may help save trees, as the basic building blocks of paper (the fibers) can be reused; however, there is a massive of amount of water, heat, and similar environmentally-unfriendly resources that must be used in the recycling process. In fact, recycling paper is less eco-friendly than recycling aluminum cans or plastic.  The carbon footprint for creating one ton of virgin (new) paper is 800 kg; by comparison, the carbon footprint of recycling one ton of paper is better, but still 428 kg! The moral of the story is: recycling helps, but it doesn’t solve the problem, and it is not a perfectly green solution.  There is a reason why the sequence of advice is: reduce, reuse, recycle.  Reducing usage is better for the environment than anything else; reusing is better than recycling, and recycling is really just a last resort. What better way to reduce paper usage than to eliminate it entirely?The 6th grade classrooms in my school used over 1000 sheets of paper — just in the first week of school! At this rate of usage, the carbon footprint is 3.6 tons of CO2 per year. And that’s if we only use 100% recycled paper!
  • Computers are not going away.  They improve efficiency and efficacy of our tasks so much that they are here to stay. Thus, we really only have two options:
  1. Purchase computer technology that is insufficient to go paperless, and as a result we will be contributing to the above ecological problems in addition to the ecological problems caused by creating, printing, and recycling paper.
  2. Purchase proper technology and use methods that allow us to use only the technology, and eliminate the use of paper (and all of the wastes associated with it)

Which one is worse for the environment?  Clearly, keeping all of the environmentally-harmful factors of paper plus adding the impacts of computer technology is a much worse solution than going paperless.  The only alternative would be avoiding electronic technologies altogether in our schools — in which case we are still damaging our environment due to the carbon footprints of paper production and recycling. Not to mention the fact that our students would be unemployable when they graduate.

Thus, while it’s not a completely green solution, going paperless in our classrooms is one of the best things we can do for the environment.

3) Paperless is good for the budget.  Now, a lot of people make this argument when they are angling to obtain various technologies (example: “Buying iPads is cost effective because they will allow us to go paperless!”) but then, in reality, they don’t truly go paperless — they still end up using paper for various tasks.  An example of this is the classroom that adopts iPads or laptops but then students still use paper pads, worksheets, and pencils every day to do most of their work. If you are simply going to add computer technology in addition to old-fashioned paper methods, then this will, of course, end up costing more — not less — than paper alone. [I will further address hardware limitations and requirements in another post.]

Furthermore, going digital does not automatically guarantee that it is cost-effective. Like anything else, you have to take into account the actual costs.  If you overspend on computer devices, then you are not going to get a good ROI (return on investment).

However, if done correctly, going paperless can truly end up being cost effective.  The fact of the matter is that we (schools, and society in general) are going to be using computer technology;  so if they are going to be purchased either way, why not get a device that will allow you to save money in other ways? Some people argue iPads do this because they allow for ebooks — and that also applies to pretty much any other device (Android tablets, netbook and ultrabook laptops, etc.)  The two problems with this logic are:

  1. E-books have not been nearly as cost-effective as they could be; in many cases, they cost the same (or nearly as much) as a printed version.  Hopefully this will start to change, and ebooks will represent a cost savings like they should have all along.
  2. Using ebooks does not truly eliminate the use of paper; far more paper is used in classrooms for student work and worksheets than what is used for printing books.  A printed textbook may require 300-400 pages, but will be reused for years. On the other hand, students write, draw, and work on lined paper and worksheets every day.

So, if you were to go truly paperless, you would not only save costs on textbooks, but also on the reams and reams of paper that are used for writing and drawing exercises.

Some people argue that the solution is to type everything; while I agree that keyboarding is absolutely critical — more important than handwriting these days — it is not the be-all and end -all. Computer keyboards do not allow quick and easy writing of various math formulas and equations or quick diagrams and sketches.

How much money would be saved? It really depends on how economical your paper usage is. Loose-leaf lined paper costs less than 1 cent per sheet, but most schools use many printed/photocopied worksheets with their students, and the cost of this printing/photocopying can range from 2 cents for black-and-white copies on high-end industrial machines all the way up to 20 cents per sheet for color copies on less efficient machines.  And this doesn’t include the thousands of dollars to purchase the machine and maintain it.

At my elementary school, the average student goes through 5-10 sheets of paper per day, for a total usage of close to 1000-2000 sheets per student per year. At a cost of 2-10 cents per sheet for even the most economical of printers/copiers, this means the annual cost of paper per student is $20-$200.  Every year. You can also add to this the cost of copying machine purchase and maintenance, as well as the cost of printed textbooks.  Over the course of 4 years (the average functional lifespan of current computer technology), this adds up to a cost of anywhere between $80 and $800 per student.

At that cost, going paperless can actually pay for itself (and then some).

Trapped in Paper

What is Paperless Mojo?

pa·per·less adjective \ˈpā-pər-ləs\

: using computers instead of paper to record or exchange information

mo·jo noun \ˈmō-(ˌ)jō\

: a power that may seem magical and that allows someone to be very effective, successful, etc.

Over the past several years (decades, really), computers and digital technology have grown by leaps and bounds, infiltrating nearly every aspect of everyday life. Personal (and, now, mobile) computing has allowed us to instantaneously send written correspondences; to share and collaborate from locations around the world; to sign up for a bank account, deposit paychecks into it, use that money to buy what we need, and to sell, trade, or barter when we no longer have a need for that item… all without leaving the living room. We can store, access, and instantaneously analyze vast amounts of information — amounts that would require vast warehouses if it were still recorded in analog or paper format. In fact, that’s an understatement; if you took the entire Internet and were to print that amount of data on standard-size A4 paper, that stack of paper would reach past the outer limits of our solar system!

And we can access that data from a button on a telephone that we carry in our pockets.



Technology is no longer optional. It is no longer a luxury. It is pervasive.

Unfortunately, many schools have been slow to catch on to this reality. The primary tools of most K-12 teachers are still pencils, printed texts, loose-leaf papers. Many teachers do not have a website. Some teachers still haven’t adopted email! (to give some perspective: the Queen of England sent her first email in 1976, before I was even born.) Meanwhile, the real world outside of the schoolhouse walls rapidly adopted these new technologies and ways of conducting business and of living life. This is a dangerous disconnect, both for the efficiency of schools, and for the preparedness of students as they exit our brick-and-mortar bastions of tradition and enter reality: a digital reality.

Five or six years ago,  Time Magazine ran a story that began with “a dark little joke exchanged by teachers with a dissident streak: Rip Van Winkle awakens in the 21st century after a hundred year snooze and is of course utterly bewildered by what he sees. Every place Rip goes just baffles him. But when finally he walks into a schoolroom, the old man knows exactly where he is. ‘This is a school,’ he declares. ‘We used to have these back in 1906.'”

That joke isn’t funny anymore. And, sadly, not a whole lot has changed in the time since that article was written.

Fortunately, schools are starting to wake up and realize what many of us have been saying for a long time: Technology can improve education. (Note: this doesn’t mean that technology automatically improves education. It is merely a tool, which needs to be used skillfully to obtain results.)

But, despite jumping on-board with iPads and Chromebooks, many schools seem to insist on using technology in limited ways — for Internet research, for example, or for typing up a paper. Maybe for some practice games. Sometimes for e-books. These tools are being used as a side activity, as a supplement to the “old school” pencil-and-paper ways.  But why?

The reality is that, outside of school, I have almost never needed to use paper. Not just today, but for nearly the past 20 years this has been the case.

From the years 1996-2002, I rarely touched a pencil. My alma mater, Wake Forest University, was one of the first schools to wire the entire campus and issue a laptop (IBM ThinkPad) to every incoming student, included in the tuition. Lecture halls were equipped with power outlets, ethernet ports, digital projectors for the professors.  The world wide web was young (only about 4 years old), but it existed, and it was already proving useful. Professors allowed — even encouraged — the laptops in class (yes, the sound of note-taking was “clickety-clack”), and required students to type their work, and to communicate via email. My calendar, my communications, and my work were all done on the computer. And that was in 1996.

Upon graduating I took a job as a website engineer/developer in the booming heyday of the Dot Com era. During that time, I don’t recall ever seeing pen, paper, or pencil employed at work, except occasionally by the graphic designers. Nearly all work and communication was done electronically. This is not to say handwriting and drawing were thrown out the window; every wall in the office was a whiteboard, so we grabbed a dry erase marker if we ever needed to communicate something visually via notes and diagrams.

Throughout college and into the workplace of the real world, I never needed to use a pencil and paper… until 2002, when I became a teacher and was transported decades backward in time.

If it could be done 17 years ago — before the age of tablets, or smartphones (we did test out Palm Pilots…), and in a time when portable devices had only a couple hours of battery life — then why can’t it be done today? Why not make that 21st-century learning the main course instead of a side dish served up next to antiquated, petrified meat-and-potatoes?   The argument, for a long time, has been: because it’s not possible.  That is simply no longer the case.

And that’s where my project — an experiment, if you will — begins this year. This blog is where I will share it with you. It will not be the first attempt (nor the first success) at a paperless classroom, but I do believe the current wave of new technology allows that concept to be achieved better, more easily, and more efficiently than ever before.

Convertible Tablet for Schools: Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2

Specs: http://www.lenovo.com/products/us/tech-specs/tablet/thinkpad-tablet/thinkpad-tablet-2/

In this video I’m going to show an example of a “convertible tablet” which just might be a great choice for schools and education: The Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2. Being a convertible tablet, the ThinkPad Tablet 2 is designed as a full-fledged computer inside of a touch-screen tablet format, but with an additional bluetooth keyboard base you can purchase to use it more like a laptop.

This convertible tablet format is popular right now, with other brands including the Dell Latitude 10, ASUS VivoTab, and Samsung Smart PC 500T.

I haven’t tried these other devices, but the ThinkPad Tablet 2 stood out as potentially the best of the bunch for educational use due to the fact that ThinkPads are known for rugged and durable build quality, and it comes with a Wacom digitizer stylus. The Samsung is competitively priced, but I’ve seen reviews noting somewhat questionable durability and sturdiness in its build quality. Meanwhile, the Dell Latitude 10 and ASUS VivoTab seem have some good features, but they only include the active digitizer and stylus if you opt for their highest-level models, which cost significantly more than the ThinkPad 2.

So, if you’re considering this “convertible tablet” format for a school or classroom, the ThinkPad Tablet 2 seemed like it could be the smart choice.

Yang – What’s great about the ThinkPad Tablet 2

  • Access 100% of websites and Windows programs. Like all devices running Windows 8, you can use this as a full-fledged computer. Any of the millions of programs that run on Windows can run on this, which can be important for schools that are already using certain software they would like to keep using. It’s also important for having access to various peripherals that require a real computer to install and use, like various digital microscopes or even the Kinect system.  You can also access 100% of websites on the internet, including those that require Flash, Java, Shockwave, Unity, Silverlight, or other plugins to run.  Many of these websites can’t be accessed if you use iPads, Android tablets, or Chromebooks.

  • Portable, lightweight, durable. Lenovo’s ThinkPad products are often supplied to our government and as such most of them meet rugged durability standards set by the US military. In testing the ThinkPad Tablet 2, it is very minimalist — it is very lightweight — but the plastic casing seems to be high quality and sturdy. The glass screen is a strengthened glass called Dragontrail glass that is made by Japan’s biggest glassmaker, Ashai. This glass is scratch and shatter-resistant and is about 6 times stronger than conventional glass.

    I can attest to the durability of this device — I didn’t attempt to stress-test or damage the evaluation unit, but at one point it did accidentally slide off my desk and dropped about 30” down to the hard floor, landing right on a corner. No damage occurred, not so much as a scratch on either the plastic casing or the glass screen. I do trust the durability of Lenovo ThinkPads over some other brands.

  • Wacom active digitizer. The ThinkPad Tablet 2 comes with a feature that I believe is essential for schools and education: an active digitizer. What this means is that, in addition to the multi-touch capacitive screen for finger gestures, there is also a special component to make use of a precision stylus that has a fine point just like a real pen or pencil. This is not like the stylus you might use on a regular capacitive tablet like the iPad — those stylus pens have soft, stubby tips that aren’t much better than a finger for writing or art applications. Active digitizer pens have a fine point and are pressure-sensitive which really helps for precise writing and drawing applications. The stylus for the ThinkPad Tablet 2 is fairly small and lightweight — I would personally prefer a more hefty stylus, but it does work well. It has 1,024 levels of pressure sensitivity, you can even use it as a mouse hover over objects without touching the screen, and one great feature is that there is a small storage slot that the stylus slides into at the top corner of the tablet.

  • Cameras. Like most tablets, this device has both a front-facing and rear-facing camera.  And like most tablets, the cameras aren’t amazing, but they have decent resolution and will get the job done. If you want to shoot professional level photography or video, you’ll want an actual camera — probably a digital SLR. But the cameras on the ThinkPad do a decent job, both the 2 megapixel front-facing camera for video conferencing, and the rear-facing 8 megapixel one for video and photography.

  • Battery. The ThinkPad Tablet 2 has a built-in battery which means unfortunately you won’t be able to easily remove it or swap it out with another one.  However, with 10 hours of battery life, I doubt you will ever need to. I ran a non-stop, full-screen video stream from Netflix on this device and after 6 hours I still had 40% of the battery life remaining.  That’s impressive!

And now for the Yin – A few challenges with this device:

  • Processor. The Atom Z2760 processor on the ThinkPad tablet 2 is sufficient for most educational tasks, but is still weaker than a full-fledged desktop, laptop, or ultrabook. The Atom processor is actually more powerful than the processors found in iPads and Android tablets, but it doesn’t have great graphics performance. As you can see, we get a Windows experience of 3.2 on this machine, which all things considered isn’t too bad. It will allow you to access websites, Google Docs, Microsoft Office, watch HD videos on YouTube and Khan Academy. It can even handle more complex tasks like photo and video editing, Google Earth, and even basic CAD design like SketchUp. However, it isn’t going to be sufficient if you want to do specialized tasks like cutting-edge video games, 3D graphics, or HD video editing.

  • Keyboard. Although the keyboard has a great feel and seems to be durable, it has a few negative aspects. The way the tablet sits on the keyboard is less than ideal. It simply slides into a little slot with no sort of hook or attachment mechanism. It fits snugly and feels pretty secure, but it could easily fall out if it gets bumped, especially from behind.  The stand also keeps the tablet upright at one specific angle — there is nothing you can adjust about that. The keyboard isn’t bad — the keys themselves feel and work great — but it does seem overpriced at over $100.  There also is no finger-touch pad which people are used to using on laptops; instead, there is the little red trackpoint that thinkpads are known for. This can be a little bit annoying and difficult to use. Since you have a touch-screen, you might not really need these pointer tools, but if you’re using any traditional programs that use a mouse, you’ll probably want to go ahead and use a real mouse.

  • Management. Having separate components to keep track of can make this more difficult to carry and to manage than an ultrabook or convertible ultrabook. I would suggest using only the tablet part alone for mobility and portability, while keeping the keyboard handy in a specific location to be used when you want to type and create documents. For example, at school you could store the tablets overnight in a charging cart, while students keep the keyboard easily accessible inside of their desks. If you do want to move both the tablet and keyboard around together, for about $40 you can get a sleeve designed to carry them both together.

  • Pricetag. The price of a convertible tablet is going to be more than the cost of most regular netbooks, ultrabooks, Chromebooks, or Android tablets.  However, at about $500 for a 64gb tablet, the ThinkPad Tablet 2 comes in at a pricepoint lower than full-sized iPads and offers much more functionality including being able to run full-fledged Windows applications as well as access to 100% of websites including Flash and Java ones.

Personally, I’m planning to go paperless in my classroom next year, and this ThinkPad Tablet 2 is the device I am considering using to get me there. Going paperless doesn’t mean we can completely do away with drawing and handwriting. These are still essential tasks in the classroom, and you can’t do these sorts of tasks well with a laptop, netbook, Chromebook, or iPad. There are very few devices that come with an active digitizer pen, and the included Wacom stylus in this unit allows students to write and draw with accuracy, which could be essential for doing things like virtual worksheets, or completing MARS tasks as part of the new Common Core math curriculum.

Overall, I think the Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2 could be a great choice for schools and classrooms who want to have it all.  If you want to be able to easily write and draw on the device, plus run actual computer applications, plus have access to 100% of the educational websites out there — but you like the convenience of a touch-screen tablet for movies, ebooks, practice games, and photo, video, and art projects — then this is the device for you. It can meet all of those needs and will last all school day with its 10 hour battery life.

Just Say NO to iPads for Education, Part 5: Apple Products Break Budgets

waste: (v) 1. to consume, spend, or employ uselessly or without adequate return; use to no avail or profit; squander: to waste money; to waste words.


I’m just going to come out and say it: iPads waste money.

It’s not that they are useless or don’t provide a benefit.  They’re certainly going to allow you to do some things that you can’t do with pencil and paper alone.

But the reason iPads are a waste of money is because you can get other devices that provide the exact same benefits — or can do even more — at a fraction of the cost. This means they are not cost-effective.  Whenever you could get the same results for a lower cost by choosing a different alternative, this means you are wasting money.

Some people use false logic by saying “The iPad is very cost effective, because it is cheaper than computers!”

Those people must only be comparing the iPad to other overpriced Apple products. Compared to a ridiculously expensive MacBook Air ($1000), the iPad is a bargain.  But that’s like saying a Ferrari 458 ($230,000) is a great deal because it’s cheaper than a Maybach ($400,000).  By this logic, Ferrari is the most affordable and cost-effective car out there, and every government institution should only be buying Ferraris because they are so cost-effective!

Obviously, this is absurd.  And yet, it is exactly what people are doing when they say iPads are low-cost or cost-effective solutions.  Newsflash: There are other computer companies out there besides Apple, and their products aren’t as expensive.  So, when you are doing EdTech comparisons and evaluations, you need to look at everything that is available — not just specific, expensive, luxury brand names.  In fact, brand name should be one of the last things you look at.


“But Apple computers are better made. They are more durable and reliable, so they provide a lower total cost of ownership.”

That’s an argument a lot of people like to use.  Only problem is: it isn’t exactly true.  Apple makes some decent products, but they aren’t any better nor are they going to last any longer than other high-quality products made my other manufacturers like Acer, Lenovo, or Samsung.   In fact, Consumer Reports notes that there is no meaningful difference in brand reliability between Apple, Acer, Sony, Lenovo, HP, and Toshiba (however, some Dell and Gateway products have been shown to be less reliable than the other brands).

You don’t always get what you pay for. Just because you are paying more for the Apple brand name doesn’t mean you are getting a better product.

At Consumer Reports desktop computer comparison, the 21″ Apple iMac ($1200) is the 2nd most expensive computer on the list, yet it has a worse rating than 11 other computers made by other companies (including Toshiba, HP, Lenovo, Asus, Acer, and Vizio).

The same applies to laptops.

Currently, the 11-inch MacBook Air has a lower rating (65) than Acer (72), Sony (75), Lenovo (73), and others… yet it is more expensive than most of them.  For $300 less, you can get a better-rated Sony VAIO laptop… and it even has longer battery life, as well!  Or, for the same price, you can get the Lenovo Yoga IdeaPad — a convertible laptop which can also function as a tablet.

But how is any of this relevant?  Well, it proves one thing: Apple products cost more, but that doesn’t mean they are better or more reliable.  They provide a poor return on investment, because you can get something equivalent — or better — for much less.


Sure, iPads are less expensive than MacBooks and other overpriced Apple products.  But they are more expensive than…

  • Android tablets ($350 for equivalent of iPad; less for smaller/weaker tablets)
  • Netbooks ($250)
  • Chromebooks ($250)

All of these other devices are about half the cost of iPads, yet they have advantages over the iPad including USB ports, ability to access Flash websites (for an explanation as to why Flash is important in educational settings, see Part 5 of this series), and lower costs for maintenance and upgrades.

In all of my educational technology research, I have not seen a single study that shows iPads are any better for education than other alternatives such as Android tablets… however, I have seen multiple studies showing that computer technology is most effective when we have 1-to-1 computing (ie. one device for each student — or, at the very least, one device for every 2 students who can work as a pair when using it):

So the best thing for our students is not dependent on brand name, it is dependent on getting devices into their hands.  This goal is easier to reach with Android tablets, Chromebooks, or netbooks, because you can purchase twice as many of them with the same budget. $7,500 would buy a full class set of 30 Chromebooks or netbooks, yet it would only get you 12 or 13 iPads.

There are more than 55 million K-12 students in the United States. So for us to eventually have 1-to-1 computing in the classrooms, we would require at least 55 million devices.  Now, some schools advocate BYOD (or Bring Your Own Device), but that can pose serious problems for schools and teachers, which you can view in my post “Five Serious Drawbacks of BYOD.”

The only real way to avoid the pitfalls of BYOD and still ensure 1 to 1 computing is for schools to purchase the devices themselves.  So how much would this cost?

Well, one 32 gigabyte iPad costs $600.  An equivalent full-sized Android tablet such as the Acer Iconia Tab A700 is $350.

Some people don’t understand what the big deal is. They might say “It’s only a few hundred dollars. That’s just a drop in the bucket when you look at the big picture.”

But is it?  In my opinion, it is never okay to waste money… not even a penny, let alone hundreds of dollar.   And the numbers get a lot bigger if our goal is to evolve into paperless classrooms with 1-to-1 computing.

If we multiply those costs per device times the number of students in the US, the numbers don’t look so small and insignificant anymore.

Purchasing an iPad for every student would cost $33 BILLION DOLLARS. The cost of purchasing a similar Android tablet would be $19.25 billion, and the cost of netbooks or Chromebooks would be only $13.75 million.

Of course, you don’t need to replace that iPad every year, so this cost can be spread over several years.  But how long do iPads last?  There is some debate about this, but it comes with a standard one-year warranty or you can extend it to 2 years if you spend an extra $100 on AppleCare. This implies that you can expect iPads to start having some technical problems at about the 2 year mark.  iPods have been out longer and have an official lifespan rating of 4 years, and iPads are built on similar architecture as the iPod, so the lifespan of the average iPad before they start dying is going to be somewhere between 2 and 4 years.  Similarly, most laptop computing devices also have a lifespan of about 4 years before they have a serious hardware problem or are rendered obsolete.

Assuming an average scenario that all of these battery-powered computing devices last for 4 years before needing to be replaced, this still comes out to a cost of $8.25 billion per year for iPads versus only $4.8 billion for Android tablets or $3.4 billion for netbooks or Chromebooks.

As you can see, if all schools chose to purchase iPads instead of other alternatives, we would be wasting over 3 billion dollars every year.  But the cost difference doesn’t end there.

Since iPads can’t access Flash or Java content online, there are millions of free resources you can’t use. iPads are somewhat useless right out of the box — you can surf the web and watch videos, but most of the useful features of a tablet are only going to come from installing apps. There are a few decent free ones, but most of the worthwhile educational apps cost money, and you’re going to need several of them if you want  productivity apps and skill-building or practice games and tools for multiple subjects. These apps usually cost about $3 to $7 each (averaging about $5), and you’d probably need about 20 of them on the iPad to make it worthwhile all school year.  This adds another $100 onto the cost of the iPad, or an additional $1.375 billion annually, bringing the total annual cost of iPads to $10 billion dollars per year if we were to get one for every K-12 student.

These are costs you wouldn’t need to spend on a netbook computer, because they can access a lot of the same types of resources for free in the form of educational Flash websites (for example, see my videos showcasing Language Arts, Social Studies, and STEM websites). You can also install free productivity tools like Open Office (a free version of Microsoft Office), Audacity (a full-featured audio production tool), GIMP (a Photoshop-like image editor), and Microsoft Movie Maker (free video editing tool).

Maintenance and peripherals also add to the cost of iPads:

  • If the battery needs to be replaced, you have to pay Apple $100 to do so. A replacement battery for netbooks or Chromebooks can be purchased for $30 and easily swapped out yourself.
  • Transferring files from iPads will generally require cloud storage, such as DropBox. These tools are free up to a certain storage limit, but if you need more space it will cost you.  On an Android you can easily move files directly onto portable storage such as USB flash drives or external hard drives.
  • On an Android tablet or netbook, you can use better camera equipment such as a DSLR for video or photography, and you can directly plug in and transfer the photos from it. If you want to do this on iPad, you must buy a $30 “camera connector kit.”
  • Typing on a keyboard improves efficiency of document creation, an important activity in education. If you use tablets, you have to pay extra for bluetooth keyboards.
  • Many schools are wasting even more money by spending an extra $130 for 3G or 4G enabled iPads even though they aren’t using the cellular service, or paying $100 AppleCare, increasing the cost of the iPad even further.

The bottom line is that nothing will take quite a bite out of your EdTech budget like buying Apple products will.

So if you’re a parent, or a teacher, or just a tax-paying citizen and you are concerned about local schools saying they don’t have money for teachers, for tutors, for sports, or arts, or music, or after school programs, I suggest you contact your local school board or district office and see what kind of technology purchases they are making. And, if they are buying Apple products… where did the funds come from to pay for these more expensive devices?

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: