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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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