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?

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