Some thoughts on tablets in education


After the topic of tablet-style devices recently came up in discussions on Sugar Labs' "It's an education project" mailing-list as well as while talking to various people in Montevideo I felt like summing up my own thoughts on this topic.

Like it or not, touch is here to stay

The short version

I think tablet-style devices could be quite well suited for use by primary-school children however I don't think that the products currently available or foreseeable to be available within the next two or three years will be well suited for secondary-school use.

The slightly longer version

In my mind tablets are generally more suited for content consumption rather than content creation. Some will be quick to blame that on the fruit company offering the only major product for the consumer market at the moment keeping close tabs on what its product is used for. Others will argue that this is only due to the lack of suitable software and input interfaces. While there is truth in both of those points I feel that it's the form-factor itself as well input via capacitive touchscreens that currently doesn't and will not allow for extensive input, especially when we're talking about input in the form of text.
I don't consider this to be too much of an issue within primary education because while learning to read and write is obviously a core concern here the production of long texts - what doesn't work well on tablets and touchscreens in my opinion - generally isn't required.

On the other hand writing texts (and by that I don't mean tweet-sized text but rather things like essays) is one of the core things that secondary education is about. The real skill being taught might be making sense of extensive and complex source materials and expressing them in ways most appropriate for one's own way of understanding and remembering. Yet I strongly feel that being able to independently express thoughts in writing is in many ways the culmination of an important aspect of secondary education.

At this point many people will argue that writing is only one of the many ways to express thoughts. They might also argue that education in general has so far been skewed towards text-based learning. Others will point towards the increasing importance of multimedia, video and audio in the much discussed information and knowledge society.

We need to talk about your TPS reports.

All of these are valid points and especially with the universal access to devices such as mobile phones or laptops (such as in Uruguay) we'll likely see some relevant changes in (secondary) education systems around the world over the coming years. Yet I don't see society at large becoming significantly less reliant on text over the next decade or so. Regardless of whether I think of business plans, applying for a job, working within academia as well as regular day-to-day communication within organizations and companies, producing coherent text with more than Twitter's 140 characters will be a core skill for the foreseeable future.

Having said all that: I do realize that for better or worse the move towards touch-driven devices - whether in the form of OLPC's XO-1.75 machine that will come with a touchscreen, the XO-3 tablet or any number of other devices in that space - is pretty much inevitable at this point. Hence it makes sense for projects such as Sugar, tinygames/Karma, etc. to prepare for this by starting to research and work on how to make their software work well with touch-driven devices sooner rather than later.

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Having used Tablet PCs in education, both my own and others, I can't help but wonder what you're talking about.

First off, you'd be well advised to tighten up your control of the underlying terms. Almost every time you say “tablet” you mean “slate”. It's not your fault. There are a lot of people who are new to this type of technology, and most of them have no idea what they're talking about. You may have unwittingly adopted their way of speaking on the topic. Hopefully, you may have not also appropriated their ill-formed opinions. The industry coined the term “slate” to refer to the form factor of a device that looked like a rigid piece of paper. It was an homage to the time when stone tablets were carved on quarried slates. Thus, the term tablet properly refers to a slate that you write on. Even though you use the word “tablet”, everything that you say implies that what you're thinking of is not actually a tablet. It gets even more confusing because not only are all slates not tablets, but not all tablets are slates either. Some tablets come in a convertible form factor, which means that they can offer a more traditional laptop-like mode and a slate form factor. It gets even more confusing than this because some convertibles that offer a laptop-like mode and a slate form factor are not actually tablets because the slate form factor only supports some form of light touch input and not writing. You're thinking of slates that aren't tablets, and you're right; they're not that useful in education. In fact, a slate with a capacitive touchscreen is pretty useless. About all you can do with such a device is sell it to people who don't really understand technology.

If we're talking about a slate with an active digitizer or a “hard” resistive touchscreen, then you've got a tablet. Tablets are VERY useful in education. The difference between managing and publishing a document using a modern computer versus using an old typewriter is indicative of the difference between using a tablet computer to write, think, and present mathematics versus just using pencil and paper. You can re-arrange, re-format, erase, annotated, etc with power and ease. I do free math tutoring and allow my students to use one of my many work tablets during sessions. They all prefer it to paper, not because it's novel but because it's more efficient and effective. It goes beyond math too. I taught one young student how to do mind mapping to prepare for a book report that she had to write. She knew about outlining and was required to submit her outline as part of her work. However, outlining using bullets in her word processor wasn't working for her. However, drawing out the outline was very effective for her because it was less linear, more visual, and ultimately more creative. We could have done some of it on paper but not nearly as easy as on the tablet because of the ability to add, delete, move, and change things much easier than you can on just paper. Not only was it pretty easy for her to adapt her mind map to an outline after we were done, but she found it much easier to write the actual paper because the visual style of brainstorming had enabled her to more thoroughly explore what she was going to write about and more deeply grasp what she had to say.

Unfortunately, where you're correct is that it's a bunch of touchscreen garbage that's coming out, and no mathematics curriculum that I've reviewed has ever recommended the disposal of pen and paper for fingerpainting. Touchscreen slates are about the worst computing platforms available, and I think that you could pretty accurately the world's population in to two categories: people who are excited about touchscreen slates and people who have actually used them before. To that end, you're right. If we're going to be stuck with hardware that people think they want or think we want rather than hardware that makes sense, then the burden is now transferred to the software developers to try and retain some modicum of usefulness.

A new attempt to an Indian tablet:

India unveils prototype of $35 tablet computer

"The tablet can be used for functions like word processing, web browsing and video-conferencing. It has a solar power option too — important for India's energy-starved hinterlands — though that add-on costs extra.

"This is our answer to MIT's $100 computer," human resource development minister Kapil Sibal told the Economic Times when he unveiled the device Thursday."

Seeing is believing. But for $50 I would almost buy it "unseen". If it can connect to Wifi and displays text, it will be cheap for $35.


We'll have an article talking about the $35 tablet up early next week... :-)

In fact I'll be even clearer. People are touting tablets as a replacement for books. But they are really a replacement for computers and laptops. And they are not appropriate replacement s for computers and laptops. They convert a (relatively) open device to a closed device, and a creative platform to a consumer platform.

Some good points here - for me, it's not just the problem of having to use a touchscreen to enter text, but also that the software doesn't properly support creating content. See this re the iPad:

I agree with the comment about open vs closed devices - we need to continue the move to open devices and software in education, and the tendency for closed devices is a backward step in my opinion.