Last fall, L.A. Unified rolled out one of the most expensive and large-scale technology initiatives our country has ever seen. The district paid $1 billion to put an iPad in every student’s hand. Only one week into the first roll-out to 47 campuses, teachers began reporting problems. Some had issues connecting to the Internet in their classrooms. Others discovered that their students bypassed security measures to access prohibited websites. Parents were unsure whether they were liable for the tablets. The implementation strategy called into question whether the district had attempted too much, too soon.
Teachers have often voiced concerns about the difficulty of bringing new technologies into the classroom. The innovations move at light speed, and before teachers can wrap their heads around the latest tools for delivering instruction, the models change or the funding shifts. A recent plateau in consumer tablet sales might have teachers even more hesitant to embrace the latest tech.
Zal Bilimoria, the former head of mobile at Netflix, published an article earlier this month in Re/code about the slowing sales of tablets in the last quarter of 2013 and came to a stunning conclusion: tablets may not be here to stay. Bilimoria believes that tablets, at least for personal use, will likely go the way of the dodo, instead making way for larger smart phones. He says:
What we are witnessing today is a merger of phones and tablets, not just at Netflix but everywhere, which is why this decade’s attempt at tablets is nearing its death—just four years after Jobs launched the original iPad.
Bilimoria has some valid points. With only 12 percent of tablet owners purchasing cellular connections, the mobility of these devices is far more constrained than a smart phone. And tablets do not have the processing power of computers, so their utility is limited.
However, while we may be witnessing a slight stall in consumer tablet sales, I believe we still haven’t tapped the device’s full potential. Wireless will eventually become ubiquitous, opening the door to full mobility for the iPad. Also, the recent purchase by Facebook of the hugely popular messaging client WhatsApp casts doubt on how important cellular plans will be to the future of mobile devices. WhatsApp currently has 450 million users and is on a path to reach 1 billion. iPad users who do not acquire a cellular plan can still send and receive texts and make FaceTime calls to any other Apple device.
And while consumer activity with tablets might be at a temporary lull, projections for business and school purchases continue to grow. Apple’s chief executive Tim Cook has said that the iPad has huge potential in large-enterprise businesses, citing figures for the proportion of iPad activations in companies (90%). As for schools, 85% of districts reported use of tablets at some level and 25% reported substantial implementation, a jump from 17% last year. And despite the hiccups, L.A. Unified is moving forward with its plan to roll out iPads to all of its students, and recently voted to expand the initiative.
The current push for tablets in the classroom may be different from past attempts at implementing technology because of increased funding and policy, especially to support testing. Larger-screened devices are mandated by Common Core, which states that all screens being used for assessments must have a visual display of no less than 9.5 inches and a resolution of at least 1024 x 768. Equipping every student with a laptop or desktop computer may not be financially feasible for many schools, leaving tablets—which meet the criteria—as the natural choice.
For pedagogical purposes, tablets are far superior to smart phones. With large, multi-touch screens, students may share tablets and engage in small group activities as well as individual lessons. Tablets support gesture-based computing, which some argue is a more intuitive experience for a child than clicking a mouse. Being able to touch and interact with content promotes kinesthetic learning, and supports, quite literally, a more hands-on educational experience. A larger screen size also allows for larger font, which is necessary for readability for young children. In addition, a tablet’s screen size allows for viewing photos and diagrams alongside activities, which is important in supporting students’ visual literacy skills.
Bilimoria may not be wrong about consumers falling out of love with the tablet. But I believe the device has the funding, policy, and pedagogical backing for a much longer shelf life in education.