The Rise of Mobile and What it Means for Educators

Why are we investing so much time, energy and training in iPads?

This is really two questions in one sentence.  The first is “Why are we investing time etc. in mobile/tablet computing?” and the second is “Of all the tablets on the market, why are we going with the iPad?”

To understand, however, why looking at tablet computing makes sense for educators at all, we need to step back and look at how things are changing in the world around us.  It might help to look at some numbers.  These were quoted by Google’s Tina Ornduff at the Google European summit in Prague on 14th October 2012, and they come from sources correct as of the year 2011.  They speak to the pace, and direction, of the change technology has wrought in the way we live, work and play.

  • It is now over 40 years since the first e-mail was sent in 1971.
  • There are 3.146 billion e-mail accounts in the world today
  • There are 555 million websites on the worldwide web.
  • There are 2.4 billion accounts on social networking sites.
  • Facebook contains 100 billion photos.
  • 225 million people have Twitter accounts (18.1 million of these people follow Lady Gaga!)
  • 800 million people visit YouTube each month.
  • 85% of handsets shipped in the year 2010 contained web browsers.

Leaving aside for the moment the merits of Lady Gaga, the two clearest threads to emerge in the time since our current high schoolers began their academic lives are mobile and Web 2.0.  The effect of both these threads is discernible in the figures quoted above, and both threads have significant implications for how we support education programmes and priorities for curriculum looking ahead.  In addition, there are clues to the changing behaviour the two threads influence that we can see in our own school communities.

For example, at ACS we know from our parent survey that the reason parents dislike attachments to e-mails is that mobile handset e-mail clients handle attachments less efficiently than PCs do.  We hear more and more requests to make sure the important messages we send out are contained in the text of the e-mail.  This is one small local confirmation of what the statistics have been telling us for the last three years: an increasing proportion of the world’s web and e-mail access is now done on mobile phones and tablets, not on PCs.  Mobile handsets are the preferred vehicle for web access of a rapidly growing sector of the population – particularly in Europe, Asia and Africa, and this calls for special attention to be paid by those who depend on the web to communicate their information.

This development also has implications for browser technology.  Most browsers were developed in a different era of the web, one in which is was assumed that the person doing the browsing was sitting at a desk looking at a stationary screen.  The world’s most popular web browser used to be Netscape.  Then it was Internet Explorer.  Since May this year it has been Chrome.  Chrome would probably not have achieved this success had it not been for the rise of mobile because most Chrome users use Chrome on a mobile device, such as an iPad – although naturally the folks at Google would say “such as a Samsung Galaxy running Android Ice Cream Sandwich” 🙂

Teaching children how to use the web now means teaching them how to use mobile devices safely and efficiently – and that must include practical experience.  So that brings us to the second question “Why the iPad?”.

The iPad is the world’s most popular tablet.  It outsells all other tablets, and no personal computer company – including Apple itself, sells as many computers as Apple does iPads.  Over 100 million iPads have been sold in the two and a half years since it was released.  It is also the tablet most commonly seen in the nascent literature on tablets in the teaching and learning environment, both as a platform for content creation by students and teachers and as a medium through which to receive content created by others.

Although our school could have gone with another tablet, the strong consensus of other education establishments that have taken the route to introduce the use of tablets in teaching is that the iPad has overwhelming advantages in stability of platform, simplicity of use and multifunctionality.

Its management is made easier by the fact that unlike some of its commercial rivals the iPad is deliberately intended to support only those apps that pass through a quality control vetting process that excludes the need for developers to ensure their apps are supported by multiple generations of the operating system.  The iPad has the considerable additional advantage of being supported by an apps store that is already familiar to many people and that works on whatever operating system they use: the iTunes Store. The iTunes Store contains by the far the largest selection of apps for multiple arenas – including education, although smart users have long since realised that many apps most useful to education purposes are not “education apps” per se.  We probably use Pages most often – an app with its provenance in the iWork office suite.

The choice of the iPad, rather than another tablet, is therefore a decision we have remained very comfortable with throughout the lower school roll-out, and for practical purposes it is not a decision we could afford to review at regular intervals.  However, it does provide us with the platform to review much else in our programme.  For example we might find ourselves reviewing decisions such as the use of printed textbooks rather than eBooks; the choice of a self-maintained virtual learning environment or a walled garden such as Google Apps; the direction of our WebDav programme; and the selection of the mode in which we complete standardised testing (we are committed to the MAP, but the widespread use of iPads opens up the possibility of moving to web-based MAP instead of a client-based server).

These are all management-level decisions but they are made into genuine choices by the adoption of iPads into the core teacher toolkit.  More importantly the adoption allows us to say that in the dauntingly uncertain world of predicting what bits of education practice will eventually prove to have been far-sighted and what bits will prove to be blind alleys, we have refused to stay wedded to twentieth century practices and have taken seriously our responsibility to prepare our students for the future.

Creating the Vision

There has been much talk at ACS Cobham lately about creating a vision for the iPads initiative.  Of course, the original launch was informed by a vision, but two years on that vision is in need of an update, and as we expand the initiative into areas of the school that were previously not included the importance that the vision be something a wide number of stakeholders can buy into has been commented upon.

In the meantime, the iPad itself has evolved, and so has its commercial competition.  Yesterday the long-anticipated iPad Mini saw the light of day, and the announcement that the new MacBook Pro models will no longer carry optical drives also spoke volumes about Apple’s own vision of cloud-based computing.  There now seems to be little difference in vision between the new MacBook Pro and the Macbook Air (at least in the 13″ version of the model) but that is arguably a testament to the realisation of the vision Apple had in 2008 when the Air was launched.  It is undeniable that the cloud-based services that Steve Jobs et al. believed justified the lack of an optical drive on the MacBook Air have brought us to a point where optical drives are far less of a necessity than they once were (one commentator recently mused that as far as he was concerned, his optical drive might as well be a grey line drawn along the side of his MacBook!) and the rise of the those same services have helped ensure the iPad’s dominance.

In Randall Stross’ 2008 book Planet Google, cloud-based services were being talked about as a new direction.  Four years on they are an important ingredient informing the vision I referred to above.  ACS’ vision will seek to explain why such a large school is investing time, money, energy and resources in pursuing a wide-scale tablet computing programme.  The only possible justification for this investment is a belief that tablet computing will be important to the future of the students in our school – and by extension society as a whole.

This takes us into the world of prediction, which is difficult territory.  We can, however, attempt to use what the late Arthur C. Clarke called “the running jump technique” to prediction and take a look at how things have developed over the past few decades and see how this might inform us about likely future trends.  In my next blog I will quote some figures that were used at the European Google Apps Summit in Prague that was held on 13th and 14th October this year.  The choice of which figures to quote in a presentation (or indeed a blog) is always a highly selective process, but these do allow the reader to discern trends in the way the world’s population has changed its uses of technology over the past forty years.  Clarke would say that this gives us a basis (but a notoriously flimsy one) for making a series of guesses about what might happen in the future.

In the meantime, the preparations for launching the iPads initiative into new grade levels continues.  Third and fourth graders will return from their half-term break ready to use iPads in classroom lessons, and some middle school and high school students who were previously only observers will soon be fully involved.  There are some technical and logistical considerations – and we expect to make mistakes, but we also expect to see some success stories coming from our classrooms that we will continue to share with the world.  It’s an exciting time to be in education.