The tablet computer revolution
The launch of the Apple iPad in March 2010 has revolutionized the portable computing industry. Over 66 million tablets have been shipped in 2011 and the sale is across all geographies and to users of all age groups.
The reasons for the runaway success of tablets are still being analyzed. One clear reason is the ease of use. It is common to see even children as young as 3 or 4 intuitively learning to turn the tablet on and launch games modules from the touch screen. The tablet is connected to the internet as soon as it is turned on and common applications like web browsing, e-mail and social networks are immediately usable. A lap top computer would take several seconds to boot up. The battery on a tablet lasts all day, compared to a laptop or even a mobile phone which needs recharging if used for more than a few hours. The product is light and sleek and usable virtually any place, any time.
Above and beyond all these is the access to thousands of programs and apps for tablets. There are literally millions of games, music, videos, books, TV shows and other material that is instantly accessible and at low costs. In addition, the tablet serves as an audio and video phone, a still and video camera, a sound and voice recorder and an ever increasing set of functions as new apps get written for use with tablets.
Smart phones are building in many of the features now found on tablet computers and perhaps, over time, there would be total convergence between these devices. As of now, the larger screen size of tablets is the main differentiation.
Tablets in education
From the second half of 2010, the success of the iPad and other tablets with young people became clear. Not just teenagers, but also pre-teen children started carrying and using tablets. The high cost of the tablets meant that these were first visible in the upscale neighborhoods.
Educationists and school administrators started to see the potential of the tablet computer as an educational tool. The initial efforts were to rewrite course material designed for desktop and laptop computers to be made tablet compatible. The early experience with such teaching material has now led to scores of new apps being written specifically for tablet based education. The number of schools and colleges adopting tablets as a teaching tool is beginning to grow rapidly, especially in the advanced economies of the world.
The tablet computers have the advantage of being used concurrently with class room teaching. The past computer based lessons tended to be in exclusive computer rooms. While teaching using a conventional blackboard, the teacher can access additional content on the students’ tablets to illustrate a concept with images, a video clip or even a lab experiment. The students in class can record the teacher’s voice or take notes direct on the tablet screen. The tablet based lessons can have additional hyper links to permit the student to explore a subject deeper than the time available in a class room and strengthen contextual learning and inquiry rather than learning by rote.
Most class room teaching is a compromise between goings too fast for the slow learners in class while retaining interest for the faster children. The tablet based content can permit these brighter children to learn to explore a subject on their own, while the teaching speed remains geared to the average child.
The tablet based teaching content is also a great tool to overcome issues with poor teaching ability or poor motivation in teaching staff.
The challenge of creating content
The success of tablet based teaching depends a great deal on continually creating and upgrading content. These are needed to retain interest in the students and to persuade them to keep revisiting the teaching material over their academic year. Most educational content is now being created by interested free lancers and there is, as yet, insignificant commercial reward for such content creation.
There are some efforts to get some of the major educational publishing houses like McGraw Hill and Prentice Hall to contribute their expertise towards the creation and constant updating of content.
The tablet computer is an expensive device priced at around $450. Technology forecasters do not see any dramatic fall in this pricing. Their betting is that tablet makers will just add more features, keeping the pricing at around this level. This makes the tablet difficult to afford for children from the poorer families. The inner city schools also do not have the money to fund buying of tablets for their students. The wider usage of tablets in upscale schools and non-use in poorer schools would create further disparity in the quality of education a child receives. These issues become even more pronounced in the developing economies.
The coming few years would surely see the tablet computer play an increasingly important role as an educational tool and would certainly help make the learning process greater fun for the children.