Why Tablets?

I don't get it. I don't understand the lure of the educational tablet. I say this, of course, as someone who relies heavily on her laptop every day and who just couldn't make an iPad "work" the same way. What are we missing out by pushing tablets onto students? (Or, conversely, what am I missing out by being so skeptical about them?)

November 14, 2012

Why tablets?

I ask that question with all earnestness and interest in hearing your answers. Why should we provide tablets for students in K–12 and college (or more accurately in the case of the latter, encourage or expect their purchase)?

Please note that I didn’t ask “Why computers?” I don’t raise this question to debate whether or not students need to have access to technology, to various “productivity” applications, computational power, or the Internet.

But I can’t help but wonder: why should they access all that — more or less — via a tablet?

I ask this, of course, based on my own tablet usage. I was one of those folks who stood in line to buy an iPad the day they debuted back in April of 2010. But I confess: I sold my iPad a short while later, having found that I couldn’t really justify owning such an expensive device — one that I used only to read e-books or to watch Netflix movies on a “second screen” while I worked on my laptop.

The key phrase in that sentence: “while I worked on my laptop.” I never could make the iPad work for me the way my laptop does: lots of typing, lots of multitasking, plenty of browser usage, sure, but lots of native (desktop) app usage too. And from time to time, turning to the command line.

But I realize that’s just me. I know lots of folks insist that they’ve found ways to be productive via their tablets, opting to take their iPads with them when they travel, for example, in lieu of a heavier and more cumbersome (and shorter battery lifed) laptop. Take my fellow tech blogger Harry McCracken, for example, who wrote last year how the iPad became his favorite computer, in part through the addition of peripherals like a keyboard.

The question of which computing device is right for students and schools to buy should be tied — obviously, I hope — to what they’re actually doing with these devices. Writing. Reading. Watching videos. Making videos. Coding. Creating. Gaming. And so on. Students’ devices should enable them to do all this and more. I worry that tablets enable less.

I worry too that tablets, as they exist in this sort of not-quite-fully-functional space, pre-suppose that you own a laptop or desktop computer. They’re a replacement for the computer you left at home, that is, but not really a replacement for a computer entirely.

My hesistations about educational tablets don’t seem to be reflected in sales figures. Apple’s iPad sales to K–12 schools have been strong, and there’s been plenty of talk about how Google and Microsoft will or should respond with marketing their own tablet devices (and accompanying operating systems and app ecosystems) to the education market. But I remain unconvinced that these are the right devices for students. Despite all the talk of being in a “post-PC” world, I still rely on my laptop.

What are we missing by buying/selling/hyping tablets to students? Or, conversely, what am I missing here by being so skeptical about them?

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Audrey Watters

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