ipads in the classroomOne of the morning links today talked about the ballooning cost of the Los Angeles School District’s iPads in the classroom program, which we have written about before here on Teleread. It always amazes me to read stories like this and see schools get snookered into paying higher-than-retail costs because they are trying to trade money for support—and invariably, the support isn’t there and the programs go awry for both the kids and the teachers.

But still, schools are lining up to drink the iPad Kool-Aid. Why? Why all the iPad mania? Why aren’t schools buying a cheaper brand of tablet en masse, the way they are with the iPads? Why have some of the education-themed tech startups failed to make much headway in this growing market? Speaking with my teacher hat on, here are a few ideas.

1) Cheap consumer hardware gets refreshed too quickly. I am thinking of the Nexus and Kobo tablets as an example: they get ‘refreshed’ every year. So, if you  don’t have the money to buy all of them in one go, this makes them an unappealing proposition because the models will all be different by the time you are ready for round 2. And this makes it hard to plan a lesson because every student could have a device with a slightly different look, feel and configuration. Meanwhile, there is Apple, still selling the iPad 2…

2) The iPad is the leader in the tablet sector, so many students have prior experience with them. You can’t appreciate how helpful this is until you’ve seen—as I have—a pre-schooler demonstrating an app to their clueless middle-aged teacher. These are ready to roll out, for the most part, regardless of how skilled or unskilled the teacher is!

3) The plethora of self-directed learning apps make the iPad an ideal partner for the busy teacher. Not only are they easy and familiar to use, but the apps themselves are interactive. Many teachers in my school use the iPads as a ‘centre’ choice for their classes. While the teacher works with one small group on reading or math or assessment, the others can be occupied with an engaging activity for which they will need no teacher help.

The iPad does come with a higher sticker price. But it’s a stable, modular ecosystem with a mature app market and a cozy familiarity for tech-savvy kids. I don’t see a better alternative on the market right now, and I must have tried everything there is! With that said, is there a perfect device which could unseat the iPad as the education king?

Maybe. I think a mid-sized tablet halfway between an iPad and a Mini, with a robust and pre-installed app system to minimize IT involvement, would be a good buy at the right price. What sort of pre-installed apps would I like? I think something subscription-based with ever-changing content would be genius—something like Kindle Free Time Unlimited, but specialized to the education market with apps, books, music, video and so on. Why should I have to waste valuable prep time installing individual titles into iBooks, on ten different machines, one by one? An ‘unlimited’ plan where every student could turn on the machine and see new content every time would be great!

And we really need better group management tools. Our school got a bunch of new iPads, and it has been hours of work to get them all set up correctly. And some features, like the ability to push content onto more than one device from a central interface, remain lacking. I should be able to set up a teacher account and use it to send content to every device, and I should be able to set up profiles for every student so that I can track the work they do and the progress they make on tasks I set for them. Nobody has built me the perfect system for this.

For now, the iPads are the best choice for many schools. I hope the tablet market will see some maturing in the future which will make the choices for teachers both more affordable and more refined. Time will tell!