It’s a candy mint! No, it’s a breath mint! No, it’s two mints in one!
It’s an entertainment toy! No, it’s a learning tool! No, it’s two tools in one!!
Many of today’s tablet devices are stuck in the same “part this, part that” position as the old mint commercial. They’re not as powerful as laptops, or even netbooks, their closest computing relatives. But, they do so much, and they come so close to the functions of a portable PC or Mac, that they are emerging as an important new category of technology in distance education.
The Learning Technologies staff at OnlinePlus is very interested in how functional tablets are for distance education, so we’ve been testing an iPad2 and a Motorola Xoom for a month. Of course, there are plenty of other tablets on the market in various sizes, capabilities and operating systems. Here are some things to watch for if you’re in the market:
- Does it have an operating system that suits your need?
- Can you install operating system updates? (Not always true with low-end tablets)
- Are there available apps that fit your needs?
- Is there enough memory (or memory slots) to hold the files you need?
- Is it Wi-Fi (wireless), 3G (cell technology), or both?
- What is its reputation for dependability?
Fortunately for all of us, there are plenty of online review sites. In just a few minutes, using any search engine, you can learn a lot about a tablet by doing a web search for reviews. Let’s say I am considering the Acme X1 tablet; all I need to do is open a browser window and in the search field type “Acme X1 reviews.” The results will most likely tell me all I need to know.
There are also many websites that provide comparisons of tablets. Once again, use a search engine and type in “tablet comparisons” or “tablet buying guides.” The results will keep you busy for a while.
You may not feel prepared to read these reviews and make a decision, but rest assured, it’s not rocket science. You can learn a lot just by reading multiple reviews and looking for the items that more than one reviewer emphasizes. By reading more than one review, you will quickly figure out what the reviewers think is important, and you’ll learn things about every tablet that the manufacturer doesn’t tell you.
With the higher-end tablets like the iPad and the Xoom, there’s enough computing power and storage to run most tablet-based programs you will use, although you’re not going to be storing many large files. The iPad comes with up to 64 GB memory, and the Xoom tops out at 32 GB. Neither comes close to matching the storage on the hard drive of a basic $200 netbook, as most of them store more than 150 GB. That tells you right away that you’re not going to store a semester’s worth of files on your tablet, so you need to be smart about moving and storing files. Also, the processors in tablets are well-suited for web browsing and email, but most are 1 GHz in speed, which is about half the speed of a contemporary laptop, and about 60% as fast as a common netbook.
Apps are critically important to make tablets meet your needs. Some schools are building apps specifically for iPad or, less often, Android tablets. That’s a big plus if you plan on getting a tablet and want to get the most use out of it. Two critical apps are Flash and Silverlight; if your school uses online video, there’s a good chance that one or both of these are involved. Apple has made it clear that Flash is not going to be enabled on the iPad, and you’ll have to wait for the new version of HTML (web coding language), which is supposed to play Flash files automatically. The Xoom is an Android tablet, and there are free Flash apps that work very well on it, but there are no Silverlight apps yet. There are third parties working on Silverlight apps, but none are on the market today.
However, neither application is absolutely necessary for normal use. Popular sites such as YouTube don’t use Flash or Silverlight, and video files on YouTube work very well. If your school puts video materials on YouTube, you’re not going to have problems playing them with most tablets, although you may need to download one or more free video apps.
Other important tablet uses for students are email and note-taking. Email is probably the easiest thing to do; it’s well sorted out, and tablets allow you to set up multiple accounts. Note-taking is easy as well, although you may find that typing on the tablet screen lacks physical feedback and leads to a lot of typos. Also, not all free note-taking apps are dependable; as part of OnlinePlus testing, we had to pay a few bucks to get a solid word processing app for Android.
If you’re taking online courses and need to do mostly web browsing, email and communication tasks, tablets are quite capable of meeting your needs. If you want to get into more demanding uses such as extensive viewing of video in proprietary formats, then a laptop, netbook or desktop is a better bet.
Based on testing by Learning Technologies staff, what do we think? We think that tablets are still a little better suited for entertainment than for education. They handle web-surfing, note-taking and communication like email just fine, so they’re a good option for daytime portable use. However, you still need a desktop or laptop for the processing and memory intensive programs and assignments. Tablets are portable, light, easy-to-carry devices, but they’re not ready to be your primary computer – yet. That’s probably a couple of years away.