iPad with on display keyboard
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It’s been several months since I first geeked out and was the third person in line at the Apple Store the day the iPad was released.  Yes, I have embraced my inner (and outer) Nerd-dom.  At first I wasn’t sure if I was going to keep it.  It didn’t take me long to change my mind on that.  Then I wasn’t sure if I could recommend it to others.  Once again, it quickly became something I could endorse wholeheartedly.  But the big question still remains, what is its place in education?  Is it the next big killer device?  Another in a long string of fads?  The perfect 1:1 device or a waste of budget?

I often include in my presentations John Candy’s line from Canadian Bacon, “There’s a time to think and a time to act.  And this, gentlemen, is no time to think.”  That certainly seems to encapsulate many institutions attitude when moving to iPad adoption.  In the few months since it has been released, there’s been just a FEW schools who are willing to commit to taking the plunge.

And that’s just within the first few months, the early adopters, the trailblazers.  The big question is… are they moving in the right direction or making a colossal mistake?

Based on my experiences so far, I’d say they’re making a good choice…  but might be doing it prematurely.  As a hardware platform, I can honestly say that the iPad is the greatest device I have ever used.  The battery life alone is a major reason for saying this.  I took my iPad on a nine hour flight and used it nearly the entire time.  Real world usage, not a battery test.  I watched a few movies, played some games, did some reading and typed out a few things.  After nine hours of usage, my battery still had 51% remaining.  That’s stunning.  Unbelievable.  Amazing.  And undeniably useful in an educational setting.

Anybody that has been through a laptop initiative knows that battery life can be the kryptonite of the program.  The idea of Anytime Anywhere is wonderful, but in reality once the computers have been used a few months it becomes more like LimitedTime, AnywhereThere’sAPowerStrip.  The very thought of being able to have students go the entire day without charging is crazy.  Just think about it.  They arrive to school with their iPads.  Use them in every class the entire day.  And then take them home to charge them.  No carts, no power strips spread out throughout the classroom, and it’s small enough that they can just slide them in their desks when they aren’t being used.

It sounds simple, but it’s one of those basic needs that can derail a program.  Beyond that, because the OS is so simplified, there’s no 10 minute waiting period while students power up and log in.  There’s no time to kill while students load up programs.  Because it’s so easy to jump on and off of it, it doesn’t need to be relegated to a specific time during the class.  It can easily slip in and out of a lesson without dominating it.  Plus, while keyboards are certainly handy, there’s no need for peripherals.  Onscreen keyboard, no mouse, built in microphone, absent power cable…  It’s just the student and device.  Simplicity is a very good thing.

Now that speaks to the hardware, the platform itself.  Then there’s the software.  And that’s where the “not yet” part comes in.  There’s A LOT to be excited about.  Video editing, drawing programs, music applications for real time performance and recording.  There’s office applications (both iWork and Microsoft compatible) as well as more than ample photo editing applications.  There’s e-readers, simulations, virtual frog dissections and interactive periodic tables.  There’s math applications galore, from flashcards to practice problems to interactive games.  You can view satellite images via Google Earth, or download maps going back to the Crusades.  There’s a ton of great stuff out there.  But the reality is, we’re just barely scratching the surface and the really good stuff is yet to come.

People forget, when the iPhone was released in the summer of 2007, there was no App Store, only web based apps.  It wasn’t until a full year later that people could download actual Apps onto their iPhones.  Developers had a full 4 months to create Apps for the iPhone before the App store was released, and during that time they were able to test their wares on the iPhone itself.  They knew the product, they could try it out, see what worked, what didn’t and explore the best ways to leverage the platform.

The iPad was a completely different situation.  Developers were forced to run the software on simulations leading up to the release of the iPad.  They couldn’t hold it, they didn’t know what capabilities it really had, or what the user experience would FEEL like along the way.  Consequently, nearly every launch app was really more of a beta release in some respects.  Now that we’re a few months into the iPad era, we’re just starting to see Apps being released that leverage the full potential of the iPad and the big players are finally identifying where they’re going to be making their pushes.

The point being, as good as the software is on the iPad right now, by the end of the year I have no doubt that the Apps will be reinventing the way we think of computing experiences.  The best is yet to come.

So with that in mind, would I recommend a 1:1 iPad initiative for schools right now?    Sure, so long as you have modest expectations.  Right now, there WILL be things that will frustrate you or that you are unable to do.  And if you need something that will be 100% effective on the first day of school, this is not the device for you.  If you’re looking long term and have the luxury of letting the App world catch up, a mid-year initiative would likely be the best time to launch.  Or if you can really think long term, I might consider waiting one more year for all those little details to be resolved by developers.

Regardless, I can say with complete confidence that the iPad is going to change the way we think of computing in schools.  As Chris Lehman often stresses, technology should be like oxygen: ubiquitous, necessary and invisible.  I think the iPad affords us the best opportunity of making idea a reality.

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