If you watch a group of students waiting for the school bus one notable thing that stands out is how they struggle with the slab of books stuffed into their backpacks.
Just taking the health and safety concerns of effects of several kilos of textbooks on young spines makes the idea of giving students tablet computers attractive. But are we risking locking our schools into the walled gardens and corporate policies of Apple, Amazon and the ebook publishers?
Apple certainly see education as being the key area with their product keynote two weeks ago being peppered with references to how great the iPad and iPad Mini are for schools, students and educators.
In an anti-Apple rant – something becoming common among tech journalists fed up of being rudely treated by Apple’s PR people – Current magazine’s Patrick Avenell describes one PR executive’s interview for a media relations job at Apple’s Australian office.
“It was the most bizarre job interview I’ve ever had,” this executive said. “I was asked what my perception of Apple was, and I said all the usual stuff like ‘innovative, design focused, forefront of technology’, and I was told that was completely wrong — It was all about education and learning.”
That focus on education hasn’t been missed by schools as dozens of private schools are issuing tablet computers to replace student laptops and state schools have started experimenting with them. My local public school’s Parents & Citizens group has funded some as a pilot for their students.
Most of these tablet computers are iPads and the much of the take up is driven by the gushing media coverage of Apple’s devices. Often schools aren’t considering alternatives to the iPad or whether tablet computers are appropriate at all.
Audrey Watters at Hack Education has a very critique of the media’s role in promoting iPads and her points about Digital Rights Management and product lifecycles are pertinent.
The product lifecycle aspect is something that should concern parents and school administrators – these are not cheap purchases with tablet computers costing between $250 and $700 each and few of them will stand up to more than two years of constant use, particularly when being thrown around in school bags.
Should a tablet last two years, it will probably be superseded at the end of that time, which is a good illustration of the risks of being locked into a walled garden.
On top of the ongoing replacement costs of tablet computers, the cost of licensing ebooks threatens to be higher than traditional books as each student’s tablet requires its own license for each book rather than the school owning a set and giving copies out to the class studying the text each year.
The ebook also kills second hand books book market and gives text book companies a nice recurring income which is why educational publishers like Pearson and McGraw-Hill are so enthusiastic about putting their titles onto tablet computers.
Anybody who tries to circumvent the control of Apple or any other tablet manufacturer risks being stripped of their devices as a lady in Norway found when Amazon’s computer decided she had done something wrong.
That was by no means the first time such a thing had happened, in 2009 Amazon removed George Orwell’s 1984 from the Kindle store which meant the title disappeared from their customers’ tablets.
Along with being obsessed with corporate intellectual property rights – there is a difference to the rights of authors – tech companies bring their own morality onto their products.
While some educators may share Facebook’s revulsion towards nipples and breastfeeding, having titles deleted mid term because of a DRM snafu or change in corporate policy is not something that leads to good outcomes, or wise expenditure of scarce funds.
It may be that tablet computers are the right choice for schools and iPads are the right models to deliver the ebooks, but like all technology choices there are real maintenance and lifecycle costs along with management risks which may not seem obvious at first.
At a time when schools are being constrained by budget cuts, it would be a tragedy to waste billions and lock a generation of educators into one or two company’s technology platforms and licensing structures.
We need to consider these costs and risks very carefully before we choose to lock students into the corporate worlds of Apple, Amazon or Google.