The onward march of digital tablets looks incontestable. Tablets are now threatening sales of personal computers in K-12 education in the USA. And the forthcoming launch of a new kiddie-tablet called Tabeo will further erode the PC end of the education market.
If there can be a killer app, there can presumably be a killer product. Call it, for now, a killer prod. Is the tablet a killer prod?
The first question is: what distinguishes it from a laptop? Novelty, which will pass. Added portability.
What distinguishes it from a mobile phone? Size. And most can’t function as a phone. Yet. But they are converging.
When I first started using a tablet I was not sure where it would find a place in my work pattern. Did I really want to be a three-device digital user: phone, tablet, laptop?
The tablet has become my meetings machine: PDFs of agendas, minutes, papers work really nicely. It’s a smooth web browser. It skypes.
And it’s excellent for interactive and shared learning. Whether it involves multiple learners around one tablet, or multiple learners with a table each, or multiple tablets for a single learner, tablets help take us away from the teacher-fronted classroom and into more student-driven learning.
Laptops with Wi-Fi can do this, to be sure. But for real mobility, cellular+tablet wins. And the tablet is less limited to laps than a laptop.
Furthermore, the volume and quality of teaching and learning apps are advancing at a stunning pace, much faster than our ability to sift and assess for quality.
And I am immensely heartened and impressed by the abilities of four-year-olds to manage tablets, to master their ergonomics, to use them to learn and to use them to learn about learning. So, in their way, do some domestic felines. Check out the web for proof.
None of this can take away from the fact that the tablet is a really, hopelessly, disastrously, cosmically awful instrument for text entry. I write a lot, and fast. Tablets drive me beyond distraction.
Good for writing (slowly and poorly)
Tablets’ on-screen keyboards are functionally poor, slow and lack the feedback necessary for all but laboured and slow typing. Some tablets can work with associated Bluetooth or USB keyboards.
Well, some of these are ergonomically vile, and many require you to tote two instruments around, the tablet and the keyboard. So why not a laptop?
Further, text-processing software for tablets is not yet mature, and bears witness to incomplete innovation about how to be textually creative on a tablet screen.
Voice recognition input to tablets is not yet sufficiently advanced to be reliable. It compares poorly with parallel software on laptops, and tends to be capricious, limited and rigid, and not great with surrounding ambient noise.
I write here – on a laptop – with some asperity, born of frustration and irritation that tablets haven’t got it right yet, and still have far to go. Their poor performance with text input means that using them may skew literacy and its learning.
Granted, mobile phones and tablets are tolerable for the input of short text messages: emails, blogs, tweets. For the creation of sustained prose they are pulsatingly, superlatively, transcendentally terrible.
And for the rest? Well, as a literacy curmudgeon I mourn the decline of paper literacy. There is nothing like a well printed page in quality type on quality paper. I mourn the decline of handwriting.
But then I am already an anachronism.
And though tablets are more robust than they used to be, they still don’t respond well to immersion in water, or to percussive contact, as with the heads of an importunate sibling. They tend to crack. But so does the sibling, which may be some small comfort.
All this means that tablets cannot yet be a total learning device. For what they do well they are fine. For the rest they need to be complemented. And using them effectively will require some rethinking of how we plan, execute, support and monitor learning.
A tablet, to be fairer than I have been so far, is not a reduced laptop. It’s something different, which is creating new functions and learning spaces. It’s a game-changer. We are still discovering – and creating – the new games.
And for the remaining rest? I have started to learn some Chinese, so I need the textbook, a dictionary, a grammar guide, and access to texts in Chinese to check some expressions.
Some audio files of pronunciation, and some videos of real life situations, would be most convenient. I’d like to share questions with other students and with the tutor.
The prescription? My daily tablet.