Has the time arrived for you to take a step into mobile learning to see what it offers you and your students? Matt Steele takes a look.
Whether you want to embark on creating, running, or teaching a wholly tablet based course, with no hard copy books in the classroom or at home, or you are simply interested in experimenting with a single tablet device in the classroom as a teaching aid, it will pay you to take a look at the technologies available.
New tablets are coming onto the market on an almost daily basis, and any recommendation for a particular device for a particular purpose can very soon become out of date.
However the Operating System (OS) battle has now largely been decided. Apple’s iOS (its tablet and phone OS) and Google’s Android OS enjoy by far the largest share of the market between them, with Microsoft, Blackberry and the rest taking the remainder.
So, while there is an enormous range of tablets to choose from, the choice of OS is limited to an absolute maximum of three (or four, depending on whether you consider Windows 8 and Windows RT as a single candidate). But which one to go with?
According to data from the International Data Corporation (IDC) Worldwide Quarterly Tablet Tracker, and reported on bgr.com, while growth of tablet shipments slowed overall in the second quarter of 2013, Android and iOS based tablet market share has effectively flipped compared to their positions only a year ago, with Apple’s iPad experiencing a 14% drop in sales to 17 million units, and Android enjoying a huge surge in sales from 10.7 million to 28.2 million, an increase of around 163%.
This reflects Samsung’s (whose tablets use Android) position as second only to Apple in tablet hardware sales. Amazon (whose Kindle Fire uses Amazon’s own version of Android), Lenovo and Acer make up the rest of that list, along with the myriad other tablet makers, who also use Android.
In the same way that the popularity of the Windows PC OS in the nineties caused Intel to become the largest chip manufacturer in the world, so Samsung and Amazon’s Kindle Fire have reaped the benefit of the success of Android.
The choice of OS, however, is bound up with a number of other issues – how do the respective app stores rate? To what extent can you make use of your school’s existing technologies (email, interoperability with a school LAN etc)? What other software is available to help you with the management of classroom based tablet devices?
Going with iOS means going with Apple, which means buying into all the platforms, apps and services that make up the Apple ecosystem.
By any measurement criteria Apple have thought of most things an educator would need in order to deploy their content and manage their classes. Like an ex pat living in a gated community you are left with little reason, or option, to go elsewhere once you’re in.
To paraphrase Steve Jobs, education is in Apple’s DNA: they started out building computers for campuses, and a short time ago they reaffirmed their commitment to all things educational with the release of the iTunes U app for iOS and iBooks Author for OSX, their desktop and laptop OS.
First released in 2007, iTunes U was created to store, distribute and manage educational content in the form of audio, video and PDFs, access being restricted by member organisations – universities, colleges, schools etc. It is widely used as a lightweight LMS type platform.
In February of this year (2013) Apple announced that iTunes U content downloads had topped one billion.
iBooks Author was released in January 2012, along with iBooks 2, their ebook reader and bookshelf app for iPad. iBooks Author was and is primarily intended for the creation of textbooks, and a new category was added to iTunes U to make them available. If you decide to use iBooks Author to create content to distribute through the iBooks Store, though, you should bear in mind that while you can create them on your Mac or MacBook, you need an iPad or iPhone with the iBooks app installed if you want to view the fruit of your labours.
Apple’s suite of educational tools doesn’t end there. Alongside the wealth of educational (and ELT specific) apps on the App Store, the iBooks Author textbook development tool, and iTunes U, with AppleTV and AirPlay Mirroring it’s possible to project the screen of any and all iPads in the classroom onto a screen at the front of the class. This is not only an excellent means of working collaboratively, it also affords the teacher the ability to monitor what each student is doing on their iPad.
Android was funded by Google from the outset and later bought by the search giant outright in 2005. On the day of writing (4th September 2013), Google announced that the number of Android activations had reached 1 billion.
While it’s fair to say that from a performance point of view Android had a lot of ground to make up before it approached the slickness and sensitivity of iOS, with the launch of Android 4.3 ‘Jelly Bean’ on its flagship tablet, the Nexus 7, Android nowadays is every bit as effective, if not as pretty, as its Apple counterpart.
The latest iOS release, iOS 7, is due to go head to head with Android 4.4 ‘Kit Kat’ soon.
How does any Android tablet match up to the educational heft offered by the iOS platform?
In a very important sense, it doesn’t. If what you require as a school or a course manager is a one stop shop for materials development, distribution, and classroom management tools, then Apple wins hands down.
But perhaps that isn’t so important to you.
Perhaps you’re quite happy using one of any number of free and open source ebook creation tools available. Also, you may prefer to take your pick of an ever increasing bunch of platforms eager to distribute your interactive content, and at a fraction of Apple’s cost. There are also more and more open source Learning Management Systems available that can host your material, and provide you with Android apps to view them on.
There is also the Samsung Learning Hub, which is now preinstalled on most of Samsung’s smartphones and tablets. While not yet up there with iTunes U in terms of quantity of material, there is still an impressive and growing amount of content on the platform, including OUP materials.
In terms of the number of available apps the Android tablet owner has to choose from, compared with the owner of an iPad, they are pretty square at around 800,000 each. It’s not clear from the data, however, whether that includes all the other Android app stores other than Google Play. It’s possible to download and run Android apps sold through the increasingly large Amazon app store as well.
What about the ELT angle? Searching for ‘learn English’ on Google Play returns a suspiciously neat 500, while the same search term on an iPad provides 2,520 candidates. This is in no way an acid test, however, and is probably more of an indicator of the, still, indubitably superior design of the iOS User Interface (UI).
In a report published earlier this year, Apple is reported to own only 18% of the app market share, while Google owns 75%. The other 7% is shared by Windows, Blackberry and others.
Perhaps the most surprising thing, however is that Apple pulls in around 500% more revenues from its market share than does Google from its Play store: Apple’s revenue is $5.1 million a day, while Google’s is $1.1 million a day.
This is in all probability a reflection of the relative number of free apps available on the Google Play Store. It is also clear from the figures that Android users are more prepared to buy ‘entertainment’ apps than are their more well heeled Apple owning counterparts.
It is also worth noting that the percentage of revenue generated by new Android, as opposed to iOS apps, suggests that the gap may not be so wide for long.
This breakdown of app types and the number of their downloads illustrates the difference between the reasons why people prefer one to the other nicely: while ‘education’ comes second on the App Store league of most popular download by category with 11%, Android’s number two is ‘personalization’ with 12%.
Both stores’ number one was ‘games and education’, unsurprisingly. The salient point is that, while Apple’s strength is in its ‘ecosystem’ of mutually compatible platforms and revenue streams, Android’s is in its open and customizable platform. That, and the sheer quantity of hardware that can run it.
Windows 8 and Windows RT
Microsoft released Windows 8 to the public in October 2012. It contained major differences in its Graphical User Interface (GUI) as a result of Microsoft now competing with Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android smartphone and tablet operating systems. The main innovation was the ‘Metro’ tiled interface. Metro is actually a programming language that allows app developers to build apps for Windows 8 PCs and tablets.
Windows RT – RT stands for ‘Runtime’ – is, or was, Microsoft’s latest effort to enable its operating system to run on tablet architecture. In general tablets use ARM microprocessors as opposed to those created by Intel and AMD. ARM processors are generally less memory and battery hungry than traditional Intel chips, therefore they don’t need fans to cool them down, which in turn requires less space, etc.
In a fresh foray into the hardware market, Microsoft released its Surface RT in 2012. Sales have been disappointing, however, and recent price reductions are evidence of that. The RT operating system was perceived as a less desirable option to the fully featured Windows 8, which unfortunately required a more powerful Microprocessor, which in turn needed a fan, more space, etc. Enter Intel, offering its new fan-free ‘Clover Tail’ processors, meaning that the powerful and corporate friendly Windows 8 can now run on a tablet. Microsoft’s Surface Pro is the prime example.
Running Windows 8, not only can the Surface Pro join your school’s domain (accessing all those shared files, audio, video etc), it also has the power, usability and familiarity to become possibly the only device you’ll need. On top of this, and for me the stand out feature – it has a standard size USB port. No more emailing content to yourself, or worse still, grappling with that ne’er do well of wi-fi protocols – Bluetooth. The price makes it a competitor more with Apple’s MacBook than its iPad, however.
Microsoft’s equivalent to the Apple App Store and the Google Play Store is, predictably, the Windows Store. While Microsoft recently announced it had 100,000 apps available on the store (an eighth of Apple’s and Google’s), a recent report published by Soluto shows that the majority of Windows 8 users simply don’t use them.
Despite this, Microsoft is optimistic about the Store’s prospects. Thenextweb.com reports it as saying it is:
“Excited about partners that are committed to building for the platform such as Facebook, Flipboard, Foursquare and new titles from Disney”. Time will tell.
The role of tablet devices in education is undoubtedly one that will only grow in the foreseeable future. The Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) movement seems now to be a permanent feature on University campuses, in the States at least.
That last fact needs to be examined, though. All the figures quoted above are global, and therefore inclusive of the US. The US is Apple’s biggest fan by far and as a result a lot of the statistics one reads about tablet operating systems, devices, app stores and services are weighted in favour of Apple. Take the US out of the picture and the Android landscape is even more impressive.
The other point to bear in mind is that the US enjoys excellent connectivity, especially on large University campuses. This has allowed BYOD to flourish in a way that, for the moment at least, it would have difficulty doing in many other countries not so well connected.
However if you’re comfortable with your school’s bandwidth and the robustness of its data connections, and you want to dive into experimenting with tablets in your classroom, the choices are clear: if you, your school, and your students can afford it, and you’re happy with being locked into proprietary platforms, which are nevertheless generally highly reliable and whose development path is relatively predictable, then investing in iPads is definitely an option.
If you live in a more mixed world, however, and your students have one of the huge range of Android devices already, and you’re keen on Bring Your Own Device rather than Bring Your Own iPad, you can fill all those Apple platform gaps with the likes of the Samsung Learning Hub and nearpod. With a little expertise and imagination it would be possible to create a set of tools that allow you to use your Android devices in just the way that you and your school want to. This is the single most important difference between the big two tablet operating systems.
On the other hand, if you just want your students to access PDFs, eBooks, audio and video from your Windows network (and there are good reasons why you might want to do that), and you want the security and convenience that Windows Active Directory provides: locking systems down, providing password access to resources, blocking certain applications, etc, then Windows 8 may yet be the operating system of choice for you.
Photo taken from Luke Wroblewski’s flickr stream under the creative commons license.