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Is Apple addressing productivity issues with iPad?

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

On March 30, 2014, it was reported by that Apple recently filed a patent for an iPad keyboard cover. This is an interesting development as Apple has always shunned the idea of both a keyboard and stylus pen for inking, in favor of the finger touch. Perhaps the prior research on how students learn, combined with other market forces, are both driving Apple to look into the future of tablets in education. Like the tortoise and the hare, Apple might be the hare, but the race continues to create a device tailored to the needs of students, rather than the shoehorn the technology into learning environments and hope for the best.

Now that Microsoft has released Office for the iPad, the keyboard could become ever more important. As stated in the article, "…how useful is Microsoft's software suite without a keyboard? Microsoft has gone to great lengths to make Office for the iPad touch-friendly, but it's difficult to imagine doing much work in Word or Excel with just a touchscreen." The existing Bluetooth keyboards that can be paired with the iPad are just OK, but not nearly as efficient as the Microsoft keyboard cover. Apple is clearly paying attention. For students in secondary and higher education, the use of a keyboard still remains the primary method of input. Look at the Los Angeles iPad implementation for further evidence of keyboard necessity when planning a tablet implementation.

Productivity extends beyond the keyboard. The need for inking (writing on screen) is another very important aspect for effective use of tablets in education. The need to handwrite efficiently is one of the top needs of students. The iPad, as well as most other tablets, do not contain an active digitizer. What this means is that writing on the tablet is slow, inaccurate, cumbersome, and overall, frustrating. The capacitive screen of the iPad is not designed for fine writing. It is designed for touch. A tablet needs to function as a writing surface, and mimic the efficiency of paper for note taking and annotating text. The only way to create this user experience is to include an active digitizer in the device. Examples are the Microsoft Surface Pro 2, Dell Venue, Asus Vivo Tab, and the Samsung Galaxy Note. Intel is also getting into the game with some new products slated for release later in 2014.

The need for smooth and efficient writing using digital devices is nothing new in education. If one looks at higher education, few students use tablets as a primary device. The lack of productivity is a key reason. Typing notes usually pales to the preference to handwrite notes. For many subjects, typing notes is ineffective because of the need to write numbers, equations, diagrams, and other shapes. Notes are personal and are not limited to simply text. Back in 2010, reported that “ Lyndasu Crowe, an associate professor at Darton College in Albany, GA, objects to even calling the iPad a tablet because it offers no native support for a stylus and digital ink. "That's what makes the tablet PC a compelling teaching tool--the ability to annotate, to write notes, to create diagrams, and just to draw on the screen," she says. "That's a teaching tool…” There is also an abundant amount of research about the importance of writing on digital devices that has curiously been ignored in K-12 learning environments. The marketing hype often drowns out voice of research. We can all learn much be applying general principles of learning to the new emerging technologies. This requires deep analysis and application of prior research to make good decisions for technology in education.

Any tablet, whether an iPad or otherwise, needs to move beyond the "wow" factor and deliver core functionality needed by students. This functionality revolves around productivity, not just consumption. The need for keyboard input and inking remain two of the most important needs for students. Neither has been well met by the iPad or most other tablets. However, the Microsoft Surface Pro 2 has arguably created a device more closely aligned with the unique needs of students. It also has some downsides, including price, but addresses inking and keyboard input better than any other devices currently on the market.

There is little doubt that tablet vendors are moving to address productivity issues, including Apple. Educators and decision makers should pay close attention to the basic needs of students before looking to the emerging features with unproven learning benefits. There are timeless principles that support learning. Writing and content creation are not out of style, or can be replaced by simple touch technology. Touch input inadequately addresses how content is created. The eagerness to jump on the bandwagon is part of technolust. Take a step back, and really think about what a device would look like if it were designed from the ground up to support learning needs. Surely, efficient keyboard input and natural hand writing to support annotating and note taking would rank very high.

At the end of the day, no one device fits all needs. Moreover, not all needs are equal. For tablet use in education, inking and keyboard input should be non-negotiable functions.

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