$500 iPads In The Classroom: Good Idea?

Apple says it wants to put textbooks on a pricey tablet to deliver a richer learning experience. But critics say the device cost is what's rich.
Apple on Thursday revealed its razor-sharp focus on the education market with the launch of iBooks 2 with Textbooks, iBooks Author, and iTunes U. It believes these three tools, working together, can provide both educators and students with a richer learning experience. iBooks 2 is a revised version of its e-book application and now supports full text books, with immersive graphics, images, videos, and so on. iBooks Author can be used by anyone to create iBooks. iTunes U can be used by college students and professors to access college-level material and course work.

We're a long way from seeing whether this new direction for Apple is successful. That didn't stop the Web from reacting strongly to the news, with plenty of tech pundits on Twitter fired up about how Apple will affect the education system.

The biggest item that ruffled feathers is the cost of the iPad itself. At a starting price of $499, it's not cheap. Although it won't be too difficult for upper- and middle-class families to afford it, there are plenty of American families that cannot. Where does that leave the children of those families in the classroom? Apple didn't announce plans to bring the iPad to schools or school children at a reduced price.

[ A few of our favorite pre-classroom iPad apps: 10 Hot iPad Apps For Summer. ]

The Verge's Chris Ziegler was particularly peeved:

"I don't think this has any practical implication on public education whatsoever," said Ziegler. "The system is broken. First things first. Books get dropped, abused, handed from student to student and from older sibling to younger sibling. iPads? Not so much. Show me a program for getting iPads into schools en masse, Apple. THAT'S the wow factor in education, not an animated book."

Ziegler got into a conversation with Philip Berne (a former teacher and--*disclaimer*--friend and former colleague of mine), who works for Apple competitor Samsung.

"Sure I work for a competitor," said Berne, "but I had high hopes that Apple might introduce a useful, open standard, not an ecosystem grab. It's one thing to grab for media, apps, accessories, etc. But when you mess with education, makes me furious. So, middle class kids with highly-educated parents who have no trouble getting into college will now be able to study better. Hoorah. How about making textbooks an open Web standard, so kids who can't afford iPads can use them? You know, the ones who actually need them?"

Gartner analyst Michael Gartenberg disagrees with the positions taken by Ziegler and Berne, however.

"Think about the total cost of education for primary, secondary and university, the cost of a media tablet is negligible," wrote Gartenberg on Twitter. The "value of the app is directly proportional to students having iPads. But this will lead to more schools adopting as a requirement. Lots of interesting pilots and experiments will come out of today's news. Others will build on what Apple has done today. Today's news was the foundation for what feels like a major push for education from Apple. I'd expect more followups."

My mother was a public educator for over 20 years. When she retired last year, my siblings and I chipped in and bought her an iPad as a gift. In the months she's been using the iPad, she's decided it would have been an excellent tool for her classroom. Personally, I think Apple's ideas here have a lot of transformational potential in the education market, though there are still practical issues to iron out.

What are your thoughts on this? Beyond the logistics of the applications themselves and their impact in and out of the classroom, do you like or loath the idea of a tablet as a learning tool? Can schools and, more importantly, teachers get from it what they need to push students, to encourage learning, and to be more effective in the classroom?

Or is it all just a skeevy way for Apple to sell $499 devices--which will end up becoming distractions in the classroom--to as many people as possible?

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