iPads in education: Not actually evil, but pretty close

Why are we giving these playthings of the Devil to kids?

Analysis Education in the USA has long been a stronghold of Apple, the venerable Apple II being cheap and tough enough to survive in that hostile environment, skool.

But Apple’s gouging of UK consumers meant the prices were so high back in the day that it was worth flying to New York and paying air fares hotel and taxes to buy the beast - hardly a viable route for UK schools. So it never really caught on, leaving the field to Spectrums and BBC Micros which for all their faults allowed students (like me) to actually program them, something you’re forbidden to do with iPads.

Sex in the classroom

iPads are sexy, enough that they have seduced a number of teachers and even whole schools, with some getting an iPad for every kid.

Where does that serious pile of money come from and what other spending was cut to do that? Saying “the LEA” or “donations” is not an answer, since that is redirecting money that could have been used to hire a competent CompSci teacher. We Reg writers are not respectful when mentioning Apple for the firm to answer even basic questions from us, but diligent research (talking to a bloke whose sister is a teacher) indicates that Apple gives steep discounts, down to about 250-300 quid each.

But hold on you’re an IT pro aren’t you?

So you know that the budget needs to include keeping the numbers up as they perish. We’re dealing with kids here, so can expect them to be dropped, lost, stolen, immersed in fluids or some macabre combination of all four.

I find it hard to believe that the life expectancy is as long as two years, since that’s about how long the average corporate laptop lasts when given to grownups. My last tablet, which was an Archos (avoid), lasted nine months - and I’m a grownup. On the Tube I see a good number of cracked but mostly still working tablets, again owned by responsible adults. Repair is almost impossible, apparently again by intent, so after the sort of drop a book wouldn’t care about £250 is gone.

Apple has shown contempt for laws in various countries about the sort of warranty it is obliged to provide so that it can gouge for Applecare. But even that’s only a couple of years and to be fair to Apple, any rational “misuse” clause would exclude their reassuringly expensive fondleslabs being used as ad hoc cricket bats or weapons. Also the local ferals are going to quickly pick up on the fact that a stream of kids will be carrying things worth stealing. In NY, Apple gear is cited as a major cause of mugging. Insurance can’t be the answer because the profits of insurers depend on the premium being bigger than the payout.

Who pays? The school or the parents?

My parents couldn’t have forked out for that without serious pain, meaning that either poorer kids whose tablet is lost/broken have to do without whilst the parents scrape together what the average person takes home in a week a week or two’s benefits, or the school funds get debited. Does anyone think that schools are so awash with cash that this is good?

There are savings to be made in photocopying which is a larger percentage of school budgets than you think, but nowhere near iPad levels.

In iPads alone that’s around 130-150 quid per year per pupil, far more than schools spend on textbooks. The DfE informs me that their definition of qualification to be an IT teacher is pretty much ever having done any study of computers past the age of 18 and that only 23 per cent of IT teachers reach that pathetically low standard.

What do you think will help your nippers to learn IT better, a gadget designed to prevent programming or a teacher upon whom £5k has been spent on upgrading their skills ?

iPads are consumer devices, spectacularly successful ones, but the key word here is consumer. Gifted engineers at Apple spent serious effort to make sure that consume is pretty much all you can do. Dijkstra famously said you don’t program in Basic, but in spite of it. iPads are like that.

To make sure that every possible cent that goes through the iPad pays a tax to Apple, the iPad is designed to stop you using nearly all programming languages and frameworks. Its ancestry in open Unix systems is simply irrelevant in this context.

That is not an insurmountable barrier. Some schools get the kids to write code on the iPad, save their text to the cloud, then go to a desktop, log in to the cloud storage then read it in to their (obviously) Macs, going back and forth that way.

My OS/2 article last year didn’t have space for a similar situation, where a bug in one build of the system broke the editor meaning we had to use a similarly cockeyed “solution”.

But this was a rejected beta of the O/S and happened in the 1980s. Remember them?

That was one defective build, on an operating system that did not catch on, and by accident. Unlike with Android tablets, you can’t use USB sticks to transfer the programs - even if that were a good idea, which it isn’t because teachers are rightfully scared stiff of the contents of kids' USB sticks.

Apple obviously ignored my polite request to know if they believed there was any language used in UK CompSci A level that they allow to run on their kit. I can’t find one. Perhaps I shouldn’t have mentioned that I have a degree in the damned subject which means I’m harder to bullshit. Again to be fair to Apple, iPads aren’t designed for CompSci education, which does rather beg the question why IT teachers are seduced by pretty, but wholly unsuitable toys?

Deploying tablets also means getting Wi-Fi to the whole school campus. That’s a couple of hundred quid per classroom in cabling, routers and access points. Not rocket science, but tricky enough that when I met Enterasys recently mass Wi-Fi was something they feel proud to have achieved and they started to reel off issues, not all of which I’d known about.

By far the best intro to programming is MIT’s Scratch: drag and drop flowcharts that help kids grasp variables, flow of control etc with entertaining graphics and sound. I’ve used it on my own kids and you should too, unless of course you only have iPads - because it’s Flash based as is so much educational software. The tales I’ve heard of getting Scratch to work on an iPad don’t include “we welded a Raspberry Pi onto it”. Yet. But they are close enough that the day is coming.

So rather than get a computer that can be used to give an understanding, kids are reduced to peasant users who are not meant to understand the magic used by their betters.

What about other subjects?

You are allowed to do art on an iPad, but discipline is going to be an issue. The limit of misbehaviour with books is scribbling rude words and defacing pictures which even for the most abject kid simply gets boring after a few years. iPads are toys that have many games available as well as chat and other distractions from the subject in hand.

So the net effect of spending the same as hiring a couple of teachers is to deliver a platform that is effectively designed to stop computer education and provide distraction in other lessons.

Perhaps I’m not enough of a fanboi to see this as a good thing? ®

Dominic Connor is a parent. He once won an iPad which was donated, unused to the first charity he came across.

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