Monday, January 10, 2011

Tablet PCs will impact education, but it will take time.

Many new tablet computers were announced at the Consumer Electronics Show last week.  Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal predicted that they will flood college campuses.

I agree that we will soon see students and professors carrying iPads and other tablets on campus, and, in the long run, I think we will view, annotate, discuss and share most of our teaching material on tablet-like devices.

But that is the long run -- they will not be part of mainstream education for many years.

Mainstream impact requires ubiquity.  Today, chalk and white-boards are ubiquitous.  We take them for granted and use them in every class.  Internet-connected computers with overhead displays are becoming widespread, and will also be taken for granted in the classroom.

Ubiquitous hardware is necessary, but not sufficient to drive major educational impact.  Standards are also needed.  The chalkboard works because we assume everyone speaks English or another language, and PowerPoint and Flash video are widely accepted standards for the classroom PC with a projector.

It will be some time before we can assume that nearly everyone has a tablet computer with a fairly standard hardware configuration.  It will take even longer to settle on standard formats for storing, annotating, and sharing teaching material.

Once the machines and standards are in place, we will see a significant impact on mainstream education, but that will not happen over night.

In general, we underestimate the time for a promising new technology to be adopted, but we also underestimate the extent of its impact on our lives, organizations and society when it is finally applied. I think this will hold true for tablet PCs in education.

(For an 18-year old article along these lines, see http://som.csudh.edu/fac/lpress/articles/uart.htm -- you can see what I got right and what I got wrong :-).