By Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education
[Note: This article was first posted by Harry as a reply to Jim Shimabukuro's statement that "laptops are going the way of the dinosaur," in "Sep. 6, 2012: edX and VUE, Kapiolani CC, Manchester Study, Lake Park-Audubon HS," on 9.17.12. - Editor]
WRT laptops [going the way of the dinosaur], it’s not so clear. With many tablets costing more than laptops, the cost is not the issue. Tablets do not perform well as writing implements while laptops do. Tablets still do not support much of the more advanced (e.g., grades 10-12) learning software.
The ideal computer-based learning platform is still evolving. Tablets were not intended for this use. Phones certainly were not. It’s nice that they can be adapted somewhat to use for learning and will help to point the way to better devices for learning.
What should such a device have? Until really good speech recognition software comes along, it should have a tactile keyboard. It should also have a pointing device capable of pixel precision, not just a fingertip. Laptops have these. It should also be rugged, light, and inexpensive to acquire and to operate. It also should run the enormous libraries of educational software currently available. Why expect vendors to invest millions in converting software to today’s latest fad in hardware?
There is no real barrier to having tablets run Flash or Java. It’s just the prejudices of the manufacturers and their desire to force software vendors to make platform-specific applications. WORA will come back, and, when it does, developers of serious applications will be happy if they resisted the trend.
Why have classrooms with computers? So that students have them available for use. Too many students still do not have computers or Internet at home. If the school makes these facilities available after school hours, then their value increases.
I do not agree that “laptops are going the way of the dinosaur,” at least as the remark was intended. Dinosaurs came about 245 million years ago and lasted until 65 millions years ago when they were wiped out by an external event. Without that asteroid, mammals would have remained tiny, and dinosaurs would still rule here. We would not be having this discussion. During their 180 million-year rule, dinosaurs evolved just as computers (including laptops) are doing now. Indeed, tablets may be considered a hybrid of the laptop and the smart phone, an evolutionary step.
I cannot predict with any certainty what the next steps will be. Just as with the evolution of life, expect experiments that fail, experiments that fit into small niches, and experiments that succeed briefly and then fade as the next species takes over.
Will entirely audio submissions of essays to instructors become the norm? If so, then the keyboard will fade away. Would you prefer to be listening to this essay rather than reading it? I wouldn’t for the simple reason that I can read faster than I can listen, and I can skim written material but not audio. However, you never know. I may be the dinosaur here. Perhaps, speech recognition software will become so good that we can eat our cake and have it too. Until keyboards become superfluous, tablets cannot take over.
Pointing devices pose a similar challenge. Many applications require precision in pointing. Yes, games are readily designed to avoid this issue. Much of testing does not require it. However, image editing would be impossible without it. My own software requires it, too, which makes me more sensitive to this issue than many are. Until precision pointing devices become superfluous, tablets would have to be equipped with them in order to render laptops obsolete.
We are in a period of intense ferment in educational technology. As an evolutionary metaphor, it’s akin to the Cambrian explosion. So many new species of devices! It’s hardly time to pronounce a final verdict on the death of a particular device. (Remember when portable computers were called “luggables”? Now, they’re called “laptops.”) Flippable laptops had a brief period of excitement. Was that an evolutionary dead end? Probably, but it could presage a marriage of keyboard/touchpad with tablets.
To repeat the primary point here, we just don’t know, as fun as it may be to speculate, and I am as much at fault in taking part in this joy as any other. I must always, however, precede my predictions with a caveat that it’s just my opinion.
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