In education circles, Apple's iPad has been stealing the spotlight the last few years, as it sweeps across the country's schools. Los Angeles Unified, the second-largest school district in the country, is joining the long list of smaller districts that have invested heavily in the popular iPad tablet for learning. Apple has reported that 10 million iPads are currently being used in schools, and the company's share continues to grow in the education market.
When it was unveiled at last spring’s I/O Conference, Google Play for Education was billed by engineering director Chris Yerga as more intuitive and easier to use than the iPad.
“In education, [teachers told us] there’s a huge gap between what’s possible with technology, and what’s practical, especially with mobile technology," said Yerga. "And then they told us it was Google’s job to fix this. Google should make it affordable to give every student a tablet, and Google should make it way easier to find the best tools and content from a really diverse set of developers, and get that content to the right students.”
While no prototypes of Google Play for Education are yet available, Yerga unveiled some of the new ways Google will interact with teachers and students in the classroom. Apps will be arranged by both grade level and content subject, and educators will be able to read reviews from other teachers. And instead of worrying about multiple iTunes accounts and credit cards, teachers using Google can draw from a pre-loaded account to purchase apps, then push out apps, YouTube videos, or e-books to students through Google Groups. The content will appear on students’ tablets in seconds.
PROS AND CONS OF iPADS
But iPad users are not giving up on their Apple devices in light of the new offerings. When Director of Technology Andrew Marcinek started building a two-year iPad program for the Burlington, Mass., public schools in 2011, there was only one choice for student mobile technology. “When we came into the game, there was only the iPad,” he said. “A lot of other places have caught up. But that’s what Apple does. They’re on that cutting edge, still leading and setting the bar.”
Marcinek said that both he and teachers have been more than happy with what the iPad can do for students, but it’s by no means perfect. One of the programs Marcinek wanted to create at Burlington was a way for teachers to curate their own curriculum using iBooks. But he soon found out that, in order to use iBooks and iBooks Author, teachers would have to use Apple Pages and literally build the textbooks themselves. “It was a very clunky process,” he said. “iBooks Author is really good, but as far as a K-12 model it doesn’t really fit, because you have to build a textbook. It can be done, but that’s a lot to put on the teacher. Time is always the adversary, it takes time to build these.”
Marcinek sees no reason why Google Play for Education wouldn’t be popular with educators, because many schools are already using other Google products and management tools like Google Docs and Google Drive, as well as Chromebooks. All the pieces -- content creation, management, email and educational apps -- will fit together. “What I do like about Google is that it’s all-inclusive. The majority of teachers have a PC, a few have a MacBook, but for the teacher who has a PC and doesn’t have the Mac products, iTunes U can’t be used.”
Marcinek sees that curating textbooks with Google would be much easier than with the iPad. “With Google Play for Books through Chrome, you now have the ability to create and publish content, and distribute through there. You’re going to see more [Google products] coming into play because of the universality.”
Heather Vardis, who taught fourth grade last year at Franklin Arts Center, a Chicago Public Schools magnet, had a 1:1 iPad environment and used the iPad with her students every day to drill math problems, create projects and even make e-books of poetry. Most of the ideas for apps to use in class, like Math Skills and Educreations, came from a two-day teacher training Vardis took at the beginning of the year. And during the year, when she discovered a new app she wanted to use, Vardis would bring it to the school’s technical coordinator and he would handle the process of buying the app and downloading it to all the student machines. But while Vardis was proud of what her fourth graders were able to do on the iPad, she also thinks that working on the Apple tablet had its limitations.
One frustration, she said, was the lack of a flash player to watch certain videos in class. Vardis also recalls students trying to use multiple apps at the same time in order to create a complex video for an assignment: “You can’t have multiple windows side by side. The kids had to go out of an app, back into another app. It was a frustrating moment.”
Most frustrating of all, though, was not being able to save student work created inside of apps. “Because the iPad is not designed to be shared among multiple users, it’s difficult to protect student work,” Vardis recalls. “Book Creator created wonderful books, but there’s no way to save that information through email, PDF or print. [The work] was not tangible once the school year was over.” The poetry ebooks the students worked so hard on were only available via the screen on the school’s iPads.
Some of these issues might be solved by using a Google/Android tablet; there's a free Floating Browser app on Google Play for opening multiple windows, and Android can also support Flash. And while many Google Play for Education learning apps may or may not be able to be saved into a PDF or printed on paper, smooth transfer between Google Docs and Gmail might make saving student work easier.
Whether Google Play for Education and the Android tablets will be as useful and revolutionary to schools as the iPad -- or even more so -- remains to be seen. Temple University academic and tech writer Jordan Shapiro makes the point that, after this transitional period of getting tablets into kids’ hands, the Apple or Google question isn’t going to matter much. One company always adapts to what the other is doing.
"I really don’t think it matters, for this transitional moment in learning, one may be a little ahead of the other, eventually it’s going to equalize out,” Shapiro said.
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