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Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2011

A Hack Education Project

The iPad

Welcome to the first in my year-end series "Top 10 Ed-Tech Trends of 2011." I've identified some of the most important trends from this year, which I'll be highlighting here over the course of the next few weeks. This post first appeared on Hack Education on December 11, 2011.

At the beginning of the year, I made a couple of pronouncements about this being the Year of the Educational Tablet. I was wrong.

This was the Year of the iPad. Again.

It was clear fairly early in the year that the iPad would be hard to beat -- both commercially and in the classroom. Schools had already indicated a strong interest in the devices during the 2010 academic year, and by the time Steve Jobs unveiled the iPad 2 in March, it felt as though he was merely updating an already well-loved classroom device. Invoking the "crossroads of liberal arts and technology" in his presentation, Job announced an updated iPad that had just the sorts of features that educators (among others) had critiqued for being absent in the first iteration: the iPad 2 had a camera, for example. You could record pictures, video, your voice.

The iPad wasn't merely a consumption device. People talked about ditching their laptops for tablets at work; schools talked about ditching desktops for tablets too. And thus, if you believe the narrative offered by Steve Jobs, we entered the "post-PC era."

But it was apparent early in the year that other tablet makers were going to have a hard time getting their post-PC devices (the non-iPads) into classrooms. There was no rival Android tablet, no rival Windows tablet to speak of. In February, the well-funded and well-hyped Kno pivoted from hardware to software, abandoning its plans to build an educational tablet to build instead an e-textbook platform. When Kno launched in June, it was as an iPad app.

There were a lot of announcements in 2011 about schools adopting iPads -- and it seemed, initially at least, like these were good PR opportunities for both schools and for Apple. But when Auburn School District in Maine announced its plans to equip its kindergarteners with iPads, there was some pretty vocal pushback -- locally and nationally:

What does it mean we spend money on technology/infrastructure (and axe funds for instruction)? What about the digital divide and now, the "app gap"? Why iPads versus, say, netbooks (or Chromebooks)? What does it mean to give students these tools? (How) Does it change the classroom? What are they learning?

Anything they want to, Apple suggested, release an "iPad commercial -- "Learn" -- that asked,

Are you curious about new ideas? Do you want to learn a new language? Or just a new word? Maybe you want to know more about anatomy? Or astronomy? You could master something new. Or uncover a hidden talent. There's never been a better time, to learn.

If you read Hack Education regularly, you know I'm pretty skeptical when it comes to invocations of education "revolution." But let me say this: I've seen the iPad in the hands of my 2 year old niece this year. I've seen it in the hands of my 5 year old nephew. I've seen it in the hands of my 67 year old dad. The iPad might not revolutionize education, but there is something extremely intuitive about its interface, the touchscreen, the operating system.

Or, then again, maybe the iPad does change everything. That's the argument that some parents and educators have made, particularly when it comes to opening up worlds for those with disabilities like autism. And with the death of Steve Jobs this fall, what I'd usually dismiss as hyperbole about the impact of the device -- and more generally, the impact of Jobs himself -- doesn't feel so far off.

There's also an argument to be made, I think, that the explosion in educational apps for the Apple iOS ecosystem has changed everything -- or at least, it's helped change the ed-tech business landscape this year. If you look at the bestselling educational apps in the App Store, for example, you'll see titles from startups and small companies, not just from the educational publishing giants. There's the promise too, of course, that iPads will replace those heavy textbooks; no doubt, the educational publishers are scrambling to go digital, to stay relevant. As such, the iPad's popularity is connected to other trends that I'll examine in subsequent posts in this year-end series.