As more and more schools consider 1-1 initiatives and implementations, one question that seems to always arise early on in the discussion is, "laptops or mobile devices?"
That question is a natural starting point for most schools considering 1-1 implementations. Schools typically have a history of computer experience, and most possess staff expertise and infrastructure to manage the academic computer environment. While many schools have some experience with mobile devices (perhaps through teacher-issued iPads or shared iPad carts), that ground is less familiar, and the tendency is to relate new technologies to past experience.
Naturally we want to compare the two platforms and we want to know if mobile devices can do what computers do. Or, from a slightly different angle, we ask if mobile devices can replace computers.
The simple answer is NO! Mobile devices cannot replace computers. That's like asking if a 5 passenger sedan can replace an RV. You can use them both for some of the same things, but it's not much fun to go camping in your car, and making a run to the store in your RV is a real pain.
So let's start with a different question... "What do we want our students to be able to do?" Or, put a different way, "What skills should our students be learning, and what tools do they need to learn them?"
This is not a revolutionary idea, we pick the right technology for the job all the time. For example, my youngest son will soon be attending college. He currently drives my old gas-guzzling pickup to and from school, but we are both fully aware that he's going to need a car for college. While it's not even the best vehicle for the purpose now, he drives the truck because it is what we had, and it works for the limited purpose of getting him around in a small town. But soon he will have different needs, needs that the old truck will not be well-suited for. And even if the problem is that the truck is just getting too old, it would be silly to replace it with another truck.
In the same way, we've had computers around for a long time. We know how they work, we're comfortable with them. For a long time, they've been the only option, and there's no need to throw them away. But when it comes time to replace them, we have to consider new options that didn't exist just a few years ago.
I'm not going to tell you that mobile devices can replace computers, but I am going to tell you that our students have needed mobile devices instead of computers all along. If they were both introduced at the same time, we would not even be having this discussion.
Nor am I going to argue that a mobile device can be just as good as a computer. For students, it is a much better tool!
We can make long lists of the pros and cons and compare device to device, but at the end of the day, the game changer in education is NOT the device in the student's hand, it's the web. Social networking, cloud computing, information access, content sharing, communication, collaboration, creativity, original content generation... that's right, for a student, a mobile device is BETTER at content generation! Not because of the device, but because of the access it provides.
The internet, web, cloud, whatever you want to call it... is the biggest, fastest, cheapest, and most capable computer there is. And accessing it is far easier and more intuitive through a mobile device than it is through a personal computer. If you want to make a comparison, we should be asking if a personal computer can ever be as capable as the internet.
Don't get me wrong, I love computers. I've managed them across the district and used them in the classroom since they were first introduced. They are remarkable pieces of architecture and engineering, and incredibly useful. As a stand-alone device they are infinitely more useful and scalable than any mobile device. But they are not what our students need.
The ironic thing is that we've primarily been using PCs in schools as poor (but expensive) mobile devices for the past 10 years. Think about how we deal with student (and usually staff) computers... the first thing we do is make them all the same. Then we lock them down so they cannot be explored or changed. Because they are useful in so many diverse ways, they are attractive targets for mischievous or even evil purposes, so we spend a lot of resources providing security and repair solutions. The software is expensive, complicated, and difficult to deploy, so we encourage users to find web-based solutions. And we invest huge sums in infrastructure and staff who must be experts to support all of this. What is more, this entire model must be repeated at every school, there's no way to share resources. To belabor my somewhat poor analogy, it's as if we buy RVs, rip out or disable all of the fun stuff, and use them as cars.
We are no longer forced to follow this model to provide internet access to our students and teachers. And if we insist on continuing this model in our schools, we are doing a disservice to our students and to our taxpayers. Yes, mobile devices do present new challenges. But those challenges are a tiny subset of the challenges computers impose, and the fact that we may currently be unfamiliar with how to solve the challenges is not a justification for maintaining the status quo.