Are conditions finally right for Android to make a significant mark on 1-to-1 education?

By | February 8, 2014

A year ago I was in the midst of implementing a 1-to-1 iPad project in a large Academy on the South coast. This followed over a year’s painstaking research, site-visits, pupil consultation and trialling of devices to make sure we made the right decision for our students; we needed to pick the tablet and ecosystem that would lead to the greatest educational opportunities and which would also remain financially and operationally sustainable.

It was a tough choice and we came close to going with Windows 8 on Acer Iconia W510 tablets, but in the end and for all the right reasons, the decision was made to use iPads. Those reasons included (among other things) portability, student preference, price, device quality & functionality, app ecosystem and integration with other systems. (As an aside, I often hear or infer criticism of schools who choose this device as ‘jumping on the bandwagon’ – see the final two paragraphs of this Larry Cuban piece, for example. I’ve been intimately involved with quite a few schools in the past three years who’ve all ‘gone iPad’ and not one of them did it without conscientious and detailed due diligence, concentrating on what is right for their context. But I digress).

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Image: commons.wikimedia.net

That was a year ago, and much has changed. The thing which struck me most coming away from BETT this year was the growing maturity of the Android offering, due to a confluence of products and other factors, which should make schools take a very long and hard look at this option.

Concerns about eSafety & disruption to learning

We had dismissed Android out of the starting box, due to concerns about eSafety. We knew that this would be a key battleground with nay-sayers (‘Look at the risks you’re exposing children to!’) and therefore had to be confident that the ecosystem was safe. At the time, Google’s app store was not gate-kept with anything like the strictness that Apple’s was and because of this, gave access to content and apps that were damaging, dangerous and just downright inappropriate for our students.

Google Play for Education goes a long way to resolving this worry. It’s a curated set of resources and applications which are selected by teachers and guaranteed to be appropriate. It also has a VPP-style bulk purchasing system which, whilst not offering Apple’s significant 50% off most apps, allows schools to use a PO to make purchases rather than a credit card. Quite handy when deploying £20k’s work of apps to a 1000 tablets!

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Image: commons.wikimedia.net

One of the frustrations with iPads that schools have to work around is that of inappropriate use during lessons. MDM (Mobile Device Management) companies promise the Earth (e.g. the ability to shut off the Facebook app between 9am and 3pm, or when within a specified geo-fence) but in reality are restricted by what iOS will let them do. I’ve yet to see demonstrated (but am happy to be contradicted) the ability to control misuse of non-core apps on an iPad.

The open nature of the Android OS is different. For example, Airwatch (a leading MDM product) uses over 150 APIs made available on Samsung tablets running Android to offer schools the ability to lock down features in a much more granular way than is possible with iPads. I should caveat this paragraph with the fact that obviously it’s better to have a learning culture where students are responsible for their behaviour, and that there’s a fine line between effective management of devices for safeguarding and the kind of Orwellian thought-policing which will turn children off mobile learning and make your project educationally unsustainable… but that’s for individual schools to navigate.

Financial sustainability & device quality

These schemes are not cheap. Just the infrastructure alone (blanket managed wireless, streaming solutions for classroom displays, 200mbps broadband lines, secure storage – the list goes on) can cost well over £100k if starting from a low base. These are generally costs which schools have to bear alone, with the majority of projects passing on at least some of the cost of the devices, cases, apps and insurance to parents, usually for a monthly contribution which I’ve seen at anywhere between £5 and £20, depending on device, length of the lease and use of Pupil Premium to make things more affordable for families in hardship.

For this reason, device cost is a very sensitive issue and one which can make or break the success of a scheme – a take up of lower than 70% by parents is arguably educationally unsustainable. The iPad, in real as well as relative terms, is an expensive product. RRP for the base model of iPad Air is £399 (but any school which can reclaim its VAT and which can play off a couple of educational resellers should be able to get this price down to around £310). Now don’t worry, I’m not about to suggest that this is a waste of money – that price reflects a premium product in every sense – or that you could do the same job with a £50 tablet from Lidl, but there are a range of very, very high quality Android tablets emerging which can significantly cut the cost of 1-to-1.

One such example is Samsung’s Galaxy Tab 3, a high-end consumer quality product. It’s light at half a kilo, has a decent-ish camera, expandable memory, a USB connection, a 3-year warranty and seems to me to have most things you’d want in for a school tablet deployment. And its RRP is £270, which probably extrapolates to about £210 ex-VAT & post-haggle, two-thirds the cost of the Apple equivalent. According to my leasing cost model (which factors in case, insurance and an app budget), that takes the cost per-pupil per-month over 3 years from £11.05 for an iPad to £8.16 for a Galaxy Tab 3. And that’s a difference that could make all the difference, depending on the context your school serves

Integration with other classroom systems

AppleTV (and similar streaming software equivalents) has been one of the most compelling arguments in favour of schools using iPads. The ability to simply and reliably push your (or a pupil’s) tablet’s screen to the classroom’s projector or TV has been simply revolutionary in iPad classrooms I have spent time in, transforming the pedagogy very clearly from didactic to affiliative, from the front of the room to, well, everywhere.

Android (and Windows, I should point out) has recently gained a similar tool in the form of Miracast, a wireless standard that replicates Apple’s AirPlay and which will become a crucial plank in any Android school’s strategy. This is a fast-moving area of development with new (and cheap) streaming boxes emerging almost weekly.

Where AppleTV has always been problematic though is in the fact that it’s a consumer product, designed for the living room. Classroom-friendly features have slowly been added (e.g. the use of on-screen connection codes rather than permanent passwords) but it still has the feel of having some distance to travel before it is fully mature.

One product that competes with, and arguably outdoes, the functionality of AppleTV is ‘Samsung School‘, the Korean manufacturer’s streaming and content/ assessment solution. This system not only lets the teacher stream their or a student’s tablet screen to the classroom display, it also allows content, apps and assessments to be pushed out to the class on the fly. Students’ responses are also recorded by the software for the teacher’s review. Samsung describe it as an LMS but I suspect that this will be the least used bit of the product. It remains to be seen how much stress this all puts on a standard classroom’s wireless, but the demonstration I observed at BETT was flawless.

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Image: CSE.-net.co.uk

A similarly exciting product called Magellan from CSE also solves another perennial problem facing 1-to-1 schools; how to give students and staff access to legacy software (Office, the MIS, that crucial MFL programme, etc) and to their home folders and shared drives. Magellan essentially layers a tiled Metro-style interface to all of this via the browser. I’ve not yet seen it in a classroom setting and can’t speak to its performance, but the demo I’ve seen looked impressive and it was priced to move too, at £1 per student per year. This is not an Android specific product, as Magellan runs on iPads too, my point is that the growing focus on tablets in general by the 3rd party market is starting to open up options for schools: I’ve only previously seen software developers putting this much effort into iOS-only apps.

So, it’s Android all the way then?

Please don’t misinterpret this post as a Damascene moment; I’m writing this on an iPad. Rather, it’s intended to highlight the evolution of the tablet landscape in schools and prompt those with 1-to-1 ambitions to consider fully whether an Android solution might work for them. Certainly the reasons not to use Android which seemed so prominent to me a year ago have receded significantly and, if a school’s leadership and student body are behind the choice, I think an Android 1-to-1 would be as impactful as an iPad one – which is something I’d not thought possible before.

 

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