iPad is the undoubted king of the education tablet market, but there other options available. Why isn’t Android making more headway in schools and what can Google do to improve it?
The school I work at recently completed a tablet research project — “tablet” not “iPad.” The project was to look into how best to implement mobile technology in the classroom from both teaching and technical perspectives. For the project we gave a group of teachers iPads of Nexus 7’s and, with some guidance, asked them to use the devices in class.
During the project the Nexus tablet was almost universally panned in favour of the iPad. As someone who owns three Nexus devices (Galaxy Nexus, Nexus 7, and Nexus 10) and finds them brilliant devices, I wanted to reach inside the brain of the teachers and see why they so overwhelmingly prefer the iPad. From this I hoped to deduce why iPads are the much prefered teaching tool.
The feedback I got from teachers is below. Bear in mind that this is their personal perception of the technology and may not be factually accurate or objective. What it does do, however, is highlight the points those responsible for implementing technology in schools will have to deal with when experimenting with mobile technology.
Android’s user interface is complicated and unintuitive
I’m not sure I agree that Android’s UI is complicated, but it’s difficult to argue that the iPad’s isn’t extremely simple. Comparing the two devices side by side Android simply presents too many options to the end-user. I don’t think that this is a hurdle that cannot be overcome, there are many opportunities to customise the Android Launcher UI to simplify it, but the stock Android launcher was too complex for many staff.
A teacher focused launcher would be a good starting point to resolve this issue. Declutter the user interface and hide rarely used features.
The lack of a home button
Just by observing teachers using iPads there is one thing I believe that would make a huge difference to the accessibility of Android to teachers. A physical “Home” button. The iPad’s home button does two things. Firstly, it is an intuitive way for the user to wake the device. Two, when the iPad’s screen is turned off there is only one interface element on the front of the device, there’s simply nothing else to push.
In contrast, every Android tablet, and most Android phones, have a thin wake button tucked out of reach on one of the sides. Unless you’re already familiar with the specific tablet model you have to search for it. Yes, Android does have a home button, but it’s part of the tablet’s capacitive display and as a result disappears when the screen is turned off. If you give the tablet to a new user and it takes two minutes to work out how to turn it on, you have an immediate hurdle over which the user has to jump.
New Android phones are about to be released in the US which have a feature called “Active Display”. This new technology keeps parts of the screen turned on constantly and allows you to begin interacting with the phone without ever touching the wake button. This feature in a tablet would completely resolve this issue, let’s hope Google are reading this.
Lack of a rear facing camera
The cause of this issue is the Nexus 7 hardware we chose as part of our trial, but what it did highlight is that the use of a rear facing camera is a essential for teachers. We found teachers using the camera on the iPad to video in class, stream live video to a projector, mark work, and many other things.
Luckily this problem will be resolved on the new Nexus 7 released later this month, but most tablets now include a rear facing camera as standard.
Lack of education focused software
It’s undoubtedly true that educational apps in Android’s Google Play Store are thin on the ground. At the present time most educational app innovation is occurring on the iPad. Software like Edmondo and Nearpod provide not just new ways to view educational content, but new ways to structure learning in the classroom. Google’s Play for Education store will be released later this year providing better focus on educational apps for Android and new ways to distribute software to tablets. Hopefully this will encourage app developers to put more emphasis on Android.
Lack of Screen Mirroring
By far the most used iPad function in the classroom is screen mirroring. This feature alone changes the classroom paradigm completely. Screen mirroring turns the iPad into a truly transformational teaching tool and it’s the one feature Google still doesn’t properly support on Android.
There are some options for screen mirroring on Android. These include proprietary screen mirroring technologies, rooting devices with third-party software, and the “industry standard” but poorly supported Miracast but nothing built in to the operating system, like iPads AirPlay.
Last week, Google announced Chromecast, an HDMI dongle that you plug into a TV or projector that allows you to stream video or the content of your Chrome browser tab, and it works with any device that runs the Chrome browser. The product does not, however, support true screen mirroring and is reliant on third-party developers supporting it in their apps.
If Chromecast becomes popular it could be a firm step in the right direction for Android, but at the current time, if you want to mirror your screen, iPad is the best option.
I would argue that this issue is so key to how teachers are using mobile technology in schools that if an Android alternative were presented tomorrow iPad would loose a great deal of its lustre for teachers.
Familiarity can be a bad thing
A number of issues raised by teachers with Android were not problems at all. In fact in at least one situation a comparison made between iPad and Android was opposite to reality.
For many teachers this was the first time they had seen an Android tablet. Although many were unfamiliar with the iPad they had at least some expectation of how the device was supposed to work.
What I found was that many of those I spoke to were expecting the iPad to be the better option and so disregarded the Nexus almost without realising it. Google needs to put more focus on improving consumer perception of Android tablets, and those in schools need to better communicate the features that Android tablets offer above the iPad.
What Can Google Do To Get Android into Education?
Take a leaf out of the Chromebook’s….book
[pullquote]Just do two things Google. Allow my students to login to Android with their Google Apps account, and allow me to manage my Android tablets through the Google Apps control panel.[/pullquote]
It’s ironic that the same company that produces the Chromebook and Google Apps ecosystem, both massively popular in the education sector, is also struggling to get their tablet operating system into schools.
The Chromebook has proved to be a hugely popular device for two reasons: Firstly, it has the accessibility and speed of an iPad and, secondly, it has many of the enterprise management features administrators require to use the devices in large numbers.
In many ways the Chromebook is everything the iPad wishes it could be.
With Chromebook you can login with a centrally managed user account, control browser and app settings remotely, and lock down and customise the parts of the operating system to suit your requirements. The same is not true of Android. While there are some remote management features they are nowhere near as extensive as Chromebook.
Just do two things Google. Allow my students to login to Android with their Google Apps account, and allow me to manage my Android tablets through the Google Apps control panel.
Industry Standard Screen Mirroring
Chromecast is fine, but it’s not Apple’s AirPlay screen mirroring. Industry standard screen mirroring of the type promised by Miracast would be a wonderful thing. Any device — iPad, Android, Windows, Mac, Linux — being able to send or receive a mirror of their screen from any other or just to a TV or projector. Never having to worry whether that classroom has an Apple TV in or what the password might be.
Screen mirroring is such a core part of what makes iPad an exceptional teaching tool, the fact that nobody — including Apple — is doing it properly yet is stunning.
Set the benchmark — Nexus EDU
[Google should release a Nexus tablet specifically for education.
In the consumer market, when Google recognised that the Android phones being sold by hardware manufacturers were not providing sufficient competition for iPhone, they released the Nexus brand. The Nexus range are benchmark devices in both hardware and price to which manufacturers are forced to meet or lose out to competition.
Google should release a Nexus tablet specifically for education. Resolve all of the above issues and build them into a single device specifically designed for use by teachers.
The education market is still for the taking, and Google is so well positioned to provide solid competition to the iPad juggernaut.
It’s of less concern to me which company comes out on top, but which provides the best solutions. Android and iPad give us a glimpse of what is possible with mobile technology, but we have such a long way to go.
Those choosing iPad now are doing so because there is a lack of a better option, not because the iPad does everything they want it to do. Google, you need to provide that better option.