How the iPad Wants to be Used

I've recently had the opportunity to email, Skype or visit with many schools interested in the iPad. One theme that keeps cropping up is a misunderstanding of how the iPad wants to be used. I don't say that with any malice or contempt whatsoever. It's just that the iPad is one specific set of design decisions wrapped up in a product and it takes some time to really understand the implication of those decisions. This is doubly true if you don't personally own and live with the iPad yourself but are responsible for "figuring it out" for your school or organisation.

It may seem odd, offensive even, to veterans of the PC age to be told what your computing platform "wants". Isn't the computer's job to do what I want? Perhaps, and there's no doubt that the desktop operating systems are much easier to bend to your will. However, it has really always been thus. Does every Windows user want to run anti-virus? No, but almost all do because that's what Windows "wants" or, rather, "needs in order to not choke on its own vomit".

I speak to a lot of schools who envisage the iPad in the roles that PCs formerly occupied. The "laptop trolley" becomes an "iPad trolley". The "checkout netbooks" become the "checkout iPads". The "PC lab" becomes the "iPad lab".

That's not how the iPad is designed and, it seems to me, the iPad is an extremely uncomfortable fit for those roles defined in an earlier era. The iPad is not another "thing" to have in your classroom in the way that you might buy one thermometer for every seat in your science lab. You can't easily share an iPad the way you might have pupils share a digital camera.

The iPad is an intensely personal device. In its design intent it is, truly, much more like a "big iPhone" than a "small laptop". The iPad isn't something you pass around. It's not really designed to be a "resource" that many people take advantage of. It's designed to be owned, configured to your taste, invested in and curated.

The idea that you can use an iPad without leaving a data footprint on the device is not outright wrong, but such an approach to this device will either lead to confusion or a lot of time taken up with "restoring" iPads back to known-clean backup images. Hardware sharing is a solved problem on Macs and PCs with multiple-user operating systems. iOS, for better or for worse, simply isn't that kind of OS.

This requires a re-think in school budgeting too. Many schools run their budgets as "$x for central services and $y for each department". In previous eras, $x and $y were determined in a world where $y involved a lot of books or art materials or scientific hardware. What we've found when we adopted the iPad is that $x had to go up significantly and $y went down by a chunk.

Many of these former classroom resources - books, videos, information, sensors, art materials - are collapsing into software for our iPads. It will be a cultural challenge for many schools to ask departments to give up a slice of their budget for "things" in order to deliver a powerful and pervasive mobile computing platform across the entire organisation.