Why the Microsoft Surface Tablet will be a major player in education

In my years as a teacher and then as a freelance consultant/trainer I have been very much at the forefront of the use of technology in education, and I have always been excited by the potential that effective use of technology can bring to education, but nothing has been as exciting as the potential that tablet devices brings to learning, and in particular Apple’s iPad – which has been designed beautifully, and is really easy to use, so when I run staff development in this area, I don’t spend most of the time talking about which buttons to press – instead I can focus most of my efforts into the pedagogic considerations of the training, and that is a very liberating feeling.

For the last few months I have been working with a company called ‘The Tablet Academy‘ (formerly The iPad Academy) and I have been going into schools and running iPad training – but now that the company has changed its name, they are also offering support and training for Android and Microsoft devices, and as such I have been experimenting with the basic Microsoft Surface RT device – and even though it has received some negative press, I think it (and its successors) are going to make a huge impact on education.

Microsoft Surface (black)

A Surface Tablet

If you compare an iPad alongside the Surface, then the iPad is going to win in almost all areas – it is built better, there are more apps, the battery seems to last longer, it is more intuitive etc. however  if we compared a new iPad to an iPad 1 (which is the best way of thinking of the Surface) then the gap between the 2 was huge, so we have to take that into consideration as well. The Surface has some key considerations which the iPad lacks and that is the purpose of this blog post:

  • Many schools and educational organisations, have IT support systems which have been built around the Microsoft model (rightly or wrongly), so for them adopting Apple’s iPad hasn’t been an option. The Surface will just slot into their existing mechanism – and that makes it a possibility for lots of organisations who have so far closed the door on tablet technology.
  • Where the iPad works really well is when there is a 1:1 deployment, and each learner has their own device, they then set it up with their email account, their cloud storage (e.g. dropbox or similar) and apps that work for them and their subjects. What some organisations have done is buy a bank of iPads to use in class, but these aren’t individually owned so you cannot set up these individual services – and it then becomes harder for learners to save and export work they have created. With the Surface, this is designed around the notion of having a Microsoft account (Skydrive) and everything is based on that – so if you pick up a device, you log into your Skydrive once – and this connects to all your services. At the end of the session you logout once and the device is ready for the next person.  This to me is one of the Surface’s main points regarding its strategic use within education, and if I was going to set up a bank of devices for a classroom, I would go Microsoft over iPad.
  • I let my kids use both my iPad and the Surface to see how they got on. I expected that they would hate the Surface (having used the iPad for much longer) but they didn’t – in some respects they preferred it. As my 9 year old quoted – “The Tablet is really clever, because you can use it with the keyboard and it is just like a computer, then when you take the keyboard off it turns into an iPad*”. As a device for my kids to do their homework, it is so much easier to use than the standard computer, as it fires up quickly, we can use it in any room in the house, it easily connects to our printers, and it has what the kids need for most of their work which is the internet, and access to office tools such as Word and PowerPoint.
  • Personally I hate flash, and always have done, and it is a technology that is well past its best before date – but there is a huge quantity of legacy material produced in flash especially within education. It is well known that the iPad doesn’t support flash, and Android doesn’t really (although there are work arounds for both). For the moment Microsoft does flash no problem. Many schools have entire maths and science departments based around the use of flash based resources, and if these schools have gone down an iPad route – they are finding this tough.
  • The cost of the Surface is significantly less than the iPad or Android equivalents. Over the summer of 2013, the surface could be bought for £133 + VAT, which is a much easier number to work with when buying potentially tens, hundreds or thousands of these devices.
  • Although the Surface may not have the wonderfully creative apps that the iPad has, it does have Microsoft Office – which gives us Word, Excel, PowerPoint, (and OneNote) – which are still the main tools used by many educators and students. Although I love my iPad, and I use a mac as well as a PC, and a mixture of Office, Open Office and iWork – when I want to do serious office based work, I still revert back to the PC as I find the Office suite works better for me than the others.
  • The surface is only going to get better. If we look at how the iPad has evolved in a few generations, then in a few years time the Microsoft devices should be much closer in performance. The iPad seems to have reached its own plateau – whereas Microsoft is only just starting.

I think the arrival of the Surface tablet is a very positive thing for education – there are now 3 viable options for education (iPad, Android and Microsoft) and choice has to be good – people can choose what is best for their situation, and the competition should keep all 3 providers on their toes, and prices competitive.

*Obviously the Surface doesn’t actually turn into an iPad – but these were the exact words of a 9 year old, and their perception on technology.

7 Responses

  1. I can associate with many of the iPad frustrations listed here Dave. We have a bank of iPads that are booked out by staff. They are generally used in a way to enhance learning.

    The real issue comes after. Getting data off the iPad can be time consuming, and usually the data is all used up. Not being able to use MS Word or PPT is also a barrier. It all becomes a tad frustrating.

    Signing in and out of accounts sounds a very smooth process for student and staff usage.

    My only concern would be the element of change; we’ve spent a lot of energy training staff and purchasing a bank of pads. How would they react if we through some more technology their way?!

    • If you already have iPads, I certainly wouldn’t advocate swapping away, the surface is mainly going to be of interest to people starting in this area. The key for you is finding the best ways to get information off of the devices – some have generic email accounts on each device and learners just email stuff to their own email, others use a single cloud system and just get learners to make sure they log out at the end of each session.

  2. […] Why the Microsoft Surface Tablet will be a major player in education | Dave Foord’s Weblog […]

  3. I have asked the same questions my self (why iPad and not android or windows) and one thing that stood out is that there are a lot of 3rd party accessories for the apple products such as water proof and rubber drop proof cases which provide sort of ‘where can use it’ functionality. However, as already pointed out, getting stuff out and into the provider’s systems is harder on the iPad.

    On Android I have user profiles and I can quite easily download a document (from Moodle or any number of cloud sources), edit it, add images, graphics and text, save it and then submit it back to Moodle as an assignment submission. I can see its folder structure and even my small NAS network server. I am guessing that the Surface RT can do the same and so I am struggling to see where the iPad, as it stands now, is going to go when providers get ‘serious’ about integrating tablets in to their network, ILT and MIS infrastructures.

    • Hi Stephen. An interesting response. Personally I think that Android is more at risk than Apple of losing out on market share within the education sphere. Apple have the advantage of already having a very good foot in the door and the accessories and apps are still superior to other options, as well as beating the competitors in terms of accessibility hands down, and for certain subject areas (sport, creative arts, media etc I think it will always remain superior).

      Android I think will play a significant part in learner owned devices as part of a BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) model, but now that Microsoft are in the game – I think that organisations when buying devices will either go Apple or Microsoft.

      With Apple they seem to have reached the peak of the development (the improvements from one model to the next, are now mainly superficial, aesthetic and about size reduction etc) – whereas Microsoft are at the start of the same journey, so in 2 or 3 iterations will hopefully have a device that competes in functionality as well as its strategic ease of deployment.

  4. […] Why the Microsoft Surface Tablet will be a major player in education (Dave Foord) […]

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