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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.

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Should we use Flash in education?

Last week I took part in an e-learning stuff podcast on the future of flash.in which we discussed in light of the fact that the Apple iPhone and Ipad doesn’t do flash, should we stop using it when creating educational content.

So should we stop using Flash when creating content – or do we keep using it, knowing that some people will have devices that won’t be able to access the content?

When I worked at a University; for the ‘e-learning courses’ – (the ones that were delivered entirely online) when a learner inquired and before they enrolled they were given a minimum specification in terms of what they would need on their computers in order to be able to do the course – and this idea I liked – it then made it easy to create content and check it against this specification, and then be safe in the knowledge that everything will work as desired.

So this could be one solution – to state what types of resources will be used, and what specifications are required to use them – then people can make a choice.

Another option would be for an organisation to stop using Flash, so that the iPad users out there, can use their devices, but how far do we go with this. I use Microsoft extensively in my teaching resources – so some of these resources become unusable on certain devices. However when I produce such resources, I do try where possible to create them in a way that they will work in older version of office and in open office. This isn’t always possible as sometimes there is a functionality in the newer versions which prevents this, in which case I have to make a judgment as to what to do, which is similar to accessibility judgments where you way up the benefits for the masses, against the disadvantages to the minority – can you make an adjustment for the minority, and then decide which technique or tool to use, and I think that this approach is valid for the use of Flash, and I follow these steps when making a decision.

  1. What is the learning outcome that I am trying to achieve?
  2. Which learners will be using the resource, and when and how?
  3. Which technologies could be used?
  4. Which one will give me the best desired output?
  5. Which one will give me the best compromise of desired output and increased accessibility?
  6. Which one will be easiest to update in the future by myself or someone else?
  7. I will then weigh up the answers to the above questions to try to make an informed decision.

The problem with this model is that it relies on me having not just a good knowledge of the different options available, but also access to lots of different tools to create them. In many organisations they will have a small number of tools to create content, and the staff will learn how to use 1 or 2, and then proceed with them only.

At some point in the future when HTML 5 is mainstream then these issues may go away, but there is such a vast array of existing materials out there, it will take time for this to happen and time for the existing resources to get converted and updated.