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Can a Tablet be an Online Learner’s Only Computer?

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

In all fairness to the beloved PC or Mac, which have been serving us since the 1980s in all of our personal computing needs, the explosion of portable computing devices, and particularly of tablet computers in the past two to three years, may be signaling the end of the PC era. You may ask, however, can a tablet really do the job for someone who has to meet the demands of an online education program?  Here is a look at the needs of the average online learner and the three main platforms available, the iPad, Android tablets, and the Windows Surface RT and Surface Pro. Followed by an assessment of whether any or all of them can do the job as the primary computing device for an online student.

What the Average E-Learner Needs
The disclaimer here is that every online program is different and all will have their own technology requirements, so check with your institution’s IT staff before jettisoning your existing laptop or desktop in favor of a sleek new tablet.  That said here are some of the basic tech requirements for an online degree program from a representative institution, the University of Phoenix.

Hardware & Peripherals

  • 2 GHz processor or faster
  • 1GB RAM or greater
  • 80 GB hard drive or larger
  • Cable/DSL broadband connection or better
  • 1024×768 resolution monitor or greater and supporting video card
  • Sound card with speakers
  • CD-ROM drive
  • Inkjet or laser printer
  • Computer microphone
  • A web camera capable of video web conferencing and editing

Software/Applications

  • Operating system: Windows® XP or later OR
    Mac OS 10.4 or later, with Windows XP or later Boot Camp partition (for selected courses)
  • Microsoft Office 2007 (PC) or later, Office 2008 (MAC) – Recommended is Microsoft Office Professional Academic 2010 (PC) or 2011 (MAC)
  • Microsoft® Project (for selected courses)
  • Internet browsers:
    Microsoft® Internet Explorer 7.0 or later
    Mozilla Firefox 3.5 or later
    Google Chrome 7.0 or later
    Apple Safari 5.0 or later
  • Adobe® Reader 9.0 or later
  • Adobe Flash plug-in 10.0 or later
  • System configured to allow installation of browser plug-ins as required
  • Local administrative privileges (for required software installations)
  • Anti-virus program (updated regularly)
  • E-mail account
    (University of Phoenix Computer Requirements, Accessed 1-2-13)

Please note that U of Phoenix requires the things listed above, so as far as they are concerned no tablet will suffice for their students because none of them run the full operating systems for Windows or Mac. Despite that, it is worth considering if any of the main three tablet lines actually meet the requirements stated above? Let’s see.

What Tablet Computers Provide
For the sake of convenience, I am placing the technical requirements stated for the University of Phoenix into a table that includes each category and an indication of which tablets are capable of meeting each standard. Because there is not always a direct equivalency between PC components and those of a tablet, I am making an educated decision regarding whether the tablet approximates the listed requirement. Basically, in my assessment, I evaluate whether a tablet can do what the technical specification indicates that a computer needs to do. I have consulted the manufacturer’s specifications whenever possible.

Overall it appears that each of the three main tablet lines will meet almost all of the requirements set forth by the University of Phoenix with a few notable exceptions:

  • Hard Drive size: With the exception of the as-yet-to-be-released Surface Pro, none of the tablets have built in memory in the 80GB range. All do however have some alternative storage option that can make them easily exceed the minimum requirement either through cloud storage or SD card readers.
  • CD Rom Drive: No tablet has a CD ROM drive. Some have the ability to attach to a dock that includes a CD ROM, but in general it is unnecessary. Almost every piece of software that you would need for a tablet can be downloaded wirelessly or the device can be connected to a computer and the application can be synched to the device (of course that undermines the tablet only concept).
  • Operating System: Each tablet runs its own operating system that, with the exception of Windows 8, is completely distinct from the PC OS. Unless the institution has specific software that runs only on Windows, which is a possibility, the operating system that each tablet device runs is irrelevant.
  • Microsoft Office: None of the tablets except for Surface Pro will run the full versions of MS Office. That is a serious limitation, but one that is not insurmountable. All can run free or low-cost Office alternatives that are capable of replicating most of the features of a full-office suite. The exceptions to this solution are specialty programs such as MS Project (which is rarely used) and MS Access (which is more commonly used). For basic word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations, any of the tablet lines will do the job, particularly if a keyboard is attached.
  • Flash and other browser plugins: This is the most serious limitation of all tablets except the Surface Pro. The locked down nature of tablets and their browsers makes the installation of browser plugins difficult or impossible. Most notorious is the failure of Apple to incorporate the ability to play Flash content on the iPad. There are generally workarounds for most browser plugin issues which involve installing specific apps to handle certain types of content. That does not work for web-based flash content though.
  • Anti-virus software: Finally, Apple tablets do not have distinct anti-virus software. The Apple software market is strictly controlled and there is an assertion by the company that their products do not need specific AV protection. All the other tablet platforms have the ability to install and keep up-to-date antivirus software.

Ta-blet or Not Ta-blet? That is the Question
So where does all this leave the innovative online student who wants to make the leap to a tablet only e-learning experience? On the brink of ditching their PC, that’s where. With the release of Surface Pro running Windows 8 and having the ability to run all previous Windows software, the issue will become moot for those willing to pay a fairly steep price. For those looking to pay a little less or dedicated to the Apple or Android platforms, there are risks involved that should be considered before making the leap. Before you decide to go tablet only for your online learning ask the following questions of your institution’s technology support people:

  • Will the LMS (learning management system such as Blackboard) work on the tablet?
  • Will my program require software that runs only on Windows or the Mac OS?
  • Is content for classes delivered via Flash?
  • What are the most common browser plugins that are needed to complete course assignments or access course content and are there mobile versions?

The answers to these questions will dictate what you decide to do. However, in almost all cases I would say that any of the three main tablet families would be sufficient to do most of an online degree program if you have access to use a Windows PC for the occasional assignment or chunk of content that can’t be done or viewed on your tablet. All of this is true as long as you are aware of the fact that you may need to do some troubleshooting and searching to find solutions and workarounds for specific issues that may arise between your device and your program.

Are you currently enrolled in an online course and trying to get by with a tablet or smart phone? Share your challenges and solutions below or on Google+ or Twitter.

Image courtesy of adamr / FreeDigitalPhotos.net