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Without Rooting, Education-Specific Tablets Won’t Work

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

The recent release of the Amplify Android tablet, specifically designed for education that will "rival the iPad," raises some interesting questions about the education sector as a marketplace for entrepreneurial innovations and provides an opportunity to explore some alternatives to educators buying into mass-produced educational products.

The Problem with Education-Specific Devices
As a disclaimer, my own kindergartener has a kid-friendly tablet with an interface designed specifically for learning. The idea is that this custom interface makes everything easy and accessible to the technological newcomer. His tablet, the Nabi 2 comes pre-loaded with learning apps, games, eBooks, and music, all geared to be age appropriate and educational. What I realized pretty quickly after he received it was that 1) the pay for apps and features as you go nature of the Nabi store was going to put me in the poor house; 2) the interface and locked-down nature of the custom operating system dramatically restricted the capabilities of the device; and 3) in order to be really useful, I was going to have to be able to customize the device far more than was possible without "rooting" it.

I have these same concerns for the Amplify mentioned above as an education-specific answer to the school technology quandary. With exorbitant $99-299 annual connectivity fees in addition to the $300 price tag for the device, I feel that the Amplify would quickly become a huge burden on schools, even more than the slightly pricier iPad mini ($329) or considerably costlier full-size iPad ($500). More importantly, it would be a far more expensive option than many other Android tablets. While I appreciate the idea of developing an education-specific tablet, the benefits of not using a device specifically designed for schools may be so dramatic and cost-effective that the best course for student devices in schools may be to purchase cheap Android tablets in massive quantities and customize them. Or better, yet, to allow students to customize them.

The Value of Non-Education Tablets
In my own experience as an educational technology PhD and a parent, I find that the pre-selected apps and those available through a market filtered for education leave out far too many possible programs that, while not specifically designed for learning, can be used by creative teachers in the classroom. As a very simple example, the Nabi included Angry Birds but not Angry Birds Space, Star Wars, or Bad Piggies. Bad Piggies in particular, is one of the best learning apps that I have ever encountered. It allows users to experiment with physics and explore really creative solutions to fun and engaging problems. Without having an ability to download these apps, this tablet was not allowing my son to use the Nabi for what he really wanted to do with it. If we had given him a non-locked-down tablet, I could easily have installed these games for him.

The simple fact that you may need to install applications that are not pre-selected by the manufacturer should be enough to convince anyone that a pre-programmed, education-specific tablet is a bad idea. However, when you add to that need the flexibility and creative potential of a non-locked-down tablet, it becomes clear that a more open approach to tablets in education has benefits that far outweigh the education-specific tablet option.

A Complex Solution
The main reasons for using technology in education are to develop technological literacy and to support students in being innovative problem solvers. The mantra of Education Unbound is that standardized solutions cannot teach innovation. There is a fundamental disconnect between buying a standardized tablet solution (not to mention the subscription costs) and using an approach that emphasizes flexibility and individual control – which effectively supports and promotes innovative use.

While there certainly is the potential to have standardized tablets which allow a great deal of creative activity to happen – with video capture and editing, live journaling, scientific field research, and other amazing technology-aided activities – the rapidly changing nature of technology and the almost daily release of new innovative apps that can be used for education, as well as the incredibly diverse needs of students and their teachers, indicates that adaptability should be considered much more strongly that convenience when choosing a tablet-based solution for school technology needs at any level.

One thing which locked down tablets do not offer is an ability for students to make and utilize their own apps. With new desktop app development software, students can now make their own mobile apps and, on an open tablet, they can install, test, update, and even share these creations with others in the class and around the world. This is one possibility that truly allows students to access what education should be in the Information Age. App development requires content knowledge, planning, collaboration, research, graphic design, programming, and many other skills that will be essential to success in a hyper-connected global economy. These are competencies that absolutely meet the urging for schools to teach real-world, practical abilities. A standardized, locked-down tablet cannot do this. All of this potential leads to a proposal for a controversial solution to this problem – rooting.

Rooting Out Problems
Even if an education-specific tablet is the agreed-upon solution for a school district or university, there is considerable benefit in "rooting" the operating system to allow more flexibility in what the device can do. The benefits may in fact even be so great so as to outweigh the detrimental effect of voiding the devices’ warranty.

According to Talk Android.com, "Rooting a device is simply the process of gaining full, privileged, or admin control of a device thus allowing ‘root access’ or ‘superuser’ permissions. The process itself basically exploits a security weakness on a device, and in simple terms, grants the user executable permissions that are not otherwise there with a non-rooted device. Once a device is rooted, the user has complete control of the device from files on the device to being able to perform additional tasks that will truly make your device your own."

What this allows school technology administrators or students to do is take full advantage of all of a device’s capabilities. This is exactly the reason that I rooted my son’s tablet – so I could install the Google Play marketplace and begin taking advantage of the new learning apps that are released on a daily basis. Additionally, rooting allows you to perform full system backups, to tether to cellular-enabled devices such as the Amplify, and customize your device to fit your needs. Finally, rooting a device allows you to update to a new version of the operating system when one is released. This keeps devices "up-to-date" longer and can stretch out their useful life expectancy. This is an invaluable feature for cash strapped educational institutions.

There are risks associated with rooting, such as ruining your device and voiding the factory warranty. But, what I have found is that there are great resources available online for accomplishing a root, such as the XDA Android developers site, and Lifehacker.com through which you can find detailed, step-by-step instructions for unlocking the full potential of your device.

In conclusion I find that the benefits of having a non-education-specific tablet far outweigh the detriments. Particularly if the manufacturer is planning to charge outrageous annual fees to make their tablet function a fraction as well as a rooted consumer device. Off the shelf consumer tablets, some available for as little as $50 can provide a far more robust classroom computing option for students and allow for greater flexibility, creativity, and personal expression. For those districts that choose a pre-programmed solution, they will eventually see the wisdom of rooting those devices.