There are excellent alternatives to iPads but are schools aware, asks Chris Drage

LearnPad 2LearnPad 2: open and great valueThe hugely successful iPad has been adopted by many schools due to ease of use and the intuitive touchscreen engagement it brings for young learners. However, it is a premium-priced consumer device, and trying to integrate the iPad into a classroom environment and integrating it with a school’s existing network and curriculum can be a problem. Already some are ending up in cupboards.

The LearnPad 2, on the other hand, has been designed to easily integrate with teaching and learning, supporting the educational content already in use – for example Flash-based Espresso and Education City – as well as providing a simple and easy way of accessing some great new educational apps.

Few, if any, consumer devices have comfortably made the transition to school use in the long term. I recall BigTrak, a robotic tank which used a subset of LOGO for programming, which was purchased by a number of schools only to end up in cupboards when Roamer and, latterly, Beebot, came on to the market. BigTraks were designed as toys, not for school use; But Roamers and Beebots are totally fit for purpose. (See LearnPad 2 overview video below.)

There is no doubt that iPads are a very engaging resource but there are some major limitations – no access to online resources which use Flash and they are more difficult to 'lock down' and control. Yes, there are tools to do that but how many teachers have the time, let alone the skills, to restrict certain activities at certain times? The systems, servers and software to do that are neither straightforward nor simple so few willingly take that on. However, the LearnPad 2's features, its profiling and its use of QR codes makes management very easy.

When there is a curriculum of learning which must be adhered to it's beneficial for schools to be able to look at a particular topic, say, decimal fractions in primary maths, and be able to search for and assemble a collection of resources related to teaching and learning for that topic. This is what teachers have always done from the beginning of time (or at least 1967, when I started teaching!).

It is here that LearnPadConnect (the online management system) comes into its own with the ability to create any number of profiles relating to specific learning activities. A profile is, in essence, a collection of categories and resources available for a particular subject area. Almost all curriculum areas are covered and the system is steadily growing.

A teacher can log into the portal and go to a particular profile and find a range of resources to immediately download to the tablet by scanning in the QR code associated with that profile. It is so easy to do: scroll a small clockwise circle with a finger on the tablet's 'home' screen and point it at the QR code and bingo! All the content for example, say, primary science, is downloaded, including all the relevant sub-categories for living things, science materials, science investigations etc. (See 'QR code" video below.)

Each category offers free online resources, Flash content (Espresso, Education City, Purple Mash etc.) and websites all specifically mapped to the curriculum. The net result is a tablet with, if required, tailored access, where pupils can only work with the resources the teacher has provided for them and unable to gain access to the operating system or to the applied tablet settings. Children focus on the activity at hand at any given time.

To make life even easier for tablet users, the LearnPad QR codes can be printed out and mounted on classroom walls, table tops or benches, virtually anywhere in the school environment so pupils can download the profile relevant to the next lesson or work session. If you have a LearnPad 2 with a large number of pupil photographs on, the problem is always getting those off quickly and simply. With the LearnPad 2 you can create a QR code to transfer the photos from the photo folder to a shared drive on the network or to a USB stick on the device. Once printed out, any children with photos they need to store can be told: “Just hold your LearnPad up to the QR code over there on the wall.” The photos will be downloaded to the specified drive with no further ado. Great for when the class returns from a field trip.

There are also additional shared categories where content may intersect. I particularly like the new Useful Resources section. Say you were doing literacy work at Halloween, LearnPad offers a Classic Horror Novels category comprising a number of classic literature e-books. These can be downloaded as a separate category on a profile you build. Similarly with William Shakespeare – teachers can quickly select and download these to the tablets and get on with the business of teaching.

There are huge advantages too for local authorities. Caerphilly is one authority that has grasped the nettle: the authority has created 40 thematic profiles comprising more than 1,000 curriculum-aligned activities for their schools covering just about any topic a primary school might want to do. Schools can create their own 'featured' profiles to share with other schools in the authority. For example, if a school creates a profile on a specific topic, other schools can download the resources that have been assembled by simply using the QR code for that profile on the LearnPad Portal. What a super way to share resources and children’s work too.

The hardware

It seems strange to be leaving the evaluation of the tablet itself until now but this is indicative of where Avantis places its emphasis: on learning and teaching, not hardware. A school already possessing Android tablets is able to buy into LearnPadConnect, thus protecting their original investment in hardware. However, at £199 per unit, it would be economic foolishness if you didn’t purchase the tablet and system together. (Incidentally, schools which use the new Windows tablets could also make use of Avantis' services.)

The LearnPad 2 measures 243x190x12mm and weighs in at 580g. It offers a 1024x768 pixel, 4:3 ratio, 10-point capacitive, LCD touchscreen of 245mm – similar to the latest iPads. It sports a 1.5 GHz processor and 1GB of working memory. There’s 16GB of internal storage with additional storage possible via the micro USB and SD Card slots. Both front and rear cameras are offered as is HDMI (1080p) output and Wi-Fi (802.11 b/g/n). It has a 7600mAh rechargeable battery and runs the Android 4.0 operating system. The device looks and feels comparable with an iPad.

I like the fact that if you plug a USB memory stick into the device’s USB port via the cable supplied you can see all the files on that stick via the Documents menu. You can both open them and resave them. The device's reliability seems to be very good: Avantis claims that out of the first 2-3,000 LearnPad 2s sold, only two have come back broken. Apparently there is a degree of flexibility in the casing which helps negate the knocks and bumps!

There are accelerometers (for motion sensing) built into the current tablet hardware but oddly there is no GPS for geo-positioning. When I queried this apparent 'oversight' Avantis told me that its schools did not find the feature useful at present because so much tablet activity goes on in the confines of the school building. I can see the point: for some schools, taking tablets outside – on visits or home etc – could lead to loss and/or damage, a set-back in these hard pressed times. But I wouldn't be surprised to see GPS in place by the time we get to BETT 2013 – Avantis has already switched the processor from single core to dual core since the review model arrived with me.

LEARNPAD PORTALDrag and drop apps to create profile and QR codeOther possible downsides? There are very few with the LearnPad 2. Yes, I would like to have GPS and undoubtedly we will see a more expensive, higher specified LearnPad appearing later for schools that need it. From the teacher's point of view I would like to see more in the way of network or group management. For example, the ability to shut everyone's screen down at a press of a button is always useful. The sort of facilities that Net Support School or NetOp offer for Windows network users. Maybe we’ll see something at BETT 2013?

Built into the LearnPad interface is the ability to link directly to a school's Windows networked shared or NAS drives, so it can access files through the home directories through the device itself. Using say the free Kingsoft Office app and plugging in a USB keyboard and mouse via a splitter cable, the LearnPad tablet has become a networked computer where Word-like written documents, spreadsheets and data can be saved directly back to the network shared drive. Thus a LearnPad can be mobile or a semi-permanent classroom device with which a school can still utilise its existing keyboards and mice.

Previously, iPad apps had to be individually purchased. There was no volume purchase arrangement. Apple has since released volume licencing but it is still a rather difficult method to do that. The LearnPad method through the paid content from third party publishers is again easy to use through the portal. Put a purchase order in and the school receives an invoice – no prepaid iTunes card, credit cards or PayPal accounts needed.

The proof, as they say, is in the eating, and some schools which originally chose multiple iPads are now choosing to go down the LearnPad route as they prefer the way the system works. They like the element of control, and that they can access the Flash content in the likes of Espresso, Education City and Sherston, services that they have invested both money and training. And over and above this the LearnPad 2 is also a highly engaging device to stimulate children's learning.

The bottom line is; it doesn't matter if it is an iPad, LearnPad 2 or DragePad; a touch-sensitive tablet is an engaging device. Where LearnPad scores so heavily is with the benefits accrued from not only content management but a much lower price point – you can purchase three LearnPads for the cost of two iPads. Indeed, a class set of 30 LearnPads with protective covers, all the free content and a year’s access to the portal and a charging trolley will set a school back just under £7,000. A similar iPad specification will cost around £13,000.

The fact that the LearnPad system empowers and enables non-specialist classroom teachers to access and manage learning content quickly and simply, is a huge bonus for schools. In the end it all comes down to the core curriculum that schools must deliver and at what cost. The LearnPad not only facilitates access but enables them to continue to use their existing investment in ICT resources with very few compromises. In terms of total cost of ownership the LearnPad is a very cost-effective solution. Simply put, iPads are for consumers, LearnPads are for schools.

Ratings (out of 5)
Fitness for purpose    5
Ease of use                5
Features                    5
Quality                       5
Value for money        5 

LearnPad 2 
Android tablet designed for schools, with 9.7-inch, 1024x768, 4:3 IPS LCD display, 1.5 Ghz dual-core processor, 1Gb memory, 16Gb internal storage; front and rear camera, HDMI 1080p output, Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n, Micro USB and SD card slot, 7600mAh battery, Android 4.0 (Ice-cream Sandwich), measures 243x190x12mm, weighs 580g, £199+VAT. Includes one tablet with pre-installed content, one year’s support and maintenance for the device as well as one year’s subscription to the LearnPad Portal.

LearnPadConnect web-based management system £30 per tablet. Includes a range of educational activities/apps and one year’s subscription (volume discount on multiple licence purchase). This software can also be used with other tablets, for example Toshiba's new AT300s.
Class Set £6,999 for 30 LearnPad 2 tablets including covers, charging/storage trolley, all the free apps and one year’s subscription to the LearnPad Portal.

Avantis Systems, 105 Bute Street, Cardiff Bay, UK CF10 5AD
Tel: 0845 862 0390.
Email:This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 

Chris DrageChris Drage, a former teacher, is a consultant and journalist covering learning with ICT. You can contact him by email - This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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