Impressively innovative and affordable, LearnPad is a David among Goliaths
Schools have unprecedented choice for digital tablets, and great savings are possible for those with understanding and confidence.
That’s one reason why UK supplier LearnPad walked away with Exporter of the Year award at this year’s BETT Show. Another was its astonishing range of affordable devices, some as coolly designed as anything from Apple or Microsoft – like the elegant Folio 2 (think of a touch-enabled, portable version of an iMac for just £400).
But don't think this story is about cheap hardware. LearnPad devices are supported by even better management software (ClassConnect) and updated apps so they can be used collaboratively in flexible and powerful settings.
A remarkable tale
It’s a remarkable tale about focusing on customer needs and finding appropriate technology to meet them at the most competitive price points. While so many schools have struggled to manage other devices like iPads, that feature management systems designed for consumer rather than school use (see “‘Feral' iPads miss the majority at Shireland Academy”), LearnPad schools have benefited from a system designed specifically for learning and teaching from the outset.
Everything depends on the school philosophy. If it wants to lock down devices that's not a problem for the technology although it might be for engagement. Most schools will want their students to identify with this technology and use it to the maximum to get the best out of the investment.
What schools tend to do with LearnPads is to only put on them the tools and materials that learners need for their lessons. Then there are no distraction and students focus clearly on the tasks they have been set. This can even be lesson by lesson so the students get to identify with the device as their own learning tool (see “’It’s our learning tool’ - Holland Park picks LearnPad” for reflections from ICT co-ordinator Tracey Campbell).
Once the BETT hubbub subsided, Agent4change.net borrowed two of the new LearnPad devices — the Folio 2 21-inch tablet/interactive display (from £399) and the Decimo 6-inch tablet (from £124) — on extended loan.
Decimo: extremely simple and easy
To deal with the more straightforward of the two first, the Decimo is a 6-inch tablet intended as a teacher's toolkit. To get the test going a member of the Avantis support team helped set up the devices via a telephone call and emails containing QR codes to connect them to a wireless network and to the ClassConnect management service.
It was extremely simple and easy. You just point the device camera at the QR code and the set-up for that particular task is done. Then comes the more stimulating part, organising the tools, materials and links that can be experienced on the Folio 2 (of course that device can also be used by teachers for this work, just as the Decimo can be used by students if so desired).
The Decimo is an Android tablet but also has the LearnPad software installed. So both options are available to the teacher. I was already familiar with the system through earlier coverage (see "iPad rival with better price and flexibility — LearnPad 2") and what I experienced was that the service had moved on considerably and Avantis had provided additional tools, like apps for specific tasks, like assessment.
Everything worked seamlessly and it was easy to see just how flexible — or locked down — the system could be, depending on what the teacher or school required. I couldn't find any way past the system to, say, look at media on BBC iPlayer not allowed to students.
While the Decimo is a pretty straightforward tablet, and inexpensive, it has a feature that's very attractive to teachers and schools — wireless charging. Those familiar with mobile phones that have this feature (for example Lumias) will already know how useful this feature is. When it's available for class sets, however, it's even more desirable.
Tablets featuring this capability are just put on to the shelves in the new, neatly designed ClassCharge wireless charging units (from £400 and already nominated for two BETT awards) whenever charging is required. It's so much easier than having to individually connect each one — there are eight shelves to each cabinet. And the cabinets can also be used for other LearnPads — Octavos and Quartos — as well as the newest additions, Apple iPads and iPad Minis. Of course individual charging plates (just like the ones for mobile phones) are also available for teachers using the Decimos.
I only came across one downside to this system, albeit a slight one, in that the buttons on the side of the Decimos are slightly less responsive because they are now behind the edge of the thin blue cases that cover the backs to enable the wireless charging. But that should be simple to improve. Incidentally those cases are also magnetic so that when you place one in a ClassCharge rack it has a slightly eerie but very tactile response, as if it is being "taken" from you.
The Folio 2 is undoubtedly the star of the new range. With its 21-inch screen it looks like the well-designed all-in-one Android computer it actually is. Visually it is reminiscent of Apple's popular iMac (imagine the media fuss there would be if that device was released with touch capability).
You can use it in a variety of ways. Connect a keyboard – via USB or wireless and it's an all-in-one Android computer, great for individual or collaborative group work. Or use it as an upright, interactive screen. Or just lay it down flat to share and collaborate.
The Folio 2 has its own battery
Don't forget it has its own battery, giving it at least a couple of hours use away from the mains With its interactive screen it's also a 'jumbo' tablet that reaches the parts of a school or home that others can't. It may be a 21-inch screen but it's really easy to move around thanks to the chunky carrying handle on the back, and there's a pull-out stand on the back too for adjustable positioning. You can also lay it flat or mount it on a vertical surface.
The designers of this device clearly won the day by not cluttering up the front panel with as much as an on/off switch. It's on the back next to the Ethernet network port, two USB sockets, a micro USB and headphone jack . Easier to reach in a side panel are the power input, another USB and an SD card slot.
Communications is a no-brainer too with the Ethernet, wifi and bluetooth connectivity and front-screen web camera and microphone. The versatility and particularly the design knock the Folio 2 into the "object of desire" category, and that's before looking at the £399 price tag. The only slight down side, the noise of the fan, has been solved for the current models.
If there was ever a device begging to be taken home for personal/professional and family use over the holidays and half-terms, this is it. Because, most unusually for technology produced for schools, there is also great appeal for home use.
However, it's important not to think of these as devices on their own. They are part of a new and growing family of devices that can be used in a variety of settings, depending on schools' needs. The Folio can also be incorporated into a classroom interactive table, the Tabulus (from £799). This is a project table with a Folio 2 docked horizontally in the centre for collaborative work, surrounded by wireless charging plates for students' LearnPads for group work.
The range even includes large-screen interactive displays, the 65-inch Murus that not only have LearnPad technology built-in but also have the option of high-power PC processors to bring even more capability into the classroom.
The latest survey data from the British Educational Suppliers Association (Besa) confirmed the increased competition generated by the tablet revolution in UK schools. The numbers are rising and opportunities open up for those unafraid of following the herd. And the survey suggests that the market will open up, weakening the current dominance of Apple and opening up to Windows too.
Working with other platforms isn't something that worries the LearnPad team. The ClassCharge shows that it can enter a different, more expensive, market and turn heads with an innovative and very competitive product of its own. And this inclusive approach adds to its appeal as it constantly looks for ways to help schools get the most out of all their technologies. As BETT 2016 approaches you can't help but wonder whether the company will pick up any more awards. My money is on the Folio 2.
LearnPad at BETT 3026 – stand C100
LearnPad, 11-15 The Glenmore Centre, Waterwells Business Park, Quedgeley, Gloucester UK GL2 2AP
Tel: +44 845 862 0390