I may be a
zealot proponent for open source software, but I don’t think that clouds my judgement when I say that Android is a great platform for education. Whether you’re using it for simple reading, writing, and multimedia or digging into the more advanced features, Android balances user friendly design, powerful features, and more freedom to explore than is possible on iOS— all with lower barriers to entry than Apple devices. Here are the top 10 reasons why Android is a great platform for education.
Integration with Google apps for education
If your school uses Google’s free Apps for Education, you will have a first-class experience with apps like GMail, GDrive, Hangouts, and Google Maps on Android. Though Google is committed to supporting both iOS and Android, we get new features first on Android, and sometimes have more robust versions of these apps than the iOS version has.
Multiple user profiles facilitates sharing devices
iPads are designed to be personal devices, not to be shared between individuals. Schools that share iPads between students soon start having problems when kids delete each other’s work, vandalize each other’s social media profiles, and buy apps on someone else’s iTunes account. iOS doesn’t let different users sign into their own personalized desktop spaces the way we’re used to with full-fledged computers. Android tablets on version 4.3 and above have the ability to create multiple user profiles so each student can have their own personalized learning space on the device that doesn’t conflict with others’. This is much more like the different user profiles that desktop computers have, and helps each student have their own dedicated space for learning.
Bang for the buck
Android tablets are significantly less costly than the comparable Apple device of the same size and specs.
|16GB iPad WiFi (10″ Tablet)
|16GB Nexus 10 WiFi (10″ Tablet)
|16GB iPad Mini WiFi (7″ Tablet)
|16GB Nexus 7 WiFi (7″ Tablet)
Unlike Apple, Google doesn’t make money by selling the devices– they want as many people using Android (and Google search) as possible, so they are consciously pushing downwards on the price of devices to lower the barrier to entry for all. Especially for cash-strapped schools, this could mean the difference between offering one device per student vs. having to share devices between two or more students. The important thing to keep in mind here is that these are for devices of similar speed, size, storage, and technical capabilities.
Robust App Selection
Apple’s App Store still has the edge in total number of apps than Android’s, and arguably a higher percentage of “high quality” apps as well, but the numbers are close and somewhat deceptive. The “household name” apps like Facebook, Gmail, YouTube, Instagram and Evernote make up the top 20% of both app stores and represent 80% of all downloads. In other words, the apps you’re most likely to use are available for both platforms. Where we see a difference between Android and iOS is with the other 80% of apps– niche-oriented apps for specific purposes and small audiences. Usually new apps like Instagram and Haiku Deck come to iOS first, and then make an Android version once they’ve had their first taste of success. Still, there is a great selection of high-quality apps on Android for every type of computing task.
Freedom to “sideload” and share content vs. a curated App Store model
Apple and its content partners are able to control and monetize the books, movies, music, and apps you use on their devices by forcing all content to come in through the app store.
While consumers are generally required to pay for every book they use, we in education are privileged to be a special case when it comes to sharing content with students. Fair use doctrine gives us the freedom to suspend copyright for the purposes of education under certain conditions. We teachers who would traditionally camp out every morning by the copy machine, photocopying pages from books for the day’s lesson understand that we need to be able to provide copies of learning materials to students in the easiest and most cost-effective way possible. Creative Commons licensing gives us the freedom to share our content with other teachers and learners for free without licensing restrictions. Additionally, libraries have historically had the freedom to purchase a book and then freely lend it to citizens without paying the publisher for each read.
The technology we use in education needs to be able to support these same freedoms, and these freedoms are technologically restricted on Apple’s platform.
Android gives you the ability to author eBooks, send students the file, and let the students read it without involving a commercial bookstore. These files can be shared, built upon, and shared again without permission from any corporation. Any piece of media you create in an app can be shared with any other app– not just the ones Apple and the app creator intended.
This freedom also goes for student work– they can create valuable apps, books, and media objects that can be installed and displayed on devices without asking permission.
User friendly, not user-patronizing
In the quest to provide a simple experience on iOS, Apple has taken away many of the abilities desktop users enjoy, like changing their default web browser, email app, or maps to the ones that work best. These are capabilities you’d miss if you couldn’t do them on Windows or Mac, so why does iOS insist that you use their web browser, their maps, their email app, etc? What about the ability use a file manager like Finder or Windows Explorer to see where your files live?
Android trusts you to do these normal computing tasks (why wouldn’t they?), and in so doing, means that you can unleash the computing power of your tablet to match desktop operating systems and be more productive. In my opinion this is more empowering to the user while still providing a straightforward, tablet-friendly experience.
Vibrant design and customization community
Android allows the user much greater freedom to customize all aspects of the user experience, from changing the home screen to swapping out keyboards and adding widgets for quick access to information. As a result of this freedom, Android has given rise to amazing advances in user interface design– just look at what people are doing on MyColorScreen.com. The tools to radically alter (improve?) your phone’s UI are free or cheap and easy to master. This customizability greatly improves my productivity by minimizing the amount of navigation I have to do before I can get to work.
Android is also where the newest concepts in voice commands, gesture-based input, and UI design appear first. Keyboards like Swype, Swiftkey, Minuum and TouchPal actually make it easy to compose long form documents quickly on a touch screen- something the iOS 2007-era keyboard still can’t boast six years on.
Google Now voice commands beats Siri at most tasks, but so do alternative voice assistants like Nuance’s Dragon Go. On Android, I can switch between them as I need instead of helplessly waiting for the developer to improve the tool.
Freedom to learn how your tools work
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. -Arthur C. Clarke
The telephone, the radio, the movie camera, the PC. Our parents and grandparents were free to take these “magical” tools apart to study how they work– and their generations became engineers and inventors in the process. My concern is that modern computer users can be enthralled by the “magic” of technology without daring to peel back the curtain to see the Wizard is just a little man with a microphone. Proprietary software licenses and restrictive technology discourage users from exploring how their tools work and perpetuates an orientation of “helpless consumer” rather “active participant”.
I can honestly say that I would not understand as much about technology if it weren’t for open source tools (and the communities that spring up around them) encouraging me and supporting me to learn how the tools work. This freedom was born and nurtured in educational institutions, and I as an educator strive to choose open source tools whenever they present a viable alternative to commercial options.
Android OS can run on almost any device
Not only can you get Android devices that look like iPhones and both sizes of iPads, you can get Android devices that look like laptops, tablets, phones, phablets, monitors, pianos, thumb drives, coffee makers, sprinkler systems, cameras, and more. Android’s open ecosystem (and the ingenuity of people all over the world) has resulted in a wide variety of Android form factors for varied use cases. The Liliputing blog chronicles the cutting edge of smaller, cheaper devices that do powerful computing tasks, and Instructables is full of Android-related projects that student tinkerers can build at home cheaply. This is very freeing for students and teachers who want to build Android-powered products.
The downside to Android’s free and open approach is that the market is full of no-name “Android powered” devices that won’t give you the best experience. When buying devices for your school, I recommend Google Nexus devices for their excellent value, high build quality, and always up-to-date software. Failing that, choose products from well-known brands like Samsung, LG, and Asus over other options.
All things being equal– the experience is competitive with the iOS ecosystem
In 2013, it’s fair to say that higher-end Android devices provide a comparable experience to iOS devices with much greater value and freedom than is possible from Apple devices. Check out a Nexus 7 before you recommend buying iPads for your school. Ask yourself which specific tasks you want students to be able to do on a tablet computer and see if it’s possible on Android. You would be saving your school money, and making a statement in support of open source software in education.
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