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Cross-posted at The Huffington Post

Many analysts are predicting 2011 will be the year of the tablet. And in his keynote address at CES's Higher Ed Tech Summit last week, The Wall Street Journal's Walt Mossberg said that he anticipates a deluge of tablets on campuses. They won't all be iPads, he insisted, pointing to the 70 some-odd new tablets that were showcased at CES. Even though a competitor to the iPad seems inevitable -- such is the nature of technology gadgetry -- tablet-makers face an uphill battle arguably in competing with the iPad in the consumer electronic market. So will they find more success in the education market?

The Kno has probably generated the most buzz of the tablets designed specifically for education. That device hit the streets in late December, to mixed reviews due in part to its price (ranging from $599 for the 16 GB single-screen to $999 for the 32 GB dual-screen versions). And as the year of the tablet takes off, the Kno is about to be joined by several others aimed specifically at the education market, including an Android tablet announced this week by the Canadian startup mySpark Technologies.

The mySpark Tablet

The mySpark tablet will have a 10-inch color screen, a 1 GHz dual-core processor, front and rear cameras, and either 4 GB or 8 GB of storage. It'll come with stylus inputs and a docking station. The tablet will run the Honeycomb Android OS. The standard tablet stuff.

What makes this specifically an educational tablet is the mySpark Education Platform, a custom-built software interface that integrates with a school's existing learning management system. That makes this tablet designed not just for students, but for teachers and administrators as well. The platform also offers a robust e-reader that lets users purchase digital textbooks from an online store or borrow them from the campus library.

With the platform, users can annotate text, write notes, insert multimedia content and sync with schools various calendars. And through what's called an Ideabook, students will be able to store a variety of content to access later for coursework and class projects. They'll also be able to collaborate with one another, sharing multimedia content and posting questions through IMs, group chat tools, and message boards.

The price for the mySpark tablet hasn't been revealed yet, although I'm told by a company spokesperson that it is expected to cost significantly less than competing products. The tablet is still in production, but expects to ship in the second quarter of this year.

The Educational Tablet: Will Teachers & Learners Buy It?

I admit, I have been skeptical about the Kno, despite its backing by well-known investors Andreessen-Horowitz and a thumbs-up from Salman Khan of Khan Academy. And my initial reaction to mySpark's press release was pretty dubious too.

My reasons are several-fold: there's the competition from the iPad, of course (even though I do think Android tablets will eventually pose a threat to Apple). But there's also the competition from laptops and desktop PCs. Only 8% of college students own a dedicated e-reader, and yes I know, a tablet is different; it does more. But until a tablet can either become a student's sole computing device or be offered at such a price that students can comfortably own it and another computer, I'm not sure that the tablet -- as consumer electronics, let alone educational electronics -- will be that ubiquitous a device. Add to that, the fact that any mobile device -- a laptop, a smartphone, a tablet -- needs to compete with the cheap and easy-to-use pen and paper (although yes, I think the competition is getting stiffer, it's been about five years since I was in the classroom. So I wonder: how common are these devices -- not on campus, but specifically in class?)

But mySpark says its pricing will be competitive, and if, indeed, the year of the tablet is upon us and Walt Mossberg is right, then we will see more and more tablets on campus. After all, if schools like Seton Hill and Stanford's School of Medicine are distributing iPads, then it wouldn't surprise me to see similar contracts offered to Android tablet makers, particularly those that can integrate with schools' learning management systems and libraries.

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Audrey Watters


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