Class Act: The iPad and the Flash Challenge for Elearning

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Apple's public brand has been polished to a bright luster over the last decade. But it's fair to say that Apple has always had a special place in the education world since the introduction of the Apple II. Thus, I anticipate that educators will pay a lot more attention to the iPad than they have to any previous tablet or e-reader. At the same time, the iPad will also raise serious concerns about video and interactive content platforms.

Whether you see the iPad as an oversized iPhone or a keyboardless netbook, there's no denying that it brings a unique set of features, both in terms of what's included and what's excluded. When it comes to educational video, the most significant exclusion is Adobe's Flash player. While Flash has always been missing from the iPhone, its absence on the iPad is simply a bigger deal.

That's because the iPad threatens to become a true laptop replacement. Although it lacks the physical keyboard and flexible operating system (OS) of a laptop, the iPad offers an arguably more intuitive interface with a simplified OS in a package that is designed to connect to the internet just about anywhere there's a Wi-Fi or cell signal.

Many colleges already require iPods or iPhones for some curricula, and iPads would add features such as a bigger screen and a virtual keyboard. For K-12 schools, consider how the moderated ecosystem of the app store and the iPhone OS's relative invulnerability to viruses would appeal to parents, teachers, and an overworked IT department alike.

So then, we return to the Flash question. As the education segment has begun migrating to online video platforms, institutions have been abandoning their old-school RealVideo, QuickTime, and Windows Media streams for embedded Flash video players. If thousands or millions of students start using iPads as their primary computing devices, they'll be locked out of huge swaths of web video content, much of it required for their studies.

YouTube found its way around this by having its own iPhone app, an approach that could be valuable for schools that want to provide swift access to content, bypassing the browser altogether. However, developing apps is also a costly endeavor. This same constraint would be true for Silverlight content too.

Of course, schools can get around the Flash and Silverlight problem by making videos available as H.264 QuickTime files. But that means time-consuming transcoding and losing the copyright protection and access control offered by streaming Flash and Silverlight. The iPad's support for streaming video in HTML5 provides another way to make do without Flash. But again, a transition to HTML5 will not be easy or painless.

A significant element of Flash that isn't immediately addressed by HTML5 or dedicated apps is interactivity. Software such as Captivate has spurred educators to create interactive instructional content that integrates audio and video into easily published Flash files. Plenty of third-party vendors offer large suites of customizable learning games and quizzes that also are published in Flash. This sort of content is included in countless blended and distance courses, representing a significant investment of time and money that schools can ill afford to abandon.

Even if schools do not officially recommend or adopt iPads, I think they will soon encounter students for whom an iPad is their only computing device. Flash or not, this represents both a challenge and an opportunity that may have enormous impact on the future of educational computing.

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