The last time I worked in a school we had a lab stocked with 30 Apple eMacs, and each classroom had one or two older iMacs of their own. New, those machines cost roughly $800-1,000 each and sported 17-inch CRT displays with 1280 x 960, 24-bit color resolution. Wi-Fi connectivity was optional thanks to an integrated slot built to accommodate an Airport Extreme card. They weighed about 50 lbs a piece thanks to an all-in-one design featuring said 17-inch CRT.

Last week Apple unveiled the next-generation iPad, a tablet computer that starts at $499, weighs less than a pound and a half, and features a 9.7-inch LED-backlit touchscreen with 2048 x 1536 pixels. That works out to about 3.1 million dots, in case you’re keeping score at home. The tablets, which take up a wee bit less of a desktop than a sheet of 8.5 x 11 paper, feature integrated Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity, with 4G LTE wireless connectivity available as an option.

Things have changed a lot in the six years or so since I last ran a school computer lab. But anyone who’s ever worked in a school knows that our nation’s institutions of learning move at a pace much slower than that of our temples of commerce. So while a few early adopter schools and districts out there have invested in classrooms and labs full of tablets, most have not. Odds are the so-called 21st Century Classroom will rely on tablets for digital media needs, but don’t expect mass adoption to be driven by spec sheets and fat pipe Internet connections.

No, the rise of tablets in American schools will be driven by deep discounts on last-gen gear. Or so says a top exec at one of the largest textbook publishers in the word.

“I’ve long thought that the tipping-point price for a tablet is between $200 and $300,” Vineet Madan, VP of New Ventures at McGraw Hill Education told Talking Points Memo. “Now that the entry-level iPad 2 has dropped by $100 … we’ll see much more uptake. [It’s] still a phenomenally powerful device. Our content performs incredibly well on that device.”

Madan also spoke glowingly of the new iPad, but seeing as his company was one of the big partners onstage during Apple’s e-texbook event in January, we’ll leave his compliments aside for now. The big takeaway from this interview is something successful e-learning entrepreneurs and hardened critics of the US school system alike have been saying for years now: Education in America is all about doing things on the cheap. While the tech blogs clamor for hands-on with the latest in bleeding-edge mobile technology, the school districts wait patiently for last year’s model to go on sale.

Will a $399 iPad 2 drive mass adoption of tablets in our schools? Likely it depends on a number of factors including individual school/district’s current IT setups and curriculum/policy decisions made by teachers and administrators. But if last year’s hardware is both powerful enough to serve our teachers and students, and being offered at a discount, we might be on the precipice of a shift from the school “computer lab” or “laptop cart” to the classroom “tablet rack.”

[Source: Talking Points Memo, Via: The Verge]