updated 01:16 am EDT, Thu August 7, 2014
Apple's iPad still seen as ideal for younger students, but keyboards, notebooks making comeback
A number of schools that had instituted large-scale programs to supply students with iPads or other tablets are now reconsidering the idea, particularly for post-elementary students, a new article from The Atlantic notes, in an investigation that could have some consequences for Apple's renewed push into education. While administrators, teachers and students alike appreciate the iPad, the shortcoming of no built-in physical keyboard is becoming an issue for Common Core and secondary-school students.
In some cases, the magazine found, the rush to use iPads was borne of noble intentions but not administered well. A prime example is the Los Angeles Unified School District, which scrapped its original program of all-iPads for students and replaced it with a program that let schools choose among six different devices, including hybrid Windows- or Android-based laptop-tablets, Chromebook and other devices.
The keyboard-less iPad has continued to find great success at most schools in which it is deployed, but as students get older and are required to engage in more writing-intensive activities, the need for a keyboard and larger screen grows. As a result, a handful of schools around the country have halted, suspended or modified ambitious iPad-based tablet programs, an approach that could snowball among secondary schools. Nevertheless, iPads have a lock on schools when it comes to tablet buying: some 94 percent of EDU-market tablet sales are iPads, and Apple recently hit a milestone of over $1 billion in overall educational sales in fiscal Q4, according to CEO Tim Cook.
The report took a look at a program in Hillsborough, New Jersey, where administrators took "a more cautious" approach, giving small groups of students iPads and Chromebook laptops (about 200 students each) to study the effect. At the end of the pilot, they sold the iPads and bought 4,600 Chromebooks for the upcoming school year.
The key element that is working against the iPad appears to be almost solely that the Chromebook or other laptops offer a physical keyboard, and the availability of a larger screen -- rather, as is often the case, solely a matter of cost (though Chromebooks can be less expensive than iPads in some cases). Most of the teachers in the program at Hillsborough were disappointed that the school turned away from iPads, crediting Apple's tablet with opening their eyes to the possibilities of digital educational techniques, but came to appreciate the advantages of the Chromebooks as well.
Although the shift to keyboard-sporting devices could contribute to Apple's already-hurting iPad sales, the company does offer a line of notebooks that have proven extremely popular with post-secondary students, with MacBook Air and MacBook Pro machines now a common sight on college and university campuses. Somewhat ironically, most Chromebook and "ultrabook" PC designs closely mirror Apple's own MacBook Air in style, if not computing power or reliability.
While Chromebooks and similar devices may prove popular with secondary students, the limited functionality of "netbook" class devices is not likely to be maintained as students advance and their need for computing power grows. It will, however, be interesting to see how Apple deals with the latest challenge to its educational dominance.
Another issue faced by teachers and administrators, particularly of secondary school students, was the perception of the iPad as a "leisure" or "fun" device, while the minimal-but-straightforward functionality of the Chromebooks carried more of an perception of a "get to work" machine. Students preferred reading on the iPad, but liked writing on the Chromebook -- and the new Common Core online testing requirements, being adopted by many schools, require a keyboard.
The school's IT department also found that, since Chromebooks have little local storage and the students' work lives in "the cloud," replacing a malfunctioning unit (which has happened far more often than with iPads, according to teachers MacNN spoke to on the topic) with a new one could get the student back up and running in minutes. Apps could more easily be "pushed" to all devices, and Google's Apps for Education suite worked more collaboratively on Google's Chromebooks, though it is also compatible with iPads.
Another teacher interviewed for the article, David Mahaley, prefers and uses the iPad for his AP human geography course, and says the device makes his job easier, engages students better, and gives them more opportunities for "digital creativity," and Mahaley has relied on the iPad for the past four years. "I see the iPad as a great tool that we've been able to exploit," he said. However, he acknowledged that different schools and grade levels may have different priorities, concluding that there is no "one size fits all" computing device for students. "First you have to ask: What do you want the device to do for your children?" he said.
"At Hillsborough, the Chromebooks are currently being supplemented by 3,000 Nexus tablets, handed out by Google as part of a new pilot program," the magazine said. "Susan Fajen's fourth-grade classroom is now littered with devices. Students work together in pairs, elbow to elbow, one holding a tablet, the other typing on a laptop. During the past year, Fajen's kids used tablets to record their voices for a project on tall tales, and to design parade balloons before making them in papier-mâché. But for word-processing projects, like blogging, the kids took out their laptops. Fajen paused when asked which device was better. 'It's hard to choose,' she said."
One school system, the Miami-Dade system in south Florida, has taken a page from the corporate world and adopted a more open -- but cheaper -- "Bring Your Own Device" policy for its 320,000 students. "We can't keep up with the trends in personal devices," said Paul Smith, supervisor of network services. It is supplying some laptops for secondary students: seventh-grade civics students will find devices in classrooms for class use, while ninth-grade history students will receive laptops they can take home. Elementary students will see tablets and laptops on carts in their classrooms. Overall, the system is pushing for parents to buy devices for their children, and only filling in gaps with some 48,000 district-bought units.
"We're doing as much as we can to move it from a school responsibility to home," said Head of Information Technology Debbie Karcher. Parents who need financial assistance and work for the school system are eligible for credit-union loans to buy devices at the school system's bulk pricing. However, Karcher says that the declining price of functional technology should make the assistance programs unnecessary over the long haul.