Not (Yet) Sold on Tablets in the Classroom

I keep seeing a lot of stories and posts about tablets (usually iPads) in the classroom. Some glowing with promise, others more skeptical. For example:

More Colorado schools turning to iPad to improve education (Denver Post)
Math that moves: Schools embrace the iPad (New York Times)
On tablets in the classrooms - are they really a necessity? (Manila Bulletin)
Digital Textbooks (Curmudgeon [not so much about tablets, but what we can do with them])

At one level, I get it. iPads are easy to use, have great battery life, are reasonably affordable, and have that Apple-ly shiny goodness that other people (but not me - sorry, Steve) seem to love so much. But if you have $500 to spend to put technology into a student's hands, why not buy a cheap laptop?

Let's do a comparison between an iPad, Chromebook, and budget laptop:

  • Price: $499
  • Fast enough for HD video playback
  • 10 hour battery life (to Apple's credit, this appears to not be exaggerated)
  • Front and rear camera
  • Instant on, simple administration
  • Input device: (Usually) fingers
  • No flash, some Google Docs limitations

Samsung Chromebook:
  • Price: $429
  • Fast enough for HD video playback
  • Up to 8.5 hours of battery life
  • Front camera
  • 10-second boot, instant resume, simple administration
  • Input device: keyboard and touchpad
  • Not a "real" notebook, limited to browser apps

ASUS Eee PC 1215B-PU17-BK (Some companies just can't name products, can they?)
  • Price: $437
  • Fast enough for HD video playback
  • Up to 8 hours battery life
  • Front camera
  • Slower boot, probably more complicated administration
  • Input device: keyboard and touchpad
  • A full-fledged computer, with all its benefits and hassles

In a recent conversation I had with Darren Yung on Google+, he said he'd rather have iPads for students than notebooks, citing administration hassles with the notebooks and the problem students have logging in. I've seen that personally - students forget passwords, leave caps lock on, or find other ways to not be able to log themselves into the OS. Darren also lamented the slow boot time of notebooks. He did, however, wish iPads worked as well with Google Docs as notebooks do.

So here's my argument: Logins are a hassle, but even if the OS has no login process, won't students still have to login to Google to get to Docs? In that case, the Chromebook and iPad seem pretty even. Also, notebooks are slow to boot. I agree, but I'm sure I couldn't type very quickly on an iPad, and the time lost typing would more than cancel out the time spent waiting for a notebook to boot.

I know there's more to this argument, but I think given the needs and wants described by Darren, I'd lean towards the Chromebook, with perhaps a carefully-yet-simply-configured (use auto login, for example) notebook coming in second. (This surprises me, as until now I had all but dismissed the Chromebook as a viable option.) I know I'm biased in two ways: (a) I taught in high school and now I'm a PhD student, so typing while reading web pages or PDFs is probably my primary academic computing activity, and (b) I'm not a fan of Apple. For (a), I'd like to personally see computers vs. iPads in the hands of elementary students to see which is more effective, and for (b) I'd feel the same way if we were talking about Android tablets. Now, because Apple imagery causes a religious reaction in the brains of Apple fans, I'm sure some readers will feel like I've just told them that they're praying to the wrong God, but hopefully even the most devoted followers can find my points reasonable.


  1. On the one hand, debates over hardware shouldn't even be taking place. The point should be to design learning experiences that involve technology in a core way to produce deep learning. Seymour Papert was doing this 30 years ago with technology that would be considered ridiculous by today's standards. It's about the instructional design, not the tech platform, and the extent to which it becomes about the platform I think there is a flaw in the instructional design.

    On the other hand- different platforms admit different possibilities. The iPad's tactile interface, for instance, opens up a lot of options for physical interaction with the device that notebooks just can't match. My 5-year old, when she was 2, was developmentally delayed and had a lot of problems with the hand-eye coordination needed for a mouse, and an iPad would have no such problems. But a notebook also lets you have Flash and more processing power. Again it comes back to instructional design. Who's your audience? What are their needs? What learning objectives are in place? Those kinds of things drive the hardware decisions.

    By the way, I say all this as a devoted Apple customer. :)

  2. Robert, I think you hit exactly the two things I was most uncomfortable with as I wrote this post. One, I said a lot about hardware and very little about learning. Too bad you can't just look at "learning specs" like you do for hardware when you browse to Amazon and Newegg, eh? And two, I think the age of the students might play a pretty big role. When you talk about your daughter, I think, "Of course she should use an iPad." If your daughter was 16 years old and in an advanced writing class, I'd think I'd want her to have a notebook.