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Atlantic Magazine notes trend to Chromebooks in schools

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.

by MacNN Staff



  1. Paul Huang

    Mac Enthusiast

    Joined: 09-18-99

    Just wait for one year and those chromebooks will fall apart.

  1. Charles Martin

    MacNN Editor

    Joined: 08-04-01

    I've heard similar reports myself, Paul. They're not built to be particularly hardy.

  1. msuper69

    Professional Poster

    Joined: 01-16-00

    Going the cheap route isn't cheap.

  1. coffeetime

    Senior User

    Joined: 11-15-06

    Personally I think Chromebook is more practicle for these bracket age of group. I use Google Drive for word and spread sheet and also MS Office. I can see why. MS Office=$$$$. Google Office (plus cloud)=zero. Yes, cheap laptop breaks (but at what percentage?). But it gets them back to work at no time after replacment if breaks. This is where cloud storage really shine.

  1. coffeetime

    Senior User

    Joined: 11-15-06

    Also laptop simulates real world computing with the permanant keyboard and monitor. True, my wife stops using laptop ever since she discovered iPad. Her usage: 95% shopping, social network, and news. 5% banking, pay bills, and work. If kids using iPad, speculation: 90% games & social, 10% school work. But one thing I have to agree, iOS apps can do more when it comes to special projects for those kids (plus reading on a couch).

  1. OldMacGeek

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: 08-04-10

    The main people that have issues with virtual keyboards are the adults. Children, who have grown up in the smartphone era, are quite used to "typing" on a virtual keyboard. As it is the adults making the decision, and since they feel this is a limitation, the result may well be fewer iPads.

  1. gprovida

    Junior Member

    Joined: 02-14-06

    In general, its teachers and school administrators [also the archaic school IT "Pros"] that require keyboards. My experience and most parents is that kids take to no keyboard fast. The Apps will improve with increased focus on touch not keyboards.

    Therefore, the change is happening and will continue to happen. The simplicity and security of iPads etc., quality of product, durability, improved apps, next gen of teachers and IT support, etc., will eventually result in an increasing presence of these simple intuitive devices.

    It is unlikely that Chromebooks will be a major displacement for iPads, although they will accelerate the dropping of PCs. The security problems with the internet and Chromebooks as we as the build quality will be increasingly a concern. Finally, web apps aside from Office-like options are pretty lame and there is little money to be made for app developers on the web, ergo, performance debate aside, this does not seem like a very serious threat.

    Finally, the BYOD to school is great for wealthier communities, but these communities can afford to have schools provide. The poor schools in poor communities simple do not have this option, either way they will depend on Federal, State, and Local aide to be competitive and provide the devices.

  1. prl99

    Mac Enthusiast

    Joined: 03-24-09

    The interesting thing about using netbooks like the chromebook is they require network access for (almost?) everything they do. iPads can make use of local apps. In many cases, iPads can be sandboxed to the school's LAN and never actually hit the internet, except for a teacher's computer to download resource material and apps. Chromebooks are the opposite as is google drive. The school's IT "experts" will need to work extra hard figuring out how to secure the school's network while also figuring out how to secure access to school information on external networks. As students get older, more internet access will be required and a different mix of devices should be made available. Apple never said one size fits all and neither should schools. Buy the appropriate devices for the appropriate student tasks. Oh wait, that requires planning and an understanding of the tools and the needs of the students. That means you can't just buy a bunch of computers and magically they will be the right ones. Students know this because they are taught to plan and research, something administrators either forgot or are too lazy to do.

  1. Flying Meat

    Dedicated MacNNer

    Joined: 01-25-07

    The primary issue is the common core online testing, which as the article states:
    "and the new Common Core online testing requirements, being adopted by many schools, require a keyboard."

    It isn't to say students have difficulty typing on iPads, just that the schools adopting the Common Core online testing are precluding the use of iPads for that use.

  1. b9bot

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: 12-22-08

    You buy a tablet to use it like a tablet, without a keyboard because it has a keyboard built in. I don't understand the idea of buying a tablet and not knowing how to use it or administrate it. Apple provides all the tools to do so easily. Apparently there are Windows only IT folks in these schools that refuse to learn how to do it the right way and that's the only reason that the iPads failed because many schools have great success with iPads including for the disabled.

  1. Charles Martin

    MacNN Editor

    Joined: 08-04-01

    In fairness, I'd say that in any sort of writing-intensive class, a physical keyboard is a plus -- but its not like nobody makes those for the iPad (except, oddly enough, Apple). But the joke is probably on keyboard fans, long-term ... dictation ability in computers is coming along pretty impressively. I use my iPad all the time, but rarely use the keyboard anymore for short-form writing -- I primarily dictate things like emails, FB status posts and so on.

  1. Grendelmon

    Senior User

    Joined: 12-26-07

    I'm sorry, but the iPad is not a laptop replacement. Period. It's an iPresenter. Not an iProducer.

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