Which computing devices for my classroom

April 27, 2019

Introduction

The choice of hardware for school classrooms is truly a challenge and source of frustration for educational leaders looking to equip their classrooms. In this comprehensive (and long) article, we will go through the key issues to think about, pros and cons of platforms, and some of the things to think about in your long-term hardware strategy. Specifically, we will be candid about politics and human factors in decision-making.

BYOD

First, let's talk about the elephant in the room. Bring Your Own Device has been touted as a way for schools to reduce their technology expenses and make it easier to kickstart technology use. There could also be political issues within the administration preventing a clear consensus on device choice. "Let's support them all, then!"

Not so fast! Experience has shown that supporting different hardware types can be a nightmare for school IT and the teachers in the classroom. The end result is that the student is left to their own devices (pun intended) when something goes wrong. Unless you are dealing with older students (e.g. high-school) BYOD can be a source of trouble and less so of learning and teaching

If you are NOT dealing with older students and do want technology to serve its purpose, avoid BYOD at all cost -- or go for a hybrid model where you give students the choice of which device (singular) they have to buy.

Decision-making factors

Here is what you are really looking for:

  • Low-cost -- including all three: hardware, setup, and maintenance (Side point: it is indeed sad that the first thing we think about when dealing with our kids' education is cost -- but, this is reality)
  • If you are an expensive private-school, pedigree (i.e. iPads / Macs) and pleasing the parents
  • Infrastructure that is easy to deploy and maintain
  • Devices that are (somewhat) rugged -- including warranties and replacement devices
  • Tools that not only help the classroom instruction, but prepare students for the 21st century knowledge economy
  • A reliable supplier / partner

Quite often (especially for smaller institutions) the last point is the most important. We find a supplier we trust first, then see what they offer

Nothing wrong with that. But knowing what you want can help guide you towards the right choice of supplier (or even guide the supplier to a good choice for you, not just economically beneficial to them)

We would like to turn your attention to the point before-last. While you are looking for cheaper, remember that your students will take the technology skills they acquire with them to college and then onto the workplace.

We need to expand our view of technology in the classroom beyond short-term pedagogy. Unless your students live on a deserted island, their future jobs will mostly certainly have a technology element.

Tablet vs Computer

By tablet, we mean both Android AND iPads (more on Androids below). If you are using the device as nothing more than an eBook holder (to lighten the schoolbag) then a tablet is good enough.

Frankly, unless you are teaching younger students, there is really no reason to constrain students to only a screen (aka tablet)

Even with younger students, you want them to be efficient in the classroom and beyond. Being fast at swiping and pinch zooming (zooming with two fingers on mobile devices) will not make our kids more apt in the market place.

In fact, one of the first thing you should have your students do, is ... learning to type!

That's right. Imagine having a car but you can't drive? How can we assume our students will learn to type on their own -- typing has a body of theory (finger positioning, not looking at the keyboard etc.). And while we do agree (and support) the need for a mouse (especially for older students), expecting that everything is done in the user interface is unrealistic. Not to mention that you are teaching your students inefficiency. Real people type! Get your students used to it.

Our recommendation for real technology use is a real laptop, and a mouse if possible

Macs

If you are not willing to pay over $1,000 per student for their computers, proudly skip to the next section.

If you ARE willing to pay that much, we need to ask you why. The common arguments for Macs are:

  • Easier to use
  • Easier to maintain
  • Bundled with cool software
  • Makes our school look good (especially in front of parents)

And we would agree with all these arguments (except maybe the last one: parents are indeed getting wiser). Yet, you are overpaying for hardware and are using software that your students will (likely) not use when they graduate.

Very few multinationals or big corporations use KeyNote for their presentations. They will either use Powerpoint or Google Presentation

The argument of ease of use has long subsided. New versions of Windows and Chromebooks are well-designed in terms of user interface. If you do insist on Macs, we would strongly recommend you avoid the Mac tools in favor of the more common productivity tools (i.e. Office 365 or Google Suite)

The argument of ease of maintenance is quite true and we can't argue with it. The question is whether paying almost $800 more per student is more economical than having a good IT maintenance strategy

If you do go down the Mac paths, please don't stop reading here. The next couple of sections are still relevant to you

Windows vs ChromeBooks vs the Browser

Congratulations for making it this far! Let's get to this important topic.

Most technology use in the future will have a strong cloud component

This is a bold prediction indeed. What it means, is that a lof of our daily work will be done online. What is done locally (i.e. on your computer) will be minimal. There are exceptions of course: security-sensitive work, computationally-intensive work (e.g. graphics, development, engineering) and when internet connectivity is weak.

What this prediction means operationally is that it does not matter which paltform you chose. Your students will be using the browser regardless (in fact, ClassroomAPP bundles in the browser as a first-class citizen as we know students are doing a lot online -- or offline on our local servers in schools with weaker internets). We see this in Google's strategy with GSuite being 100% cloud-based, and with Microsoft turning itself into a cloud computing company.

Windows

Pros

  • Less dependent on the internet
  • We all know it
  • Availability of IT expertise
  • Common softwares easily available

Cons

  • Costlier -- infrastructure (even if you go for the lower-end hardware, it is still costly to maintain your setup -- ActiveDirectory, Sharepoint etc.)
  • Costlier -- maintenance
  • More brittle -- despite all the advances Microsoft has made, windows still crashes and still needs many updates and lots of maintenance

Chromebook

Pros

  • As simple as a browser -- Remember, Chromebook is basically a browser
  • Security out-of-the-box -- Given it's a browser, you can't install much on your device
  • Easy to use -- Right, again .. it's a browser
  • Extremely cost-effective (the only software you have to pay for is a license per student for Google Admin)

Cons

  • Need to be online -- We haven't said it enough, it's a browser
  • (Typically) Forced onto GSuite -- you need a Google account to login
  • In some countries, Google is disliked as it is viewed as Big Brother
  • Given it's (almost) free -- schools have often complained of poor service-level by Google

An opinion: Choose an ecosystem first

As much as Microsoft and Apple tout the advantages of their respective systems, your first real choice is whether to go with Google Suite or Office 365. Everything else follows from that starting point.

Once you have made that choice, you can use any device / platform you want given your constraints. For example, if you are using Windows and don't want to set up their login mechanism (ActiveDirectory / Azure) you can have a Kiosk app (like ClassroomAPP) managing your device and learning experience.

Best of all worlds: No-internet Chromebook

Chromebooks have taken the US education space by storm owing to the many advantages listed above (namely cost and ease of maintenance). However, you still need some extra tools to manage your classroom, roster, etc. ClassroomAPP was specifically designed to make your Chromebooks seamless and less dependent on the internet.

Kiosk App

For younger grades, you can use the kiosk app, which locks the device down and then you can chose the login mechanism you want (even FaceID).

No-Internet

To go further, you can use the ClassroomAPP local school server and your need for internet goes down dramatically. If you go a step further with the kiosk app, you don't even need to login with GSuite (which requires continuous online connectivity).

Android vs iPad

We promised above a short blurb about Android (skip if you are not looking for tablets).

Android is more prevalent internationally then in the US, as Google is heavily pushing ChromeBooks. If however, you do need a tablet, Androids offer a few advantages:

  • More cost-effective - hardware is almost 50% cheaper than iPads, MDMs are typically cheaper for Android (Apple charges licenses to MDM providers), accessories like cables and chargers are very expensive for iPads
  • Android is more open giving students a more life-like technology experience (e.g. there is such thing as a file browser on Androids)
  • Companies are switching to Androids for their professional use, you are therefore exposing students to real applications
  • More educational apps
  • Easier to manage

ClassromAPP offers a full Android Kiosk app that locks down the device. You don't even need an MDM, ClassroomAPP takes care of everything for you.

With iPads you can use Guided Access mode and get a similar experience

We notice, however, a trend away from iPads in schools today. Even with all the encouragement Apple is providing to schools, we suggest you look at that fact carefully so you are not left in the cold

Conclusion

This was a long article. Reading it back, we realise we covered quite a bit. However, there could be specifics of your situation that matter more than other generic points.

Do you have a specific internal expertise within your IT department encouraging a certain platform?

That may be a good thing. But sometimes, taking a fresh look is worthwhile as this landscape is changing. People can learn new skills, but technology choices are sometimes hard to reverse.

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