Can I Trade the iPads for Chromebooks?

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UPDATE (3/18/12): In conjunction with this post please also read the second part of the story which I wrote about two months after creating this post, along with the third part of the story.  The text you see here was originally crafted in November of 2011 which was a lifetime ago in terms of iPad and Chromebook updates.

I am fortunate to work in a school district that is often on the cutting edge when it comes to instruction and technology integration. Much of our technology is purchased by individual school site communities and this diversity has led to many teacher-led, grass-roots instructional technology innovations. However, it means at Technology Services we must be flexible, adaptable, and constantly learning.

As part of this learning process, we have the opportunity to work with one school site that happens to have simultaneously occurring iPad and Chromebook pilots. The class set of iPads are used in the intermediate grades and the class set of Chromebooks are used with middle school English, history, and AVID students. In both cases the teachers are leveraging technology to support the site’s instructional focus of comprehensive balanced literacy (Reading and Writing Workshop and balanced literacy approaches). We are only a few weeks into each of the pilots, but so far the iPad teachers are a bit disappointed. One of them even asked, “Can I trade the iPads in for Chromebooks?” To Apple iPad devotees, this request might come as a bit of a shock. However, this statement really stems from frustration with iTunes and the iOS operating system.

So why do the Chromebooks look so good?

  • Immediate Set Up: When delivered to the site the Chromebooks were being used by students within 5 minutes of being taken out of the boxes. The devices integrate with our Google Apps for Edu system, so Technology Services could take care of the initial set up and students were able to immediately log in with their district-provided Google Accounts
  • Complete Integration with Google Apps: All of the Google Apps tools, along with third party apps the district installs from the Google Apps Marketplace (SlideRocket, Aviary, etc) work with the hardware.
  • All Websites Work: The Chromebook works with any website. Flash, HTML5 –  it doesn’t matter. It just works. The teachers do not have to spend any time looking for or downloading a special app.
  • Personalization: Since students login to the Chromebooks with their individual accounts, they can personalize the device in terms of adding bookmarks, browser backgrounds, and apps. This particular classroom where the Chromebooks are being used has close to 95% home-Internet access. The kids have mentioned that they also like the fact that all of their settings, documents, and resources can be retrieved at home by using the Chrome web browser. Effectively, these students are able to seamlessly move their technology and learning experiences between both school and home.
  • Additional Costs: The teachers noted that the Chromebooks don’t need a case or any additional apps, yet the initial purchase price is about the same (or even a little less) than a 16GB iPad.  Additionally, if a Chromebook has any problems we just drop it in a box, mail it to Google, and they’ll send out a new one.

And why are the iPads frustrating?

  • Device Set Up & Management: We were able to preconfigure the iPads before they were sent to the school site. However, the devices still have to be associated with the iTunes account and the computer to which they will all sync. When you plug the 30 devices into the computer (through the Bretford Syncing Cart) you are met with the most un-Apple of Apple experiences. First you have to wait…it takes iTunes a few moments to see all the devices. Then various windows start popping open including update and registration windows. These windows open for all of the devices. So, if you have 30 devices, you have 30 windows to close. Once the windows are all closed you need to rename each of the iPads.
  • Updates: Have you ever updated your iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch? To update a class set of iPads you have the luxury of experiencing that process 30 separate times. There is no “Update All” and walk away. You get to do them one at a time. We have discovered a method for streamlining the process – get the first iPad all updated and configured, back it up, and then use that file to individually “image” the remaining iPads.
  • Apps: The teachers have described the App Store as being “a complete mess.” It’s challenging to find apps that are educationally relevant and effective, while also being within their limited budget. As time passes on, we’re really focusing on free apps because for any paid app you need one copy for each device. A $5 app will cost $150 to have it on all of the devices. Additionally, there really isn’t a method for trying out an app before buying it.
  • “The Syncing Cart that Doesn’t Sync” – This is how one teacher described the Bretford PowerSync Cart. The cart does allow you to plug all 30 devices into your computer with one cord. However, once they show up in iTunes you manage each device separately. If there is a video you want on all of the devices you use the iTunes menu (just like you would for your iPhone) to chose that video and put it on that device. Once you have iPad 1 set up, just repeat the process 29 times. There are some short cuts like having apps and iTunes content automatically download to all devices. However, one of the teachers suggested that iTunes really needs an option where she could tell the program “make all 30 devices look like iPad #1” and be able to a walk away.
  • Google Apps: Our students and staff have access to Google Apps EDU. Google Apps and specifically Google Docs, has become a very powerful tool for teachers and students. They love the fact students can start an assignment at school, finish it at home, and collaborate on their work with other students. Unless the school site pays for an app (and we’ve had challenges finding a good one), the iPads cannot effectively use Google Apps and all of its features.
  • Turning In Student Work: While the iPad may have been designed as a personal device, due to limited funding our sites have situations where students must share iPads. For example, the teacher might use the same set of iPads with three different groups of students. When students use an app like Pages or Keynote to construct content, they cannot easily submit it to their teacher. Our teachers are used to students submitting work via Moodle or a digital dropbox. We are still working with teachers to identify a solution that will effectively assist in this process. Our students do have email (through Google Apps for Edu), but we can’t really have 3-5 different email accounts set up (and ready for use) on each device. Additionally, email does not work well if the teacher has many students – like our secondary teachers with 165 kids.
  • Additional Costs: Between the need to purchase apps, a case, and headphones the $499 iPad can quickly increase in total cost of ownership.

By no means is this post meant to be a comprehensive review of either device.  When I first purchased an iPad I found it frustrating as well. It didn’t do what I expected it to do. However, over time I realized it definitely was a powerful device I would hate to live without, but it was different than anything I had owned before. Similarly, I have had my own Chromebook for the past two months and while I love the battery life and seamless integration with Google Apps and any web 2.0 tool (it’s great for conferences), you can’t do much with it if you don’t have an internet connection and the trackpad is a bit challenging.  Interestingly, none of the students have mentioned any frustration with the trackpad – perhaps it’s just an adult issue.

The experience of supporting both Chromebooks and iPads at this one school site reinforces for me the importance of choosing technology that directly supports your instructional goals and then providing the time, talent, resources, and professional development to ensure the seamless integration in the classroom.  Fortunately, we are just at the beginning of these pilots and we have even more to learn from this great group of innovative teachers and students. Who knows, perhaps in few months the Chromebook teacher will be asking to trade her devices for iPads?  I’m just happy they let me come learn with them.

Joe

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