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Teachers weigh in on Apple’s push for more iPads in school

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Are iPads better than laptops? The answer depends on who you ask

Apple Hosts Education Event At Chicago High School Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

This week, Apple held its education event to introduce a new iPad with stylus support aimed at teachers and students, hoping to take on the popularity of Chromebooks in classrooms over the past few years. As of 2017, Apple is third behind Google and Microsoft in terms of laptops, tablets, and other mobile devices shipped to schools, with sales to schools steadily declining since 2013.

To combat this drop, Apple showed off an “affordable” iPad this week at an event held at Lane Tech College Prep, a public high school in Chicago. “We price things as low as we can,” Apple CEO Tim Cook told Recode’s Kara Swisher in a post-event interview. “We took an iPad, put iPad Pro features in it and charge $299. And the software is all free and the cloud storage is free.”

A chart from a 2015 IDC white paper about Chromebooks with data from ten schools.
Image: IDC

But even with the new discount, Apple tablets are still more expensive than most Chromebooks, especially when you factor in the extra cost of a stylus and a detachable keyboard. With the larger price tag, Apple is marketing the iPad as a platform for media creation. But in a classroom environment, what do teachers value more: inspiring creative projects, or getting school work done?

Matt Wdowiarz, a fifth grade teacher in Winfield, Illinois says an iPad helps him save time from grading, returning papers, and printing papers. Still, the school uses Google Classroom as a management software and iPads for hardware. When Winfield Central School, where Wdowiarz teaches, started using iPads, it enabled him to quickly show his students excerpts from a British history textbook while teaching the American Revolution. The British textbook attributed part of the American Revolution to British folks getting tired of fighting the French during the French and Indian war, a tidbit that an American textbook wouldn’t have explored.

“For the fifth graders, it’s a flashlight in their face, it’s a huge conversation piece,” Wdowiarz says, “It’s forced my American history curriculum to have more of a world view.”

Wdowiarz also lauded AirPlay on the iPad as a more streamlined process for sharing the textbook in his class. Using Chromebooks had meant “pressing seven to eight buttons as opposed to two,” he says. “One of my concerns is that my students walk out being civically grounded and iPads have allowed me to hit that a little harder. It’s the same amount of time spent but deeper thinking.”

iPads have also been useful for special education teachers working with children who might need more accommodation. Lauren Holloway, a special education preschool teacher at Booth Elementary in Elmira, NY says, “The iPad is portable, durable, and conducive to activities where just a pointer finger is used.” She adds that, “The inherent interactive features of an iPad are far more likely to engage both students who have an aversion to more traditional teaching methods, and those with attentional difficulties.” The backlit screen also allows visually impaired students to better see classroom materials.

But Holloway says that while she’s been able to use her iPad in the classroom to engage students in material they otherwise wouldn’t pay enough attention to, it can be a double-edged sword. “Once they’re used to using the iPad, the excitement of 2D and even manipulative materials pales in comparison, and it’s more difficult to engage them in activities that don’t include a digital component,” she says.

Apple Hosts Education Event At Chicago High School Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Just like the typical tech debate between any two gadgets, teachers can’t seem to agree on the best computing device for classrooms. What one teacher considers to be a major benefit of an iPad can be overshadowed by a looming flaw to another teacher. Alice Chen, an eighth grade language arts teacher in California, says she can see how the lack of a keyboard, an additional cost for schools, could be a deal-breaker. “In any kind of a literacy classroom where a keyboard is going to be important, a Chromebook will win in that effect, because a Chromebook is an all-in-one package,” Chen says.

Chen also works as a technology coach for other teachers in her district who have varying skill levels and experiences with using technology in classrooms. In this role, Chen noticed that teachers were generally more comfortable with Chromebooks instead of iPads “because they’re still similar to a laptop,” and therefore quicker to adopt in the classroom.

Although Chen has access to both Chromebooks and iPads in her class at Suzanne Middle School, she tends to lean more on Chromebooks, which are more compatible with Google Suite’s set of tools. “As soon as I issue an assignment, I have instant access to their work. It’s very seamless,” she says of Google Classroom, a school assignments management software. “I have found in the past, collecting work on an iPad takes a few more steps than it would on a Chromebook.” Apple this week announced a competitor to Google Classroom called Schoolwork, which is slated for release in June.

Other teachers shared similar opinions as Chen’s. Audrey Angelo, a technology teacher at Bakken Elementary in Williston, North Dakota says the pros for Chromebooks include its “size, durability, low cost, Google single sign-on options, ease of access to Google Apps (handy if you are a Google school), a full keyboard and mouse.” For cons, she names a single one: “Web-based only.”

iPads, on the other hand, does not have many merits for Angelo. “Touchscreen, lots of apps,” she lists, but adds several cons: “No keyboard and mouse — even if external ones are purchased, it is a pain. [It’s] expensive, not as durable as some other options. I’ve had many more screens broken than with PCs or Chromebooks.” She says that the HP Chromebooks her school bought were extremely sturdy. Luna Ramirez, who leads a web design academy at a high school in Long Island City, NY, agrees that she prefers a traditional computer in her classroom than tablets. “For web design purposes, desktop is a better platform,” she says.

At the end of the day, technology remains a tool in the classroom and not the forefront of an ongoing debate. Many school districts, including the one where Apple held its event this week, are facing a deficit and cannot afford any tablets or devices, much less new iPads and styluses. Most educators agree that computing devices are useful but not vital to learning, and believe in having them as a supplementary tool.

Teachers like Chen do not believe the focus should be put on the competition between iPads and Chromebooks, nor an obsession with what shiny new device a school should purchase. “For an educator, the question shouldn’t be which device, but which learning objective should we be aiming for?” she says. “I don’t think we can clearly say one device can be better than the other.”