Mobile Computing | Feature

Debating iPads or Chromebooks for 1:1? Why not both?

As more school districts consider 1:1 initiatives, they are faced with the decision of which device to roll out. Chromebooks and iPads are two popular choices, but instead of choosing between them, some innovative school districts are deploying both.

Spring Lake Public Schools in Michigan, Sioux Falls School District in South Dakota, Winneconne Community School District in Wisconsin, and the Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL), a nonprofit organization that manages 25 Chicago Public Schools, have implemented or plan to implement both iPads and Chromebooks in the classroom.

These districts have found that iPads and Chromebooks each have their strengths and weaknesses: iPads are better suited to younger kids and subjects such as math, whereas Chromebooks tend to work better for older kids, especially in subjects like English, where assignments require considerable writing from students. All four districts have experienced success with both devices and have not encountered any significant problems as a result of a mixed-platform environment. In fact, they said they see the mixed environment as a huge benefit for students.

iPads for Early Elementary and Math
Even though the iPad costs almost twice as much as the Chromebook, most multi-platform districts are providing iPads for their early elementary kids. "iPads are a lot more kinesthetic, a lot more intuitive," said Jennie Magiera, digital learning coordinator at AUSL. "So we see our pre-K, K, and grade one kids pick them up and use them immediately without really much support at all."

"We've focused on the iPad for our elementary school and for our special education department," said George Sorrells, technology facilitator at Winneconne Community School District. "We've found that the iPads work best for kids who rely more on visual cues, for the beginning readers."

Another reason why the iPads are well suited to primary grades is the sheer number of educational apps targeted for that age group. "The iPad's got a pretty robust stockpile of apps that we can use for kids and teaching, so that's something that's hard to look past," said Scott Ely, curriculum director at Spring Lake Public Schools.

Those apps are engaging for students in the primary grades, according to Sharon Schueler, director of curriculum, instruction, and staff development at Sioux Falls School District. "I see increased student engagement that further involves students in the act of learning, and I can see that they're providing students with important 21st century skills that we always talk about," said Schueler.

Even for the older kids, some districts are sticking with iPads for math. "For math, we found that iPads are a little bit stronger because of the kinesthetic properties and the ability to draw," said Magiera, "so if you're doing a calculus equation and you have a stylus, you can actually write it out. It's really hard to type out a lot of those math equations with a Chromebook."

Chromebooks for Middle and High School
While iPads may be better suited to math class, the districts have found that Chromebooks work better in classes where students are doing a lot of written work. "At the high school level, some of the implementation of Chromebooks has been in English classes, and they're producing a ton of work," said Ely. "If the kids are doing a lot of writing, that's a good tool."

Winneconne Community School District runs a bring-your-own-device program but also provides iPads and Chromebooks as needed. At that district, some kids who own iPads are signing out Chromebooks at school. "The kids do a lot of writing, and I've talked to a number of them at the middle and high school who stopped bringing in their iPads and started checking out a Chromebook because they needed that keyboard," said Sorrells.

"It's kind of hard to write a 10-page term paper on an iPad," said Magiera. "You'd have to get an external keyboard, and then you don't have split screens, so you can't have the ebook and the doc open at the same time."

The districts prefer Chromebooks for older kids in general. "Chromebooks are awesome for the older kids," said Magiera. "With younger kids we need to think about having Google sign-ons and age restrictions and typing in your password and using a keyboard. With the preK, K, even first grader, not only is it developmentally more challenging, but it's also that they're below a lot of the age restrictions to be able to use many of the tools that make the Chromebook really powerful."

Why Not Android?
All four districts use Google Apps for Education. As a Google device, the Chromebook integrates easily into the Google Apps environment, but iPads have had some problems in that area, according to Sorrells. "At the start of the year and when we were doing our testing, the people who had iPads were struggling with Google Apps," he said. "Google updated their Chrome browser for the iPad and updated the Google Drive iPad app, so it has gotten better, but in my opinion it's still not a great implementation yet."

Because Android tablets cost less than iPads and work well with Google Apps for Education, some districts have been criticized for choosing iPad over Android. Most districts did consider Android tablets but found them lacking. Schueler has heard from teachers in her district that Android devices are not very popular in education, so the district's technology supplier doesn't support those devices yet.

Winneconne district considered Android tablets, but Sorrells said it didn't have adequate mobile device management capabilities. "I hate the management part of the iPad. It's just a royal pain the behind, but I haven't been able to find any kind of similar management capabilities with an Android tablet," he said. "We've tested some Android tablets, but our tests haven't shown that it's going to be able to be rolled out in a large scale for the district. Even just a simple thing like getting an app onto the device, I haven't found that for an Android tablet yet. Whereas at least with Apple's management implementation, it's not perfect but it's do-able."

The Academy for Urban School Leadership found the same problem with Android device management. "The enterprise management for iPads is more advanced," said Magiera, "so the equipment to sync 32 or 100 or 300 devices at the same time is a lot more advanced than Android devices."

Magiera said Apple's selection of educational apps also put it well ahead of Android. "There are more apps in the iTunes store than in the Google Play store," she said. "The way that Apple is approaching tablet education and mobile learning, it's had more time to gestate and grow and so we find that the iPads are the best choice for us right now."

Challenges of Mixed Platform Environment
Perhaps surprisingly, the challenges associated with a mixed platform initiative are not much different from implementing a single platform. Districts found that they needed to provide adequate teacher training and support, upgrade their wireless networks to support the influx of mobile devices, implement mobile device management systems, and find a way to pay for everything. Those challenges face districts implementing any kind of 1:1 mobile device initiative. "Technology-wise for me, and I'm the guy that runs the network, there are no more challenges for me having that mixed environment," said Sorrells.

"Our energy was focused on teacher training and trying to collaborate with each other so they could find the best use of this stuff," said Ely. "We set up our team with a variety of times where they could get together and meet. They met all summer long and we also gave them time during the year to collaborate. They're communicating all the time via Edmodo, Blogster, and emails. They're saying, hey, wow, this works! They were asking for time to go watch each other so they could see what their peers were doing so they could pick up tips, and they did that."

Another common experience for the districts was the need to upgrade the wireless network. "Our network wasn't dense enough," said Ely. "That was one of the technological problems we found, but that was one of the only ones."

And while Sorrells didn't find the mixed environment to be a technological challenge, he did find mobile device management for iPads to be more difficult than for Chromebooks. "Our biggest challenge has been those iOS devices," said Sorrells. "The Chromebooks with the Google management dashboard and those kinds of things in Google Apps has really been a piece of cake, and we haven't had any issues with that. But if you're going to do an enterprise-level rollout of multiple devices like that, you've got to make sure you've got things in place to manage those two devices, and that's been our biggest problem."

And of course money is the perennial issue. Of the four districts, Sioux Falls is the only one providing every student with a device. The others have gone 1:1 in specific schools or classrooms. "I think the hardest thing right now is money to ensure equal access to all the devices, but schools obviously need to be able to fund it," said Magiera.

Advantages of a Mixed Platform 1:1 Environment
The districts said they believe teaching students on a variety of technology platforms better prepares them for their future education and employment. "As an educational entity that's trying to give our kids the best advantage when they leave here, we owe it to them to try a whole variety of platforms," said Ely. "They never know what they're going to get into at work or at the collegiate level, as far as what tool they might need to use, so we want them to be comfortable switching platforms."

"I think being device agnostic is actually doing our kids a big favor because we're teaching them to be resilient," said Magiera. "We have a lot of instances where kids will have math first thing in the morning for an hour and be in a 1:1 iPad setting, but they'll walk into the next classroom and they'll have Chromebooks for literacy. And they are doing really, really well, and actually they're doing a little bit better than when we just had one device because, again, they're not just learning the device, they're learning the whole idea of digital learning and breaking down the walls and pushing themselves."