What is the best device for K-12?

Some people are in search of the right technology, the right device, the right answer. These folks may think that it will only take some research, and the smart ones will pick the correct solution. This may date back to the early PC vs. Mac duality that began in the mid-80s. “Business” users felt like they needed to choose IBM and hence Microsoft was the “right” answer. Today this either/or mentality persists when choosing devices for the K-12 environment. I submit that it is neither an either/or choice, nor a one of many choice, but rather districts should choose the right device for the job.

At presentations when I’ve asked a group of adults to raise their hand if they have one device, invariably all the hands go up. There we have it: I say, “We have a 1-1 Program!” I then continue and ask hands to stay up for two devices, then three. When we get to four and five, I say these are the real geeks and get a few laughs. If educated adults have multiple devices why are K-12 institutions, who trumpet that students will be college and career ready, still pushing 1-1 (and thinking 1 device is the answer)? Alan November, international leader in instructional technology, thinks we should move beyond it. Me too; let’s look at the landscape of choice.


Today we apparently cannot use the word “computer” or “laptop” since there are other form factors, so the term “device” has become the de facto choice that includes in alphabetical order: Apple iPad/iPod/iPhone, Apple Macintosh, Google Android tablet/phone, Google Chromebook/box, and Microsoft Windows PC.  Android, Apple, Google and Microsoft operating systems come in desktop versions as well as handhelds and notebooks. Except for the Apple products, hardware manufacturers abound. So there are a lot of devices, and most “college and career” adults have several of these.

US perpupilspendingIn K-12 operating and capital budgets vary widely with annual per-pupil spending varying from about $6,200 in Utah to $19,000 in New York. Note the states in the map to the right with the darker purple having more money with which to work So, different districts can choose to spend varying amounts on devices. With more money comes more options from which to choose.

facebookworkersIf budgets for technology were not an issue, which may be the case at Facebook, perhaps a K-12 classroom could look like this photo reported by the San Jose Mercury News, where Facebook employees work at their offices in Menlo Park, California, using large LCD screens and laptops, and phones and tablets as well I’m sure. If districts’ technology procurement was run like Facebook, students would have all the devices they needed to get their jobs done – in ergonomic Aeron chairs! Quora has a good first person report on how Silicon Valley office workers are set up to perform. Most K-12 students are not going to be outfitted like tech workers in Silicon Valley, but let’s give them the right device for the right job.

Apple iPads & Macintosh

It is rare to find an adult who only has an iPad. But, as widely reported, Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) once thought it was a good idea for students to have one, but recently rethought it. Now LAUSD is bringing in a mix of platforms and is planning to spend up to $40 million to pilot six different types of laptops and tablets at 27 schools.  But iPads have their place with the right mobile device management, right apps, right use, and the right pedagogy.

Macbooks are a great choice. At Envision Schools, a small charter consortium in San Francisco and the East Bay, Macs are the choice for Project Based Learning, and in the last few years they’ve added Chromebooks for blended learning and college prep. Envision has found that a mix of platforms works well.

Google Chromebook vs. Windows PC

Once I received a text asking why I chose Chromebooks in my new district when earlier I selected Microsoft PC laptops. First off, as a Technology Director/Officer, “I” am not choosing. In all my large purchases using public money, I make sure there is an open process for selection of hardware and software. But, indeed, the selection processes can come up with different answers to the same question, “What computers should we buy?” In K-12, in the last couple of years, the question has usually ended with “…for online testing?”

In the last year or so, Chromebooks have taken off. What was once a daring web-only operating system from Google, only taken seriously by upstart PC makers Samsung and Acer less than 4 years ago (both launched in June 2011), slowly got the big three, Lenovo, HP, and Dell, on board in the last year and a half. Perhaps not until the April 10, 2014, article in Fortune Magazine by Miguel Helft, “The Dawn of the Chrome Age“, did major business media recognize the shift toward Chromebooks.

So with the timing of technology, maturity is part of selecting a technology. In the case of Chromebooks, waiting until the major players had options was not an unwise move. Dell and HP did not announce Chromebooks until the fall of 2013, with Dell not delivering until 2014 when the Oakland Unified School District got one of the first major deliveries (Dell Press Release). Districts who were early adopters of HP’s first release had charger problems while the first Samsung Chromebooks scored low to mediocre on speed and durability.

Picking technology is a moving target nonetheless. I have a friend who waits over a decade before diving into a technology purchase because it is always getting better and cheaper. Waiting has never helped him, as he ended up with a lame computer and cell phone in both instances.

The Supporting Environment

Another factor in selecting computers is the supporting environment. The user accounts or directory system, systems management, office applications for word processing and presentations, and operating systems go hand in hand with selecting computers. A district’s experience/maturity, investment, and expertise in this supporting environment may lead to device selection. By 2012-2013, Fremont Unified School District, for example, had staff and students with lots of experience in Windows, had just launched a unified student and staff Active Directory along with Microsoft System Center, and had purchased a district-wide license for Microsoft and Adobe software. At the time, it made unanimous sense to the selection team to go with Windows. At the selection lab, two Chromebooks went virtually unnoticed, perhaps because the district had yet to deploy Google Apps for Education, a common prerequisite to Chromebooks in K-12.

So what’s the best device for K-12?

The answer, I think, is “It depends” and “You shouldn’t choose one.” I don’t think districts should go 1 to 1 but rather 1 to many. Chromebooks are a great basic device for blended learning and basic web writing and collaboration. Macs are great for media production and project based learning. PCs are great for desktop applications from Microsoft and Adobe, among others. Both Google and Microsoft have great systems management – though the Google Management Console wins hands down on simplicity. Having students save to the cloud (Onedrive, Google Drive, Dropbox, etc.) enables them to move seamlessly from device to device whether at school or home.

So give the students the right device for the right job, like we do for adults even outside Silicon Valley.

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