OPINION: Why We Are Misunderstanding the Chromebook-iPad Debate

Tim Holt Tim Holt

Stop me if you have heard this argument before.

We have decided to buy Chromebooks for our students because they do 90% of what students can do on a typical computer at 1/3 the cost. Chris Lehman used it to justify his sweetheart deal with Dell to move the Science Leadership Academy to a Chromebook environment.

Okay, I get it. Cheap is good. “Low bid is the go bid.” And at first glance, the Chromebook seems to be a very good deal. Chromebooks are laptop-like, and basically, if you have an internet connection, you have pretty much all the things a laptop can do. These babies sell for about $300--about 75% of the low-end iPad.

I get it. I really do.

But the iPad is not a laptop.

What is wrong here is that when anyone compares Chromebook to iPads, they forget one of the basic value-adds of iPads that emerged after the iPad was released several years ago. That value-add? The iPad (and I suppose other tablets, as well) can change its interface to match the user’s needs. No Chromebook, no laptop, no desktop can do that. Just the tablet.

The value of the iPad is not just its basic interface and portability. The value is that the interface changes with the needs of the users.

Need a keyboard? It is a keyboard.

Need a camera or camcorder? It is a camera or a camcorder.

I know the Chromebook has a built-in camera, but not front and/or rear-facing. It’s very difficult to take a picture of something you are working on with the Chromebook’s camera.

Think about which would be a better device to document a field trip to the zoo or record leaves on a tree, or record a video of a word problem in math. Need a document camera? The iPad becomes a document camera.

Need a musical instrument? The iPad becomes a musical instrument.

Piano, drums, synthesizers, guitars… the device transforms into that instrument. And speaking of the arts, need a paint brush? The iPad can become a full artistic set of artists tools.

Oh, and you can run Google Chrome on your iPad. So, the iPad can even become a Chromebook. In fact, Google is even building Chrome Apps for iPad.

The point is, the value-add of a device that changes with the user cannot be underestimated.

What has happened over the course of a year or so is that IT people in school districts across the country are desperately trying to turn iPads into laptops, as that is the model of management they know. In the course of doing so, they are changing the conversation in edtech and looking backwards.

The conversation needs to change. We need to change the conversation and ask, “How does this device, whatever it is, meet the future needs of our students best?” The conversation needs to be forward-looking--Not backwards-looking.

Is the device mobile?

Is the device dependent mainly on an internet connection?

Which device is best for active learning?

Can the device change to meet the needs of the user?

That last question is the most important. What needs to happen is that the conversation needs to shift more towards how can we make devices that fit the needs of the students, rather than changing the device to fit the needs of the IT department.

If you listen to folks talk about Chromebooks, it is almost never in terms of what students can do with the device. Instead, it's almost always about how the devices can be managed (old school IT department thinking) and how low the cost is (finance department academic decision-making), or how it integrates with Google Docs which is code for, “It can do almost everything Microsoft Office does.” That conversation has to change--especially if the “bring-your-own-device” mentality takes off in school districts.

Just consider this graphic:

It is still the old argument that digital technology in schools should be the technology of business. That discussion, that mindset, has got to go.

Editor's Note: This posting originally appeared on the author's blog.



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