Apple and Microsoft Now Offer $100 Styluses. But Do Schools Need—or...

Technology Tips

Apple and Microsoft Now Offer $100 Styluses. But Do Schools Need—or Want—Them?

By Jenny Abamu and Stephen Noonoo     Apr 9, 2018

Apple and Microsoft Now Offer $100 Styluses. But Do Schools Need—or Want—Them?

Losing a pencil in the classroom may be annoying—but at least they’re cheap to replace. But losing a different kind of “pencil” that technology companies are aiming to push into schools may likely cause a bigger heartache and headache for the purchasing department.

Late last month, as Apple revealed its new education-focused iPad to the nation, it coupled its offerings with a battery-powered stylus, called the Apple Pencil, which costs an additional $89 each for schools. They also showcased the Logitech Crayon, set at a whopping $49. Of course, Apple is not the only supplier offering a stylus. Microsoft does, too, and various pens from third-party manufacturers are beginning to dot the touchscreen Chromebook market.

But do schools need or want styluses? And if so, how do teachers and students use them?

What’s in a Pen?

Microsoft was one of the first big tech companies to market styluses to schools. Their battery-powered pens for the Surface tablet cost up to $100 each and claim to have 4,096 different pressure points for precision. Educational institutions can receive special pricing for volume purchases, and the Surface also works with pens from third-party manufacturers.

In April, Acer will unveil its first Chrome OS tablet with a stylus included, along with a built-in place to store it. Already the company offers a touchscreen Chromebook, the Spin 11, with a stylus, which retails together for about $350. Samsung offers its own $30 pen for its Chromebook Plus and Pro lines. And Lenovo’s higher-end 500e Chromebook includes a stylus, while its $300 model, the 300e, can use any instrument—from regular pencils to paper clips—to interact with the screen.

Similar to Microsoft’s stylus, the Apple Pencil allows students to rest their hands on screens while drawing, a feature called palm rejection, in addition to offering sensors that detect both pressure and tilt. The company currently markets the product as a tool to enhance creativity in the classroom.

Stop Loss

Seeing how students are prone to breaking or losing small objects, educators are currently mulling over the costs and benefits of obtaining pricey digital ink tools like styluses.

“The true struggle of any classroom is keeping wooden pencils from going missing, so I believe that teachers need to instill extra value in a stylus so this doesn’t become the case,” says Shawn Reed, a second grade teacher and site technology lead for Vallejo City Unified School District in California, who uses Acer Chromebooks and other devices with his class.

Reed’s class doesn’t have styluses, yet, but he often uses one when he streams his own device to the front of the room. Lately, though, students have expressed interest in getting their own. “My students are responsible for our class tablets, Chromebooks, headphones, mice and more,” he adds, “so I really think students would step up to the task of taking care of them.”

Maria Galanis, an instructional coach for Deerfield Public Schools in Illinois, shares Reed’s concern about keeping track of the pens. “Obviously, we’re kind of expecting them to get lost,” she says. Recently, Galanis began personally piloting Lenovo’s touchscreen 500e Chromebook with plans to introduce either that device or the less expensive 300e to all students in grades 2-8 next fall. So far, she finds the stylus responsive and sees value in it for subjects such as art and math, which lend more to free writing over typing.

Since the Chromebook she’s testing out is compatible with any third-party stylus, Galanis is toying with the idea of asking students to find their own inexpensive models—which can cost as little as $10 on sites like Amazon—and add it to their back-to-school supply lists. Her district is also thinking about buying replacements to keep on hand. “We don’t have an exact cost involved with a replacement stylus, but we’ve heard they’re pretty low,” she adds.

The Bottom Line

Expensive styluses that must be purchased separately, however, might be a tougher sell for districts who must justify both their cost and their use. In that light, Keith Reeves, an instructional technology coordinator for an elementary school in Virginia’s Arlington Public Schools, questions the purpose they serve for students given that apps are already designed for touch-based use.

“I’d be interested in hearing any genuine pedagogue explain why styli would be of value in a K-12 1:1 environment beyond accommodation for some motor skills and graphic arts,” Reeves writes in an email to EdSurge.

Reeves also questions Apple’s decision to focus its attention on marketing a stylus rather than addressing other concerns educators have with its ecosystem. “We’ve asked [Apple] for better ways to manage Safari, a more streamlined volume purchasing program, better integration with various APIs and a less cumbersome initial setup, especially in the hands of Kindergarteners,” he says. “I, as an educational technology administrator, would feel extraordinarily out of line spending taxpayer dollars on such a supplemental device when there are far, far better ‘bangs for our buck.’”

But styluses have fans among educators, too. Rob Baker is the director of technology at Cincinnati Country Day School in Ohio and a Microsoft, stylus enthusiast. His district has been using them since 2003 with all 5th through 12th-grade students. He doesn’t let the threat of losing pricey pens stop his schools from buying them, noting that all their devices are physically tethered to the styluses.

“We want to offer feedback. We want to be creative. We want to offer handwriting. We want to be able to take notes by hand because research tells us that’s really helpful,” says Baker, explaining why his school chose to invest in the styluses. “We have done all kinds of crazy stuff to make sure the device is tethered… Kids have to be responsible for things; they have to work and take care of them and having a working stylus is an expectation here.”

But despite Baker’s enthusiasm for them, he believes that Microsoft should work to balance school needs and price and hopes the provider will be releasing a cheaper pen soon.

“Their new pen is awesome,” he says. “The tilt functionality is beautiful. Artists love it. It is really smooth, but we don’t need that. We just need a cheap pen that works pretty well. ”

For now, given concerns over price and replacement, styluses might not achieve critical mass in schools as quickly as more versatile tools like Chromebooks. But that may change as their potential becomes more apparent.

Reed, the second-grade teacher, thinks that as pen-enabled devices become more common, app developers could soon create new uses for the tech. “There is only so much you can do with a mouse pointer and a keyboard in a visual space like education.”

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