For an entire school year Hillsborough, New Jersey, educators undertook an experiment, asking: Is the iPad really the best device for interactive learning?
It’s a question that has been on many minds since 2010, when Apple released the iPad and schools began experimenting with it. The devices came along at a time when many school reformers were advocating to replace textbooks with online curricula and add creative apps to lessons. Some teachers welcomed the shift, which allowed their students to replace old poster-board presentations with narrated screencasts and review teacher-produced video lessons at any time.
Four years later, however, it's still unclear whether the iPad is the device best suited to the classroom. The market for educational technology is huge and competitive: During 2014, American K-12 schools will spend an estimated $9.94 billion on educational technology, an increase of 2.5 percent over last year, according to Joseph Morris, director of market intelligence at the Center for Digital Education. On average, he said, schools spend about a third of their technology budgets on computer hardware.
Meanwhile, the cost of equipment is going down, software is improving, and state policies are driving expectations for technology access. “It’s really exciting,” said Douglas Levin, executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association, “but at the same time it’s really challenging for schools to have confidence when they make a decision.”
iPads have so far been a gadget of choice at both ends of the economic spectrum: in wealthier schools with ample resources and demand from parents, and in low-income schools that receive federal grants to improve student success rates. Last fall, enthusiasm for the Apple device peaked when Los Angeles Unified Schools, the second largest system in the nation, began a rollout out of iPads to every student.
However, the L.A. district quickly recalled about 2,100 iPads from students. At the end of the school year, leaders announced that schools would instead be allowed to choose from among six different devices, including Chromebooks and hybrid laptop-tablets. L.A. schools weren’t the first to falter: At the beginning of the 2013-2014 school year, Guilford County Schools in North Carolina halted an Amplify tablet program, and Fort Bend, Texas, cancelled its iPad initiative.
Hillsborough took a different approach. During the 2012–2013 school year, the district executed a comparative pilot, giving iPads to 200 kids and Chromebook laptops to an almost equal number. As other schools rushed into programs they would later scrap, Hillsborough took a more cautious approach, hedging its bets and asking educators: How can we get this right?
In June 2014, seventh-graders filed into Jennifer Harmsen’s Hillsborough Middle School social studies class. They sat in a u-shaped forum of desks. Native American artifacts hung on the walls and a world map mural enveloped a corner of the room in blues and greens.
Students pulled Chromebooks from their book bags, opened them, and got to work. They watched a video lesson covering topics like aqueduct architecture and Roman numerals. When they finished, Harmsen directed them to put the devices in “listening mode,” and they snapped the lids down.
After receiving teacher and student feedback from the 2012–2013 school year, Hillsborough sold its iPads and will distribute 4,600 Chromebooks by the fall of 2014. The students in Harmsen’s class had been on Hillsborough’s iPad pilot team, and Harmstead admits she was a little disappointed when the district chose to go with Chromebooks. She said being on the pilot iPad team transformed her classroom approach after 24 years of teaching and made her a digital-education advocate. But now that she’s spent a full year using the new device—a pared-down laptop that stores files on the Internet—she agrees with the decision.
Other iPad pilot teachers came to see the benefits of laptop capabilities, too. “At the end of the year, I was upset that we didn’t get the iPads,” said seventh-grade science teacher Larissa McCann. “But as soon as I got the Chromebook and the kids started using it, I saw, ‘Okay, this is definitely much more useful.’ ”
While nobody hated the iPad, by any means, the iPad was edged out by some key feedback, said Joel Handler, Hillsborough’s director of technology. Students saw the iPad as a “fun” gaming environment, while the Chromebook was perceived as a place to “get to work.” And as much as students liked to annotate and read on the iPad, the Chromebook's keyboard was a greater perk — especially since the new Common Core online testing will require a keyboard.
Another important finding came from the technology support department: It was far easier to manage almost 200 Chromebooks than the same number of iPads. Since all the Chromebook files live in an online “cloud,” students could be up and running in seconds on a new device if their machine broke. And apps could be pushed to all of the devices with just a few mouse clicks.
Hillsborough educators also tend to emphasize collaboration, and they found that Google’s Apps for Education suite—which works on either device—was easier to use collaboratively on Chromebooks.