“Our goal was [to find out] not really which device was better, per se, but which device met the learning goals,” Handler said.
Although Hillsborough ended up settling on Chromebooks, the laptop versus tablet debate is far from settled nationwide. The education market is currently split fairly evenly between the two types of devices, said Phil Maddocks, a market analyst at Futuresource Consulting. The laptop market is varied, but iPads account for the vast majority of tablets used in schools.
David Mahaley, a head administrator and active classroom teacher at Franklin Academy in Wake Forest, North Carolina, has had iPads in his classrooms for four years. The AP human geography course he teaches is paperless. His students use the iPad to annotate text, share with other students for collaboration, and even create e-books. He says the device makes his teaching job easier and gives the students more opportunities for digital creativity. He's encouraged other educators in the Wake Forest school system to use the 1,650 iPads for everything from learning materials to classroom assessments.
“I don’t own Apple stock or anything like that; I see the iPad as a great tool that we’ve been able to exploit,” said Mahaley. “I come at it as a practitioner.” Still, he acknowledges that different schools have different priorities, and the iPad might not be the best choice for students of every age and learning style. “You’ll probably never find the answer of what is the right device,” Mahaley said. “First you have to ask: What do you want the device to do for your children?”
To make the decision even more complicated, companies are constantly updating their products. In September, Baltimore County, Maryland, will pilot a new hybrid laptop-tablet in 10 elementary schools. Over the last year, teachers and students there have had the chance to experiment with more than a dozen different devices, said Lloyd Brown, director of the information technology department. When Baltimore leaders asked if teachers wanted a tablet or a laptop, the answer was, "Both."
At Hillsborough, the Chromebooks are currently being supplemented by 3,000 Nexus tablets, handed out by Google as part of a new pilot program. Susan Fajen's fourth-grade classroom is now littered with devices. Students work together in pairs, elbow to elbow, one holding a tablet, the other typing on a laptop.
During the past year, Fajen’s kids used tablets to record their voices for a project on tall tales, and to design parade balloons before making them in papier-mâché. But for word-processing projects, like blogging, the kids took out their laptops. Fajen paused when asked which device was better. “It’s hard to choose,” she said.
Money is, of course, a limitation. The Chromebook is the least expensive of the devices in question, with a retail price starting at $279. iPads start at $399. There are many hybrid and convertible tablet/laptops available, but one of the most popular, the Microsoft Surface Pro 3, starts at $799. And the HP EliteBook Revolve 810 Notebook, chosen by Baltimore County Public Schools, starts at $1,299. That's almost 4 1/2 times the retail price of a Chromebook, though schools do get bulk purchasing discounts and negotiate with the vendors for cheaper prices.
In Miami-Dade County, Florida, a large urban district with 320,000 students, schools are promoting a "bring your own device" model. “We can’t keep up with the trends in personal devices," said Paul Smith, supervisor of network services. Miami-Dade delayed its technology rollout after hearing of the Los Angeles iPad recall last fall; this year, it will have provided about 48,000 laptops: Ninth-grade history students will take them home, while seventh-grade civics students will each have a device in class. Some elementary students will have laptops on carts in their classrooms. Still, the system doesn’t have enough money to give a laptop to every student. So, leaders are urging parents to buy computers and will try to fill any gaps with district-issued devices.
“We’re doing as much as we can to move it from a school responsibility to home,” said Debbie Karcher, head of information technology for Miami-Dade County Public Schools. For now, only parents who work within the school system are eligible for credit-union loans to buy devices at the district’s bulk rate pricing. (About 30 percent of Miami-Dade schoolchildren have a mother or father employed by the district.) But Karcher believes that the declining cost of technology will make money less of an issue for most parents in a relatively short time.
“If you look back at the calculator, you almost had to be a millionaire to buy the first Texas Instruments,” Karcher said of the bulky scientific devices once needed in high school math and science classes. “Now it’s not even a technology we talk about anymore. I kind of see this going the same way.”
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.