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Meet John Doe: Laptops or tablets in classrooms: which to choose

November 27, 2013

By Paul Gorski

I’ve recently read a variety of news articles and press releases describing the deployment of Apple iPads, Microsoft Surface tablets and Google Chromebooks in classrooms. Most of the articles describe cost savings, deployment problems, and the “wow” factor of the technology, but not the applications used or the long-term educational goals.

This might read like one of my “Tech-Friendly” columns, but I’d like to focus on the purchasing decisions and public policy issues of deploying computers in schools.

We all know how dependent our culture has become on computers, whether they are desktop, laptop, tablet or smartphone devices. And there’s no doubt in my mind that our children need access to and training on some of these devices. But what role do these devices play in education, and at what cost?

When making any technology purchase, you should identify: what’s the goal or purpose of the device and what applications do you need to achieve these goals? School districts also need to be concerned about costs.

I can see tablets (iOS, Android and Windows) used in schools as e-readers, teaching tools with the right apps, and as viewers of web-based content. I can also understand how schools may choose laptops, Windows or MacOS, as both flavors offer web browsing and a variety of supported educational and business programs. Unfortunately, tablets and laptops can be costly, although vendors usually sell these at near cost to schools.

So, cost must be the reason some districts look at inexpensive Chromebooks. Otherwise, I don’t understand the business argument for Chromebooks in schools. Sure, they are cheap and your data is backed up automatically in the “cloud,” but unless you are just planning on web browsing and simple word processing and spreadsheet work, they don’t seem very practical. What will my child learn by using a Chromebook?

School districts set their own educational and budget goals, but if I were to advise a school district on the tablet versus laptop choice, I’d first ask: what do you want the children to learn from using the technology? Next, what applications are available to achieve these goals and what hardware is required to run these apps? Then, what do you want to invest in terms of support and deployment costs?

If your education application needs don’t require a specific Windows, MacOS or tablet solution, I’d steer you away from a Chromebook and toward a Linux-based laptop. Linux is free and looks and feels much like Windows 7 or MacOS X, depending on the version.

There are a variety of free Linux versions available that will run on low-cost laptops. You can install Chrome and Firefox browsers for web-surfing, e-readers, and fully functional free business-grade word processing, spreadsheet and presentation programs, much like the ones your child will encounter in business. These laptops can also be configured to use and store files in the “cloud.” Close to the Windows experience, but at a lower cost.

Apple, Microsoft and Google all have great marketing departments; so don’t be taken in by sales pitches or the “wow” factor of the technology. Let your educational goals define your app/program needs; let your app/program needs define your hardware needs; and then review costs to find the best fit.

Paul Gorski (http://www.paulgorski.com) is a Cherry Valley Township resident who also authors the Tech-Friendly column seen in this newspaper.

Posted Nov. 27, 2013

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