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iPads are not necessarily the best choice for all students or learning needs

iPad Air
iPad Air
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

According to the Los Angeles Daily News in an article reported on June 30, 2014, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) has reconsidered deploying the iPad in all of the district’s schools. The seemingly abrupt policy change should come as little surprise to those who have followed this unfortunate undertaking. The initial iPad implementation in the fall of 2013 was marred by poor planning, and reported security concerns halted the initial roll out. Read here for more details about the initial implementation.

In addition to the alleged security concerns, some of the criticisms of the initial plan focused on the cost per device, productivity concerns about the iPad as a suitable device for all students, and how the technology would be integrated into different curriculum. The initial planning also suffered from lack of teacher input in the decision making process. Because of the reported $1 billion price tag for the initiative, the initial problems raised public awareness that resulted in the school district halting the project temporarily until more research could be conducted.

This entire undertaking was nothing short of an extraordinary example of poor technology planning. The school district moved ahead with iPads without a full understanding of the ramifications of the decision. The apparent lack of understanding during a grossly insufficient planning process is a textbook lesson about how not to approach educational technology. Simple tenets of technology use were either ignored or not adequately researched. One startling discovery during the roll out was that students needed keyboard input for a key software application. The fact that this was discovered after the initial roll out was difficult to comprehend. In another article published on June 29, 2014 in the LA Times, a board member stated that it was discovered that "students were more comfortable on the laptop because of the amount of writing and the size of the screen." This is nothing new, well researched, and should have been well known prior to the selection of the iPads.

It should be abundantly obvious to any knowledgeable instructional technology professional that keyboard input is still the mainstay of productivity when it comes to any technology device used in education, and cannot be sacrificed for touch input. Touch screens offer unique input for certain types of learning activities, but is not a replacement for keyboard input. Perhaps the technolust for the iPad clouded all reason. Subsequently, the district had to purchase Bluetooth keyboards at an additional cost. However, the story is really not about the cost, but more around the iPad not meeting the learning needs.

Tablets and iPads are great devices, but some are better suited to entertainment than productivity, or for more targeted learning needs such as with elementary level students. Microsoft is addressing productivity issues with tablets with the latest Surface Pro 3. If one compares the iPad to the Microsoft Surface Pro, the differences in productivity uses would become apparent. The ability to run any Windows software, use a well-designed keyboard (and mouse when necessary), write on the screen efficiently, and print documents are just some of the differences. While the price point is surely out of reach for most schools, the functionality is much better aligned to the needs of students than any other competing tablet. Many schools have jumped on the iPad bandwagon more because of brand name than aligning a device with the needs of students. Many schools are moving beyond the iPad with other tablet choices for some very solid reasons related to productivity and student needs.

Because students in secondary levels routinely rely on keyboard input for school work, laptops and Chrome books are often a better all around choice. One can look analogously at higher education, where students routinely use laptops over tablets because of productivity issues. Combined with the much lower price point for laptops and Chrome Books, there are also many schools that have come to the conclusion the iPad is not always a device best aligned to many learning needs. Chrome Books continue to be one of the fastest growing devices in K-12 schools, for reasons beyond just cost effectiveness. Read here for more detail about some schools that have opted for Chrome Books.

The LAUSD seems to have suddenly done some exhaustive research, or perhaps has decided to pay attention to the research. Regardless, they are on a much better path. There is a recognition now that no one device fits all learning needs. Hence, there will be device choices such as iPad, Chrome Book, Microsoft Surface Pro 2, and Laptops (Dell and Lenovo). The array of devices is quite exhaustive in terms of features, functionality, and price points. Teachers and students will be able to work with administration to select devices that are best aligned with learning needs.

The lesson learned here is about planning. Don’t rush to select any device based on marketing hype or popularity. Carefully read the research and closely align any technology with the learning needs and curriculum requirements. Most importantly, it serves no educational purpose to select any device to 'keep up with the Joneses."

In the end, the least technology to achieve the learning objectives is the best choice. Whether this will turn out to be a laptop, Chrome Book, or other tablet device requires careful planning. Likely, many the device choices will not be iPads, particularly in secondary levels. The reason will be squarely centered on productivity and the ability of students to create content.