MacBook, Chromebook, iPads: Why Schools Should Think Beyond Platforms

| January 15, 2014 | 25 Comments
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By Shawn McCusker

How long can any device realistically be expected to remain an effective tool in the classroom? Three years? Five years? Yet today, when schools decide on a device for their 1:1 programs, that choice quickly gets written into their school “brand.” Schools become identified by that choice, and the evaluation of other devices ceases. There are even certifications to this extent, such as GAFE schools, Apple Distinguished Schools, and so on.

But it’s important that schools who make “the choice” don’t simply stop planning at that point. As educational technology becomes key to the daily workings of a classroom, discussing the direction of its use should not end once devices are in their students’ hands.

FOCUS ON LEARNING NEEDS

The choice of a platform should be focused on learning objectives, students’ needs, and community values, filtering out the extraneous factions and marketing battles. Debating the best technology platforms is part of our culture, and often we see that it ends either in a single winner (Blu Ray over HD DVD) or a divided populace with sides and factions (PC vs. Mac, Windows vs. Google). These rivalries are as much a part of our culture as rooting for our favorite team.

But they’re also the byproduct of marketing and for-profit businesses, not a solid foundation upon which to build educational practice and policy. Schools cannot afford to allow these important discussions to be ruled by a decades-old Apple commercial or creative advertisements urging us to avoid getting “Scroogled.” Though such commercials are largely innocuous, they and the rivalries they create are toxic when they divide communities into camps and fiefdoms within education or limit our understanding of what is possible. These campaigns become a problem when they are allowed to become the focus of a school’s, or even the community’s, adoption process.

Selecting the right device for your school has everything to do with learning objectives and the tasks that students will do. Ideally, discussions of those objectives as well as the students’ needs should be emphasized over the devices.

IMPORTANCE OF FLEXIBILITY

As needs change over time, addressing them might mean switching devices (remaking the choice). As schools progress in their technology implementation, they may find that their needs have changed, and should not hesitate to change devices as their understanding of their students’ needs develops. This seasonal view of devices (rather than “device as school identity”) is essential to helping schools move forward, meet their current students’ needs, and keep the curriculum relevant and timely for the future. A focus on pedagogy and key technology skills will transfer from one device to another, making the shift easier; a focus on being a device expert, or mastering device specific mechanics, will not. Students will graduate into a world that will demand technological fluency, the ability to move and process information across various platforms and devices.

Chris Lehmann, Principal of the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia recently made the choice to move his school from Macs to Chromebooks.

“Ultimately our learning goals won’t change. Their manifestation may change a little bit, but we started with a vision, and we still hold steadfast to that vision,” Lehmann said.

Just as important in Lehmann’s mind is another key part of what school leaders must focus on: sustainability. If sustainability is not taken into account, having made the transition and pedagogical shift to 1:1, schools would be forced to roll that change back. Moving to Chromebooks, and the monetary savings associated with doing so, secured the mission of SLA, creating stability in an environment of financial instability.

“At all costs, you have to think about what it means to sustain the choice. Not doing so would be devastating,” Lehmann said. “The stability that this (change) gives us in an environment of instability was worth its weight in gold.”

AWAY FROM EITHER/OR

The various and complex needs of a school might require making more than one choice at a time. When a school chooses a specific type of technology, administrators have taken the time to find what meets the needs of their students and their community, not simply the device with the loudest contingent of supporters.

But what if one device is not the answer? Tony Perez from the Atlanta Girls School works in a multiple-platform school, and moved from MacBook Pro to iPads in the middle school two years ago.

“We did this for several reasons: cost to families, capability of the device, classroom control, developmental appropriateness — and it’s a mobile device,” Perez said. “We were interested in iPad as a content creation device.”

In the past, schools had many different forms of technology. If schools used PCs, that did not prevent them from purchasing Macs for art programs where that technology might better meet the students’ learning needs. Just as one would not use a wrench as a paint brush, the tools for one subject often don’t easily translate or serve the best purposes of others. Schools that embody this understanding go beyond teaching their students a single device.

“Our teachers began to understand that the final product could be flexible if mastery was demonstrated, something that has become a key understanding in our move to any platform, any time,” Perez said.

If educational technology and 1:1 education are going to thrive, school leaders must be focused on constantly employing the best practices and tools in relation to the most pressing needs of their students. Managing and sustaining these programs means that the big choices don’t stop after a platform has been selected. Getting devices in the hands of students is just the beginning.

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  • Brent

    Excellent points, Shawn.

    It’s also important to remember that a big part of this lies on the shoulders of app developers. If someone chooses to make a non-web app, and it’s perfect for a teacher or school who isn’t using whatever platform that developer chose, then everybody misses out.

    Hopefully we’ll see more opportunities for cross platform app development or platform neutral app development, but until then it will probably be a huge part of the conversation when schools and districts are choosing which computers they want to work with.

    • Shawn McCusker

      I agree with you in the context of meeting your student’s specific learning needs and objectives, though I worry about schools making choices based upon solely one available app or program. I understand the consideration, but apps and programs change and evolve. The tools, be they devices OR apps should never be elevated above the expected learning. If we choose the right learning objectives, there should not be only one tool to meet that objective. (Though I admit I would be sad if I could not use Explain Everything with my students.)

      • Brent

        Haha, Yeah – I’d definitely be shocked if a school chose anything based on an app!

        I agree that the objectives should be the first point, but I’d be concerned that the people making the decisions would look at the tools as the path to the objective.

        I’m not sure if there’s an easy answer, but it’s thought provoking stuff to say the least!

  • Ben Harrison

    Shawn, good article. I applaud multi device schools and think that they better represent the real world.
    One trend I see, especially with Chromebooks, is that districts let the “monetary moment” substantially influence their decisions. By saving a couple of hundred bucks a device right now how much are you actually costing the education of tomorrow? If your curricular goals align and the pedagogy can be shifted, please make the switch. Otherwise, find a device that will work best with what you are/want to have the students doing! Making a cheap mistake now could be a costly decision in the future.

  • http://nashworld.me/ Sean Nash

    Absolutely. You’re thinking right along the same path I was in my last post: http://nashworld.edublogs.org/2013/11/29/avoiding-unmitigated-disasters/ as well as the post Jeff Utecht logged yesterday: http://www.thethinkingstick.com/planning-for-the-last-mile-not-the-first/ Funny how so many of these conversation themes from a half decade or so ago… become vibrant again as more schools come in line with the reality of these decisions.

  • timholt

    I have written two answers to this:

    Technology Leaders as Useful Idiots: http://holtthink.tumblr.com/post/69912910838/

    and

    Riding Donkeys in a Horse Race: http://holtthink.tumblr.com/post/71642782063

  • Andrew Stillman

    Hmm. On both pedagogical and practical (and not ideological, I hope;) grounds I’m not sure I agree with this kind of agnosticism.

    I definitely think a 100% any device ecosystem is a bad move — in our high schools, I’m all-in for 80% Chromebook, 15-20% high-end Mac — esp for teachers, maybe 5% Linux lab, no Windows, no iPads, all Google user backend and Drive for document management — e.g. no Active Directory, no local network profiles or servers. This is a very carefully considered position, but one I hold strongly for reasons that are both pedagogical and practical in nature.

    Given our constraints and educational goals, I think that there are some mutually-exclusive decisions to be made — e.g. primary user login identity, primary document management infrastructure, for example — costly redundancies to avoid, commitments to technological openness, school-level freedom and capacity, and hidden administrative costs to consider very carefully when entering a vendor’s computing and business model.

    I work within real constraints, with urban districts that face enormous competition for scarce resources from a desire to meet competing goods with very limited capacity and support staffing. When I survey the landscape and have to help them think through their choices, certain “platforms” emerge as clearly superior from a cost, pedagogical use-model, and administrative sustainability perspective.

    • Shawn McCusker

      I agree completely with your final point. I find myself considering… if new platforms emerge in the future that fit your cost and pedagogical needs, would schools be able to move to meet both their cost needs and their pedagogical needs? Cost needs are very very important in the decision and cost of devices is as volatile as the abilities of the devices as the technology develops.

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  • Christian Belena

    Just like a house needs a solid foundation on which to build, so does anything involving technology. Platform choice is not only necessary, but it’s practical. Apple’s OS X has a Unix core – which is why the OS has a reputation for high performance and reliability. If all businesses and government agencies used OS X there would be greater productivity. This transfers to education as well.

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  • Kathy Schrock

    I wrote a blog post last year talking about the choices and how the choices should meet the needs of the district. The post is more practical than pedagogical, but we are on the same page! Thanks for your post! http://blog.kathyschrock.net/2013/02/its-all-about-choice.html

    • Shawn McCusker

      Thanks for the link to the article. I agree that we need to look at the right tool for the right situation and appreciate the discussion of how schools can best apply multiple tools. Can you imagine a business that made the decision to use only one platform for all of its needs? The world we are preparing students for will require them to be discerning and we should be too.

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  • Matthew Gudenius

    I absolutely agree.

    The problem occurring is that schools absolutely CAN get “stuck” in a given ecosystem, which essentially locks them in and prevents them from even being able to re-evaluate, because they will then face major financial, time, and infrastructure setbacks.

    For example: What about all these schools that jumped right on-board with iPads? They are often not evaluating new solutions, even though there are now other devices that allow the same benefits (and more, such as accessing all those Flash-required educational sites, or USB peripherals, etc.), the same battery life, for a lower pricetag.

    BUT, since the schools have invested so much into all these iPad apps (which can’t be transferred to another device) and infrastructure setup specifically for that ecosystem, they are “change-resistant.”

    I would say this is a pretty big benefit of platform-independent cloud-based solutions like Google offers (you do not need Chromebooks to access), even if there ARE some major caveats to keep in mind (see my video “Chromebook Caveats”)

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  • http://marknoldy.com/ Mark Noldy

    If students do take care of $10 calculators, schools won’t invest in more expensive tech.

  • http://techcrewnetwork.com/ Dan Adiletta

    Thank you! I work with many schools and it’s always surprising how often they lose sight of intended, measurable outcomes. Tools like exitticket.org and other game-changing applications can drive new learning opportunities and that should be the heart of the discussion.

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