What hardware should your classroom have?

Often you hear the cliché, “Back in the day, life was much simpler,” and in terms of technology, despite companies spending millions on making life easier for us, things are much more complicated. Back when the “new” curriculum was invented, schools that had computers generally had PCs running Microsoft Windows. Any devices such as cameras and video cameras were built for Microsoft. The Internet was still in its infancy so sharing things like video, images and even text was either impossible or impractical or very basic.

Fast forward almost 20 years of the technological era in schools and many things have changed. We now have 4 popular Operating Systems and several devices to play them on. Not sharing work online is now almost inexcusable and services such as YouTube, WordPress and others have given us ways to do this. However, one problem is figuring out which hardware we should invest in. Tablets or laptops? Windows or Mac?

I’m beginning to be certain that there isn’t a correct answer to this question and I believe that certain hardware is suited to certain tasks. I’m going to list the 3 most popular devices and give my thoughts on their biggest strengths and weaknesses. I’ve excluded Macbooks because they aren’t popular in Irish schools; I’ve also left out Android tablets as they have almost the same strengths and weaknesses of iPads. Finally I left out desktops because they share almost the same attributes as laptops except you can’t move them around.

macbook-1443927_640Windows Laptops

Strengths:

  • Microsoft Office – Open source and online alternatives still can’t compete
  • Flash – Flash is not dead in primary education despite what tablet people will tell you. Try using Scratch on an iPad.
  • Keyboard – The physical keyboard is not dead yet.
  • IWB compatible – Generally very easy to plug and play into an IWB and projector without any issues
  • Cheap – It’s possible to get a fairly decent refurbished Windows laptop for less than €200
  • Printing – most printers are set up nicely for Windows machines

Weaknesses

  • Videoing – Two problems. There generally isn’t a decent camera on them and they are also too bulky.
  • Battery Life – Battery life on most laptops is improving but not as good as tablets
  • Slowdown – Windows is notorious for slowing down after a while. It always needs a good clean out. Again this is something that’s improving
  • Slow to load – When you turn on a Windows machine, it can take ages to even get started.

twitter-1522890_640Chromebooks

Strengths:

  • Google Apps – Despite what I’ve said above, I think Google Apps are good enough for most pupils in primary schools
  • Flash – Flash generally works on Chromebooks
  • Android Apps – Many Chromebooks can now run Android Apps. This can be very useful.
  • Keyboard – The physical keyboard is not dead yet.
  • Battery Life – Battery life is excellent in general
  • Instant On – Opens up and ready to go in less than a few seconds
  • Always up to date – As Chromebooks run on the Internet, the latest version of Chrome OS is always on.
  • Never Slows Down – As everything is online, the speed is only dependant on how fast the Internet speeds are
  • Accounts – it doesn’t matter what machine you use, once you log in, you have access to everything you’ve ever made.

Weaknesses

  • IWB compatible – Not as easy as a “normal” laptop as most don’t have VGA ports
  • Videoing – No decent camera, too bulky to hold and very poor video editing software. You’d be reliant on what YouTube offers.
  • Decent Internet needed – As Chrome OS pretty much relies on having a good Internet connection, if you’re working in a school that has less than 10Mb Broadband, this isn’t going to work at all.
  • Expensive – They are expensive considering that they don’t do a lot of what a laptop does. They would need to be well under €200 each before being viable to replace laptops.
  • Accounts – for Chromebooks to work well, everyone will need their own username and passwords. This can be a pain especially in younger classes.
  • Printing – depending on your printer, this could be a real pain

mockup-654585_640iPads (which includes iPods and also there’s a note for Android tablets in there too)

Strengths:

  • Battery Life – Battery life is excellent in general
  • Instant On – Opens up and ready to go in less than a few seconds
  • Videoing – iMovie is probably the only decent piece of affordable software for video editing. (Android note: I’m afraid this does not apply to Android)
  • Apps – If you like apps, Apple has the largest app store in the world.
  • Light – they are very portable and can be carried around

Weaknesses

  • No decent Office program – sure there are online apps and Apple’s own suite, but they aren’t as good as Microsoft Office
  • IWB compatibility – They render your Interactive Whiteboard non-Interactive. If you have projectors rather than full IWB set up, this isn’t a big deal.
  • Flash – Unless you get very “hacky”, Flash does not work on iPads. (For me this was one of their biggest mistakes.)
  • Keyboard – The physical keyboard and the iPad doesn’t come with one. Even if it did, there’s very few apps you’d use with them.
  • Regularly Upgraded – there seems to be a new iPad every 6 months and older iPads become obsolete quite quickly. Older iPads can be lethargic.
  • Expensive – whatever gloss people put on them, they are expensive. Even a refurbished iPad3 is over €300. Expect to pay around €500 each per iPad
  • Incompatibility – Apple have their own ports and their own way of doing things. Plugging into a VGA projector requires an extra gadget, plugging in an SD card requires another add on, you’ll probably also need to buy an Apple Server so the iPads can be synced and you’ll probably need other devices to get around the other problems. All told, these are a royal pain in the backside.
  • Printing – depending on your printer, this could be a real pain

 

What would I do? I think I’d go for a mixture of things. In a typical classroom, I’d like to think I would have the following:

  • 3-4 laptops –> for Office-related tasks, easy printing
  • 3-4 Chromebooks –> for Internet, Google Apps access
  • 2 iPads –> Movie Making and the very odd app
  • Access to 12-16 iPods or other similarly sized devices
  • Access to 12-16 Chromebooks

Personally, if iMovie didn’t exist, I wouldn’t buy an iPad. The simple matter is that no other handheld device that provides a decent movie making app. Yes, one can simply upload what they’ve recorded on YouTube and do simple edits but for decent editing and adding effects, there is nothing out there on any handheld device that beats iMovie. I do like a couple of Apps on iPad, especially BookCreator but it wouldn’t be a dealbreaker for me.

I do think Chromebooks are the happy medium between laptops and iPads for primary schools but I also believe they should be much much cheaper than they are. They should be about half the price of a laptop and I’m sure it’s very possible for this to happen.

I also think the laptop is not dead yet. It may happen one day but that day hasn’t come. MS Office is still a must have program especially for teachers and the ability to print easily and plug it into projectors and so on still give it an edge over the other two.

I briefly referred to iPods and I see them as an all-in-one reference tool combining a dictionary, thesaurus, encyclopedia, calculator and much more into a tiny device. I’m fairly sure there’s plenty of maths-related tools such as protractors, compasses and so on can be achieved with an iPod. It would also double up nicely as a translator or Irish-English dictionary. They also make a decent dictaphone, camera and video camera.

I didn’t mention products like Microsoft Surface, which combines the best of a laptop with a tablet. The main reason is that decent ones are simply way too expensive for schools. If a school is cash-rich, however, an alternative to iMovie that is brilliant on Windows is Adobe’s Video Editor Program.

I’m sure people who love certain brands will argue against this list and say that their device does everything. However, these are only my thoughts and opinions. There were hopes a few years ago that students would only require tablets to do everything they needed but this just hasn’t happened. Certain tablets are very strong in certain areas but they really never got over the issues that schools have. Similarly, some Windows laptops excel in other areas but fail to do so in things like multimedia, especially video in my opinion. If anyone has any thoughts, I’d love to hear them by commenting below.

Last Update: August 17, 2017  

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4 thoughts on “What hardware should your classroom have?”

  1. Simon,

    Nice to get a rounded view and a pragmatic approach to this.

    I, like you, have tried all of these hardware options and I’ve landed on iPad (iPad Pro, too expensive for schools.)

    I still have a Dell laptop running Windows 7 for stuff that doesn’t work on my iPad (mainly programming or device formatting stuff.)

    Even though the iPad meets all my needs as you outlined (battery life, portability, Office, Google Docs) I did get a hardware keyboard for it; that’s my preference.

    I’m also a music teacher (secondary) so GarageBand is my iMovie, it gets used pretty much everyday in some guise or another in the teaching of music.

    You also mentioned apps; iPad has be far the most sophisticated and versatile set of music/performing apps for creatives.

    I don’t agree that MS Office still holds the prominence it once did. I’ve been teaching now for nine years and haven’t opened it once. Google Docs converts any old legacy documents to it’s own format and I can even maintain the Word format and edit with Google Docs. Dropbox, now owned by Microsoft, also allows online editing of Word docs when needed.

    Flash isn’t as much of a thing at Post Primary thank god and neither are IWB. I personally believe that both of these technologies belong in the past anyhow. One because it eats battery life and the other because the interactions was generally teacher led and that’s not where classroom technology should be; it should be in the hands and minds of students themselves.

    Thanks,
    Steve (@stephenmcf)

    Reply
    • Thanks for the comments, Stephen, and really interesting to see how you’re utilising iPads in the music classroom. I agree that IWBs are probably ready for the dustbin of history leaving the world with the achievement of introducing primary teachers to the world of technology. Flash, I think, will be harder to lose at primary level as so little is being done that’s of any use in terms of software / web apps.

      Reply
  2. Simon, this is a balanced piece and I recognise my perspective comes as a primary school parent and third level educator only so I’m not at your coal face. (And I could not post this comment using Microsoft Edge so I wonder if that means I’m definitely not in your user demographic.)

    As much as I enjoy the elegance of iOS, I wonder how many schools can plan to refresh their iPads every four years (compared to a seven year cycle you can expect with a Windows device. I got an original iPad within three months of Steve Jobs unveiling it and it stopped updating its operating system within four years of manufacture. I got six years of use from a Dell laptop before hard use (dropping onto the floor and overtemperature during rendering) reduced it to a ripping and projection device.

    During the past three years, I’ve watched my students and my 8yo daughter work with Surface Pro 2 tablets. They’re less than 400 euro (machine, keyboard, Ethernet adapter and Office 365 subscription) and very capable devices. I expect we will get another two years of utility from the Surface Pro 2 and then we’ll roll its premium software over to a used Surface Pro 3 for less than half the price of an iPad Pro.

    I think there’s good value in learning the keyboard commands of Word and Excel, since those core skills are valued in the business workplace. I also believe you can create native code for all operating systems by using a Surface Pro, something you must do through a iPad browser and then recompile through another process. So that’s why I’m leading our two primary school kids through the Surface route while letting them know they can have their choice of Android or iPhone hand-me-downs when they get old enough to use Confirmation money responsibly.

    Thanks again for sharing your perspective.

    Reply
    • Gosh…didn’t expect to be able to get a Surface Pro for less than €400. That’s very good value and I would suggest better value than any iPad. If it runs a decent Movie Making program (I love Adobe’s) then I think they could be worth a look. My only issue is that Surface 4 is already coming out and looking at the Microsoft Shop, I see that accessories for Surface Pro seem to be only working from 3 upwards. I’d be worried the same problems you mention with iPads could be the same with Surface. Having said that I’d be sticking to as few operating systems as possible so having a good MS alternative to an iPad for multimedia is worth it.

      Reply

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