iPads or notebooks in school?

“Should students be using iPads or notebooks?” That was the question the principal of the High School my son will go to next year posed.

After thinking about it, researching it and discussing it, I’m not certain that there’s a perfect answer.

Having used iPads for schooling, reading, playing and everything else for a year while travelling we’re in a pretty good position to know what intensive use is like. And it must be said we found them great even though they are a Swiss army knife in the sense that they do everything pretty well but nothing absolutely brilliantly. We had no problem with reading on them or using textbooks at a primary level. There were a plethora of great apps that covered spelling and maths. Research was of course fantastic, as was easy access to instructional videos. As a consumption device iPads are not only of themselves amazing, they are seriously better than a notebook: Who really wants to read a book on a computer screen?

Content creation is the major hesitation. Of course this doesn’t just apply in a school context, it’s the same concern that people have in business or any other environment where they are writing documents or creating spreadsheets. In my view typing on the iPad’s keyboard is possible for emails and the like, but no way to write a long blog post let alone an essay. That problem, though, is easily fixed: We use an external keyboard. Apple’s own wireless keyboard is light enough and flat enough to slip into a backpack and makes for a fine typing experience. Pair the keyboard with the iPad and the basic input problem goes away. That, however, is not the entirety of the issue.

The iPad does not have a mouse and simply and categorically can’t have one unless you jailbreak the device. Jailbreaking is vanishingly unlikely in a school context, so we’re left with no mouse. For casual use that isn’t a big problem. But, for more serious use, the blunt end of your finger simply doesn’t work as well as the mouse pointer for editing text, inserting pictures and so on. The question then becomes is the lack of a mouse enough to say you should go with a notebook instead? If you need to do serious work such as writing an essay: my answer is ‘yes, go with the notebook’.

Of course, in the best of all possible worlds you’d have both devices, and really that’s what many adults do. Use the iPad for reading, quick work, etc and the computer for more serious work. It’s what I’m doing at this very moment. In a school environment, though, it’s almost certainly not practical to either provide two devices to each student, or to require them to have two devices. And with that in mind, as long as you’re talking about devices in class and you have to choose only one, I come down on the side of the notebook for school use.

However, the more I think about it I wonder if there’s another way of looking at this. Do kids really do that much serious content creation in class? The answer to that question is probably ‘no’. Can we assume that the kids can get access to a computer in the library and at home? Yes. So with that in mind the scenario is more one where they do use the iPad for consumption, basic note-taking, apps, and so on. Then, when they are doing more serious work, they use their home computer or a school computer. And when you think about it that’s not so dissimilar to the way they worked five years ago before iPads reared their head at all. In that scenario, the important thing for the school is to recognise that the iPad is only part of the solution and to ensure that the remaining part of the puzzle is also provided.

So in summary if you can choose only a single solution it’s better to go with the notebook. However if you can be sure that the iPad is backed up by access to a notebook or desktop computer for serious content creation, go with the iPad.

A couple of other interesting thoughts have come out of this. The first is that it reinforces for me the mindshare that Apple has with the iPad. Schools talk about providing iPads, not tablet computers. So for example move over to the other side of the tablet fence and you can, indeed, use a mouse on a Samsung tablet – but that conversation never seems to come up. I’m not sure why there seems to be a fixation with iPads. Perhaps because that’s what so many people have at home. Perhaps because no one gets fired for buying an iPad. It will be interesting to see if Microsoft’s new Surface tablet can change this dynamic – but it’s just too early to even guess at that one yet.

Second, there appears to an increasing spread of the bring-your-own-device (BYOD) idea from business to education. The idea that the government will provide the only device used in schools is fading. The government’s notebook program can provide a backstop for those with no alternative, but it takes only a few minutes research to realise that the notebooks provided are looked upon with derision by most students who have their own devices which are generally more modern, better equipped and not hedged in with a myriad of restrictions. So BYOD starts looking attractive from everyone’s point of view (as long as there is an effective safety net for those without choices). When the school is simply making a recommendation of a minimum standard to plug into their network and get the required work done, the choice of solutions changes significantly.

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