Opinion: Laptops versus iPads - Which is better for school?

Opinion: Laptops versus iPads - Which is better for school?

Chris Nicholls shares his experience of laptops and iPads in the classroom.

Before Anna Bligh lost the Queensland election, she was promising 5000 trial iPads for selected secondary schools should she keep power. With Western Australia rolling out trial iPads in primary schools as well, the time has come to ask: Should you buy for an iPad or a laptop for school or university?

As a qualified secondary school Media teacher (albeit a newbie with only a year’s experience) as well as technology journalist, I have some opinions about this.

Laptops are versatile
Each option brings its own pluses and minuses. Laptops, for example, are extremely versatile. If powerful enough, they can run everything from Office to Adobe CS. They have huge storage. They have physical keyboards. And everything connects to them. Need to show the class a PowerPoint on your USB key via a projector (a very common assessment task)? Easy on a laptop. Not on an iPad thanks to its lack of connectivity and a decent Office equivalent at the time of writing this.

There are other advantages, too. As John Gillooly pointed out here, ebooks for PC are portable due to using open standards. iPad textbooks can’t be read on anything else. And with hundreds of gigabytes on a laptop HDD, they can hold lots of books.

Now, the trouble with laptops, in my admittedly limited experience (but a belief confirmed by talking to the very experienced school techs I worked with last year) is that they break. The most common issue I faced last year was keys getting picked off in class. However, this is trivial compared to the number of hinges I’ve seen fail. Quite a few students used to pull out laptops in my classes with screens almost separate from the base. And this was on Lenovos with metal hinges. I also saw several machines with base sections themselves coming apart. And don’t get me started on lessons where I had to improvise workarounds for kids because their computers needed servicing that day for other, unknown, reasons.  

Compounding these issues is the simple one of cost. A basic 15-incher costs around $500, but realistically can’t run anything more than Office and a browser. To get a laptop capable of video editing and the like, you need to spend closer to $900. And remember, these $900 laptops will still break.

The iPad
I’m not saying the iPad can’t break – most of my students’ own iDevices last year had cracked screens. And screen replacement is not a job for the local school tech. But then, in my experience, such ‘high-end’ maintenance is often outsourced for laptops, too. And iPads have no moving parts and no keyboards to rip keys off.

Getting back to it, an iPad capable of HD video editing (essential for Media, especially, but increasingly in other subjects) will cost, at most, $700. Not $900. It’s a small difference, but teaching in an area with a lot of low income parents, I can tell you a hundred saved here and there is a lot.

iPads have other advantages, too. The admittedly non-portable interactive textbooks are fun and up to date. And as any teacher, even those with decades of experience, will tell you, engagement is half the battle. They are also lighter, easier to use and less likely to suffer from hacking and viruses (another issue that cost me and less prudent students time in class).

I’m not saying iPads are ‘magically’ better in total. In many ways, they’re simply not. But, as a teacher, I do believe the iPad is the way to go. Irrespective of any other reason (cheaper, better made, lasts longer), an iPad makes learning more fun. And given learning happens best when it’s fun, that’s good enough for me.

Have an opinion? Add it below.

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