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During my six years working for the Oklahoma State Department of Education and my first year working for the Oklahoma Public School Resource Center, I have often been asked, “What is the best [computing] device for students?”

I started working with computers as a child back in the early 80s. My first computer was an Atari 800, an 8-bit computer with a whopping 48 KB of memory (not gigabytes, not megabytes, but kilobytes) and no hard drive--just a 5-1/4” floppy drive. 

Over the last few decades, I have used many different computers for work and personal computing. I’ve gone from Mac to PC, back to Mac, and now I use both daily. When it comes to tablets, I own both Android and iPad devices but admittedly don’t use the Android tablets much. In 2014, I purchased one of the first touchscreen Chromebooks. My latest purchase is a Surface Go tablet, Microsoft’s small tablet designed to compete against iPad.

So what is the best device for students to use in their education? I divide all current devices into three categories: traditional “20th century” computers, tablets and the Chromebook.

For traditional computers, you have two options: Apple Mac computers or Microsoft Windows computers. In general, there are three areas where Windows computers excel: gaming, variety of software and build-it-yourself situations. If you plan to start an eSports league, Windows computers are a must. For software, Windows has dominated the traditional computers market share for many years. Thus, most software is created for Windows and then ported to Mac only if there is enough demand. So if you need computers for CAD software, for example, Windows is the best choice. If you are starting a computer class or club to teach students how to build computers, Windows (or Linux) is the best option. You cannot build a Mac from scratch.

If you are looking at traditional laptops for everyday student use during class, I would recommend Mac. There are two areas where Macs excel. The MacOS (operating system) is more streamlined and user-friendly. It requires fewer updates and in general, it just works. One criticism of Apple is that it is a “closed system”, meaning Apple makes all devices (no clones allowed), and it makes the operating system. However, that leads to a better functioning device. When you buy a Mac, you know it’s going to be a solid performer, and it will last. Microsoft now understands this and has started making its own devices.

Chromebooks are being widely used in schools across Oklahoma. The two main reasons for buying Chromebooks, if you ask any tech director, are because they are cheap and easy to manage. That is true; Chromebooks have absolutely made tech directors' lives easier. But is that the criteria schools should be using when choosing a student device? Many schools are using G-Suite. Doesn’t that make Chromebooks best? My concern is with Google’s business model. Google’s business model is to get everybody online as much as possible so that it can expand its advertising reach, which makes up over 80% of its revenue. The problem with a Chromebook is that it is just a browser. And unlike all other devices, you do not get to choose what browser you use. It's Google Chrome all the time. That feeds Google’s advertising model well. Case in point: Google recently paid a $170 million fine to the FTC for violating COPPA by tracking students who use YouTube: The other main drawback to Chromebooks is the requirement of an internet connection for most tasks.

The last option for student devices is a tablet. The greatest benefits of tablets are their portability and flexibility. Tablets are small and can easily be carried under an arm or in a backpack. With accelerometers, they are also designed to work in portrait or landscape mode. Portrait mode is great for reading ebooks, and landscape mode is great for using them as a laptop. They are also the only devices that have both front and back cameras. The back camera provides students the ability to record projects or observations in the world around them. Another great benefit of tablets is the large collection of educational apps. Thousands of applications are available either for free or just a few dollars, including augmented reality (AR) apps. With a touchscreen and a finger (or an optional stylus), iPads are also great for creative drawings and art or for replacing pen and paper. Finally, tablets are the easiest to protect for student use. With the right durable case always on, schools can worry less about breakage even if students are allowed to take them home. 

When considering tablets for students, there are three options: iPad, Surface Go or Android. Even though it was rumored in 2015 that Google would prefer to move everyone away from ChromeOS and move them to Android devices, the success of Chromebooks has made Google focus on them at the expense of Android tablets. Microsoft’s Surface Go is a new entry to the field. It provides a Windows experience in a small tablet device. It's nice to have Windows on a small tablet; however, it feels a little squeezed to fit in the small screen. A stylus is not necessary but might make it easier to use. The Surface Go is certainly a tablet to watch as it matures. The final tablet option is Apple’s iPad. The iPad has now been available for just over a decade. Apple continues to make improvements each year to both their hardware and software. The only drawback is the price. At $294 each, they are not the cheapest, but with Apple’s trade-in program, older iPads do have resale value. 

So, if you were to ask me which I would recommend for students, I would currently say the iPad is my first choice for overall student use. If you are looking for cases, I would recommend a durable keyboard case such as the rugged keyboard folio made by Logitech, especially for education (see picture above and below). My second choice for a device, especially for older students, would be an inexpensive Windows laptop. You can find Windows laptops for under $500 each.

If you would like to discuss devices for students in more detail, please contact me.

Kurt Bernhardt

Director, Technology

Kurt serves as OPSRC's technology director.

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