8 Hardware Considerations when Choosing a 1:1 Device for Paperless Classrooms

Choosing the best device (or set of devices) to meet all of the needs of a paperless classroom is, perhaps, the most critical piece of “going digital.”  As such, it requires some serious due diligence, homework, and consideration of all of the possibilities — and limitations — of the myriad technology options out there.

The first thing that should happen, like with any scenario of trying to choose the proper tool to solve a problem, is:

  1. Identify the problem(s) that need to be solved. This is also known as a “needs assessment.”
  2. Identify a list of possible tools you could use to meet those needs, and evaluate each possible solution to find the one.

I’m going to present these 2 steps in reverse order, by showing all of the possible options that exist and then whittling them down as we go through the list of needs for a paperless classroom.

Possible Devices / Solutions

The variety of available technologies to use in school has never been greater than today. There are various types of devices that meet different needs: not only desktop computers, but now smartphones, tablets, laptops in a variety of formats (ultrabooks, netbooks, etc.), and even hybrid/convertible devices.

Of each type, there are many manufacturers, form factors, and configurations, but the most important thing is to recognize the types of devices and what they can and cannot accomplish. So, let’s look at the basic overall choices we have:

smartphone A pocket-sized computer with touch-screen and cellular service for phone calls and internet; usually iOS or Android
desktop computer Usually Mac or Windows PC, in a range of options, power, and price
laptop computers (ultrabooks) Generally now called “ultrabooks” but this is more or less a marketing gimmick. They are essentially the newest generation of laptops; they tend to be thinner, lighter-weight, and longer-lasting than older laptops, but “ultrabook” is essentially the same as “laptop”
netbooks Just like ultrabooks (laptops), but are smaller, inexpensive, less powerful, and have longer battery life
Chromebooks Chromebooks actually have the exact same hardware as ultrabooks or (more often) netbooks, but have more limitations due to running ChromeOS
tablets These often run iOS or Android operating systems, though they can also run Windows or other operating systems. They can have important differences, so we should differentiate between them: iPad, Android, or Windows RT tablet
hybrids / convertibles These devices come in a few forms: some work primarily as tablets that can also attach to a keyboard and be used as an ultrabook/netbook, while others are primarily ultrabooks that have additional tablet features (such as capacitive touch screen.) Most of these hybrid / convertible devices run Windows 8

Assessing the Needs of a 1:1 Paperless Classroom

Despite the fact that I just went ahead and listed the variety of possible devices you could use for 1:1 computing in your classroom, it is not a good idea to choose a device first and then figure out how you are going to use it.  What sense would that make?

plumbing tools?

All right, I’m ready to fix that toilet!

You wouldn’t go to Home Depot and say “Oooh, that’s a shiny, expensive chainsaw right there… I think I’ll buy it! I don’t have any trees or anything I need to cut, but I’m sure I can find some way to make use of this thing!”

Of course not; it would be a waste of money, and if you were trying to build a deck, you would be better served by a hammer or electric screwdriver or table saw, or all of the above. On the other hand, would you buy these tools if you were trying to repair your toilet?

Technology is a tool, and when we select a tool, we start by knowing a problem that we want to solve, and then we look for a tool that will provide a good solution to that problem (and when such a tool doesn’t exist, we tend to invent one…) So let’s look at what needs we have for a 1:1 classroom — and, in particular, for a paperless environment — and use that to whittle down the options listed above:

1) eBooks

One of the biggest buzzwords and most-touted features of 1:1 technology in classrooms has been the ability to use eBooks. Personally, I don’t think eBooks should be the main focus; to look at new technology and simply think of how it can give us a digital version of the older technology is limiting. “Paperless” does not just mean “eBooks”, because reading is not the only thing students do in a classroom. However, eBooks are one important piece of the paperless puzzle, and they do provide many benefits over printed texts: built-in reference and organization tools; multimedia video, audio, and animation supports; even quizzes and checks for understanding. And that’s to say nothing of the fact that they may be more affordable, require no physical space, and are easier to keep up-to-date.  Having said all of that, the good news is this: eBooks will work on any and all of the above devices! You don’t need a special brand name or type of device to use digital texts. Programs like Amazon’s Kindle Reader, B&N’s Nook App, Follett Shelf, and Scholastic Storia provide plenty of options for eBooks and digital texts, and can be used on Mac, Windows, Android, or iOS.  [Although tablets may give a slight advantage here because the touch-screen and portrait-mode orientation can make for a more natural transition from printed books to a digital one, due to the reading habits we have and what we are used to.]

2) Affordability

As I’ve discussed in a previous post, one great benefit of a paperless classroom is that it can actually save you money (or, at the very least, pay for itself) in the savings you reap due to not purchasing textbooks, Xerox machines, paper, pens, pencils, paints, art supplies, etc.  However, this is only true if a cost-effective device is selected.

Keep in mind, technology devices do not last forever; regardless of type or brand name, laptops and mobile devices last only about 4 years before they should be replaced either because they have worn out* or simply grown obsolete. So the cost per device always should be an important consideration. It’s difficult to state an exact price point, because it may depend on individual circumstances and needs at your school. Generally speaking you can find a device that does everything you need in a classroom for $600 or less (unless you need a powerful, specialized computer, such as for HD video editing, professional music production, or creating 3D graphics and animation), so that seems like a reasonable cap, although spending less would be even better.

With strained budgets, programs being cut, teachers losing jobs or gaining furlough days, and class sizes growing, it is imperative that we be as frugal as possible. Staying under $600 would eliminate the most powerful ultrabooks and computers from our list, but also culls other expensive devices: iMacs ($1000+), Macbooks ($1000+), Surface Pro ($900), high-end iPads ($700 for iPad Retina 64 gb), Chromebook Pixel ($1300)

3) All-day battery life

Most classrooms at most schools were not designed for modern technology, and do not have the electrical infrastructure and power outlets distributed effectively around the room, enough for each student to plug in an entire class set of devices. Thus if you want to have a true 1:1 paperless classroom, right now the only real solution for many teachers is to obtain a class set of portable, battery-powered devices that can make it through the entire school day (6.5+ hrs) without being plugged in.

This really narrows the options: desktop computers are out of the question, as well as most ultrabooks, which have processors that use more power and end up providing only about 4-5 hours of battery life. Currently**, this really narrows our choices down to smartphones, tablets, netbooks, convertibles/hybrids, and perhaps a select few Chromebooks.  If you happen to be in a modernized classroom (or perhaps a lab) with plenty of power outlets, then lucky you! You may very well opt for a more powerful device than the ones here (those devices also tend to be more expensive… but not always. Touch-screen ultrabooks can be had for under $500)

4) Document creation

Document creation is important in school. It always has been, and it always will be. You can see evidence of this all the way back to the days of ancient Greece. Despite the new advances in technology that allows for media literacy and production, there are some things that visuals, audio, and video just can’t convey.

There will always be a place for written words because, unlike concrete images/movies, words have the power to be symbols of vague, ambiguous, complex, or connotative ideas. This was all taken into consideration and is why, despite adding elements of media literacy, the Common Core standards still have an enormous focus on writing.

This means any 1:1 device will want to have decent document creation software students can access. For a long time, the standard has been Microsoft Office… you can also download and install a free version of MS Office tools called OpenOffice. Many schools are now opting for cloud computing to do this, using Google Docs/Drive. This can be a great solution, but requires the school to have significant internet bandwidth; it is also more limited on iPads.

They have also placed an emphasis on using technology to do that writing. Students are expected to create typed documents using keyboarding skills… starting in 3rd grade! The implication of this is obvious: keyboarding is an important skill to have, and being able to create typed documents is essential in a classroom.

Having a virtual, touch-screen keyboard does not replace the need for a physical keyboard; studies by Google and Opinion Matters have shown that using touch-screen keyboards both slows down the text input and is the #1 cause of frustration for tablet users when trying to type longer documents (500 words or more).  The implication is clear: all students (other than those in primary grades, K-2) need access to a physical / mechanical keyboard. 

The best keyboards will be those for desktops, laptops, ultrabooks, and some convertibles. Tablets also can benefit from separate keyboards (wireless bluetooth ones or, preferably, USB-connected ones); however, this does add an additional expense and also makes management more difficult as there are 2 devices to manage per student, whereas netbooks, ultrabooks, and convertibles have the keyboard attached.

5) Multimedia production

Typed documents are not the be-all and end-all of student production. Students can demonstrate knowledge, help other students, and make genuine contributions to society via authentic products such as artwork, websites, audio recordings (podcasts etc.), animations, and videos. This ability to create relevant, useful products and be able to publish and easily share them with the world did not exist 20 years ago, but now it is an essential 21st century skill for being real-world ready in our increasingly global, competitive, and collaborative environment.

Most computing devices will allow us to create multimedia products, but some may be more difficult and require additional peripheral devices like handheld cameras or microphones. This also complicates the issue of device management, so ideally a 1:1 solution would be one that includes a decent built-in camera that can be used not only for web conferencing (which is what front-facing cameras on laptops are used for), but also for digital photography and videography. In this regard, tablets have the advantage.

Netbooks and ultrabooks tend to require additional cameras to be purchased, and Chromebooks are even more limited, because the vast majority of Chromebook-accessible media production apps specify in their Terms of Service that they can’t be used by students under 13 years old; in fact, I haven’t been able to find a single decent video editing app that is allowed to be used by elementary-school students on Chromebooks. Chromebooks also require transferring very large video and photo files through the web to work “in the cloud”, which requires large amounts of bandwidth.

6) Access to a variety of online websites, resources, tutorials, simulations, and games

While the above devices — phones, desktops, laptops, tablets, and hybrids — all have Internet and Web access, they are not all created equal in this department. Full-fledged operating systems like Windows and OS X (Mac) can access far more websites than ChromeOS, iOS, or Android can.Of course, we want our students to have access to as much of the wealth of information and knowledge on the World Wide Web as possible. This includes not only standard text-and-image websites for research, but also streaming media like YouTube, Discovery Education, and Khan Academy, as well as various practice games, interactive simulations and virtual labs, and even cloud-based tools. Not all of these can be accessed on all devices.Mac and Windows desktops and laptops are capable of installing and running a variety of common (often standard) plugins that have been used in website creation over the past 20 years to enable things like animation, audio, video, games, simulations, and interactivity that were not possible with HTML, CSS, javascript, and other standard web browser technologies.

The tools that have been used to enable these advanced features include technologies like Shockwave, Java, Flash, and Silverlight. Of these technologies, Flash has been prolific: in some countries, Flash is required for 1/3 of all websites. Currently, the percentage of sites using Flash is slowly declining because the newest version of web browser languages (HTML5) has incorporated many of the same multimedia features that were not previously possible. However, Flash is still required for about 17% of all websites (Flash was used in 25% of websites about 5 years ago, so the percentage is declining… slowly. There are currently 1,000+ job postings on Monster.com listing “Adobe Flash” as a required skill to get the job, so I guess it’s not dead yet…)  

The percentage of educational websites that require Flash is much, much higher. It is often required for the games, simulations, and other engaging educational activities on thousands of sites, like:

Although online sites and services will start to be developed using HTML5 and other device-independent technologies, it will take a long time to get access to as many good resources as we can currently find (most of them free of charge) thanks to more than 20 years of development.  [This will also be slow to change because Flash currently works on about 90% of all devices; most devices are Windows or Mac computers. Only about 10% of devices are currently Android or iOS devices. Source: NetMarketShare.com.]

This presents a major limitation for certain devices, but especially iPads. Chromebooks can access Flash websites, but not Java, Silverlight, or Shockwave; most Android tablets are capable of running Flash, but it is no longer easy to install since it has been removed from the Play store. (Click here if you’d like to learn how Flash can still be installed and used on Android tablets.)

There are “cloud browsing” apps for iOS, and these allow you to access Flash websites, but these are not good solutions for schools because the way they work is they actually connect to a server that provides a non-stop video feed — this will tend to be laggy and low-quality, in addition to causing Internet bandwidth problems:

7) Handwriting and drawing capabilities

The main thing holding classrooms back from going truly paperless is the simple fact that you can’t solve all of the classroom needs via touch-screen, keyboard, and cameras;

sometimes good old-fashioned handwriting, sketching, and note-taking are essential activities.  What this has led to is a paradigm in which schools and teachers are incorporating educational technology, but merely using it to supplement the existing books and (especially) piles upon piles of lined notebook paper and printed worksheets.  This is not a great solution, both from a monetary standpoint and an environmentally-conscientious one: These classrooms are actually creating an even bigger carbon footprint by using both paper materials and technology! Why supplement those materials when you can entirely supplant them?

Of course, the reason is because most devices don’t truly allow you to effectively use it as you would a piece of paper.  Some people are trying to make capacitive touch-screens (like iPads) work for this purpose, but it is not very effective because:

  1. The type of stylus pen you would use with this type of screen has to have a broad, rubbery tip — you cannot get a fine pinpoint tip like you would with a pen or pencil; this makes handwriting clumsy and unwieldy. It is the equivalent of trying to write with a rounded, unsharpened crayon.  While that may be okay for primary students, it becomes a problem as we need to write larger amounts, more quickly, and fit more words into a small space.
  2. In addition to lacking precision, capacitive stylus pens for iPads (as well as most, but not all, Android tablets) also do not have pressure sensitivity. This may not be required for many tasks, but it greatly benefits the natural, intuitive feel of “going digital” with various art media, such as using pressure sensitivity to control pencil darkness, airbrush/ink flow, and texturing effects.
  3. iPads and similar devices do not have a way of detecting when you are using a stylus; one problem that can arise is that your hand or arm touching the screen can count as “drawing”;  you can’t naturally rest your hand and write or draw like you would do with paper.***

All of these problems are solved by using a device with an active digitizer. An active digitizer is a type of stylus system in which a special layer under the screen detects the pen.

  • The active digitizer stylus has a fine tip like a pen or pencil, but never needs to be sharpened.
  • It can be used with pinpoint accuracy, and is usually pressure sensitive, up to hundreds or even over 1,000 levels of pressure sensitivity.
  • It can even have an “eraser” button on the back that is used just like a pencil eraser.
  • It is detected when it hovers above the screen; this, in addition to a clickable button on the pen, allows it to serve the same functions a mouse would serve, and opens up possibilities for efficient shortcuts and menus in the applications.

This technology is not new — in fact, here’s a video of the Toshiba Portege Tablet PC you could get with these active digitizer pens about 10 years ago (many years before iPad or even iPhone):

Some people might wonder: Why do we need handwriting and drawing at all, if we have more advanced tools that we can use to communicate, such as typed text, audio, and video?  The fact of the matter is that being able to manipulate handheld writing and drawing utensils allows us to very quickly jot notes, combine thoughts and ideas with images, and to create and label diagrams. You could do some of these things with a mouse and keyboard, and the final product may even look more polished; but it is a longer, slower process.

Examples of when handwriting and drawing prove invaluable are: observation journals,  science logs, and notebooks, where sketches and notes must be quickly recorded, possibly with drawings, diagrams, and labels to accompany notes. There are also certain tasks which are greatly enhanced by precise stylus control — including creating artwork, graphic design, and photo manipulation. Finally, using this system also allows for an easy transition to digital format, because teachers can use or reuse existing materials — they can simply download PDFs (many curricula provide these online), or scan their existing sheets and materials as a digital, virtual copy which can then be written on directly in the computer.

8) Peripheral devices

You may need to access a variety of other devices that could improve learning in your classroom. For this purpose, not all devices have the same capability. The best bet is to have a device with USB ports (the more, the merrier); these allow a variety of existing tools to be plugged in, including music instruments (like keyboards), professional-level cameras (such as Digital SLRs), or scientific instruments like digital microscopes:

Desktops and ultrabooks are going to be best for this, although Android and Windows tablets almost always have at least one USB port. iPads do not have a USB port; they can work with some peripheral devices, if those devices have been designed specifically for iPad, but that selection of peripheral devices is much more limited. Chromebooks have USB ports, but devices that require Mac or Windows to install software will not work.

Conclusion

As you can see, there are many considerations to weigh when choosing a 1:1 device, and it gets even trickier if you are trying to go truly paperless in your classroom. There is no single device that is the best solution for all of these needs — each has its strengths and weaknesses. Some classroom tasks (such as ebooks and digital photo/video work) are better served by tablet format, while other tasks (such as document creation, web browsing, and using peripherals) are a better experience on laptops.  A classroom is often a complex place, with many different types of tasks and purposes to fulfill — this is especially true of multi-subject classes, such as in elementary grades — and we want to ensure that we choose a device that can meet all of our needs.  This really limits the selection significantly.

In the next post, I will explain about which device I chose, why, and some other alternatives I considered.

* I own a 15-year-old IBM ThinkPad laptop that is still functional, but not in a practical sense (battery no longer holds a charge, and monitor screen has given out); I also have an 8-year-old Toshiba Portege which I still use, but it would not serve me well as a primary device.

** New processors are coming out very soon that are more energy-efficient versions of the current powerful processors, such as Intel’s Haswell chips. In the near future, we may just see devices that provide full-fledged computing power and all-day battery life, so if you can wait to decide on a device, it may be wise to hold off until summer of 2014.

*** Some apps do have “hand detection” but really all this does is prevent second or third touches from affecting things once you have already started writing or drawing with the stylus. Once you lift the stylus, or if your hand touches the screen before the pen does, it becomes a problem.

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