Just Say NO to iPads for Education, Part 5: Apple Products Break Budgets

waste: (v) 1. to consume, spend, or employ uselessly or without adequate return; use to no avail or profit; squander: to waste money; to waste words.


I’m just going to come out and say it: iPads waste money.

It’s not that they are useless or don’t provide a benefit.  They’re certainly going to allow you to do some things that you can’t do with pencil and paper alone.

But the reason iPads are a waste of money is because you can get other devices that provide the exact same benefits — or can do even more — at a fraction of the cost. This means they are not cost-effective.  Whenever you could get the same results for a lower cost by choosing a different alternative, this means you are wasting money.

Some people use false logic by saying “The iPad is very cost effective, because it is cheaper than computers!”

Those people must only be comparing the iPad to other overpriced Apple products. Compared to a ridiculously expensive MacBook Air ($1000), the iPad is a bargain.  But that’s like saying a Ferrari 458 ($230,000) is a great deal because it’s cheaper than a Maybach ($400,000).  By this logic, Ferrari is the most affordable and cost-effective car out there, and every government institution should only be buying Ferraris because they are so cost-effective!

Obviously, this is absurd.  And yet, it is exactly what people are doing when they say iPads are low-cost or cost-effective solutions.  Newsflash: There are other computer companies out there besides Apple, and their products aren’t as expensive.  So, when you are doing EdTech comparisons and evaluations, you need to look at everything that is available — not just specific, expensive, luxury brand names.  In fact, brand name should be one of the last things you look at.


“But Apple computers are better made. They are more durable and reliable, so they provide a lower total cost of ownership.”

That’s an argument a lot of people like to use.  Only problem is: it isn’t exactly true.  Apple makes some decent products, but they aren’t any better nor are they going to last any longer than other high-quality products made my other manufacturers like Acer, Lenovo, or Samsung.   In fact, Consumer Reports notes that there is no meaningful difference in brand reliability between Apple, Acer, Sony, Lenovo, HP, and Toshiba (however, some Dell and Gateway products have been shown to be less reliable than the other brands).

You don’t always get what you pay for. Just because you are paying more for the Apple brand name doesn’t mean you are getting a better product.

At Consumer Reports desktop computer comparison, the 21″ Apple iMac ($1200) is the 2nd most expensive computer on the list, yet it has a worse rating than 11 other computers made by other companies (including Toshiba, HP, Lenovo, Asus, Acer, and Vizio).

The same applies to laptops.

Currently, the 11-inch MacBook Air has a lower rating (65) than Acer (72), Sony (75), Lenovo (73), and others… yet it is more expensive than most of them.  For $300 less, you can get a better-rated Sony VAIO laptop… and it even has longer battery life, as well!  Or, for the same price, you can get the Lenovo Yoga IdeaPad — a convertible laptop which can also function as a tablet.

But how is any of this relevant?  Well, it proves one thing: Apple products cost more, but that doesn’t mean they are better or more reliable.  They provide a poor return on investment, because you can get something equivalent — or better — for much less.


Sure, iPads are less expensive than MacBooks and other overpriced Apple products.  But they are more expensive than…

  • Android tablets ($350 for equivalent of iPad; less for smaller/weaker tablets)
  • Netbooks ($250)
  • Chromebooks ($250)

All of these other devices are about half the cost of iPads, yet they have advantages over the iPad including USB ports, ability to access Flash websites (for an explanation as to why Flash is important in educational settings, see Part 5 of this series), and lower costs for maintenance and upgrades.

In all of my educational technology research, I have not seen a single study that shows iPads are any better for education than other alternatives such as Android tablets… however, I have seen multiple studies showing that computer technology is most effective when we have 1-to-1 computing (ie. one device for each student — or, at the very least, one device for every 2 students who can work as a pair when using it):

So the best thing for our students is not dependent on brand name, it is dependent on getting devices into their hands.  This goal is easier to reach with Android tablets, Chromebooks, or netbooks, because you can purchase twice as many of them with the same budget. $7,500 would buy a full class set of 30 Chromebooks or netbooks, yet it would only get you 12 or 13 iPads.

There are more than 55 million K-12 students in the United States. So for us to eventually have 1-to-1 computing in the classrooms, we would require at least 55 million devices.  Now, some schools advocate BYOD (or Bring Your Own Device), but that can pose serious problems for schools and teachers, which you can view in my post “Five Serious Drawbacks of BYOD.”

The only real way to avoid the pitfalls of BYOD and still ensure 1 to 1 computing is for schools to purchase the devices themselves.  So how much would this cost?

Well, one 32 gigabyte iPad costs $600.  An equivalent full-sized Android tablet such as the Acer Iconia Tab A700 is $350.

Some people don’t understand what the big deal is. They might say “It’s only a few hundred dollars. That’s just a drop in the bucket when you look at the big picture.”

But is it?  In my opinion, it is never okay to waste money… not even a penny, let alone hundreds of dollar.   And the numbers get a lot bigger if our goal is to evolve into paperless classrooms with 1-to-1 computing.

If we multiply those costs per device times the number of students in the US, the numbers don’t look so small and insignificant anymore.

Purchasing an iPad for every student would cost $33 BILLION DOLLARS. The cost of purchasing a similar Android tablet would be $19.25 billion, and the cost of netbooks or Chromebooks would be only $13.75 million.

Of course, you don’t need to replace that iPad every year, so this cost can be spread over several years.  But how long do iPads last?  There is some debate about this, but it comes with a standard one-year warranty or you can extend it to 2 years if you spend an extra $100 on AppleCare. This implies that you can expect iPads to start having some technical problems at about the 2 year mark.  iPods have been out longer and have an official lifespan rating of 4 years, and iPads are built on similar architecture as the iPod, so the lifespan of the average iPad before they start dying is going to be somewhere between 2 and 4 years.  Similarly, most laptop computing devices also have a lifespan of about 4 years before they have a serious hardware problem or are rendered obsolete.

Assuming an average scenario that all of these battery-powered computing devices last for 4 years before needing to be replaced, this still comes out to a cost of $8.25 billion per year for iPads versus only $4.8 billion for Android tablets or $3.4 billion for netbooks or Chromebooks.

As you can see, if all schools chose to purchase iPads instead of other alternatives, we would be wasting over 3 billion dollars every year.  But the cost difference doesn’t end there.

Since iPads can’t access Flash or Java content online, there are millions of free resources you can’t use. iPads are somewhat useless right out of the box — you can surf the web and watch videos, but most of the useful features of a tablet are only going to come from installing apps. There are a few decent free ones, but most of the worthwhile educational apps cost money, and you’re going to need several of them if you want  productivity apps and skill-building or practice games and tools for multiple subjects. These apps usually cost about $3 to $7 each (averaging about $5), and you’d probably need about 20 of them on the iPad to make it worthwhile all school year.  This adds another $100 onto the cost of the iPad, or an additional $1.375 billion annually, bringing the total annual cost of iPads to $10 billion dollars per year if we were to get one for every K-12 student.

These are costs you wouldn’t need to spend on a netbook computer, because they can access a lot of the same types of resources for free in the form of educational Flash websites (for example, see my videos showcasing Language Arts, Social Studies, and STEM websites). You can also install free productivity tools like Open Office (a free version of Microsoft Office), Audacity (a full-featured audio production tool), GIMP (a Photoshop-like image editor), and Microsoft Movie Maker (free video editing tool).

Maintenance and peripherals also add to the cost of iPads:

  • If the battery needs to be replaced, you have to pay Apple $100 to do so. A replacement battery for netbooks or Chromebooks can be purchased for $30 and easily swapped out yourself.
  • Transferring files from iPads will generally require cloud storage, such as DropBox. These tools are free up to a certain storage limit, but if you need more space it will cost you.  On an Android you can easily move files directly onto portable storage such as USB flash drives or external hard drives.
  • On an Android tablet or netbook, you can use better camera equipment such as a DSLR for video or photography, and you can directly plug in and transfer the photos from it. If you want to do this on iPad, you must buy a $30 “camera connector kit.”
  • Typing on a keyboard improves efficiency of document creation, an important activity in education. If you use tablets, you have to pay extra for bluetooth keyboards.
  • Many schools are wasting even more money by spending an extra $130 for 3G or 4G enabled iPads even though they aren’t using the cellular service, or paying $100 AppleCare, increasing the cost of the iPad even further.

The bottom line is that nothing will take quite a bite out of your EdTech budget like buying Apple products will.

So if you’re a parent, or a teacher, or just a tax-paying citizen and you are concerned about local schools saying they don’t have money for teachers, for tutors, for sports, or arts, or music, or after school programs, I suggest you contact your local school board or district office and see what kind of technology purchases they are making. And, if they are buying Apple products… where did the funds come from to pay for these more expensive devices?

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