iPads vs. Netbooks for a 1:1 Program

As I started writing this post, I quickly realized there was no way I would be able to address everything in a single post. I will make this post our beginning, and I plan on writing more on the topic in the near future.

We are currently exploring the possibility of implementing a 1:1 program at our middle school with our roughly 1,060 students next year. As I started doing my research on which device to use, I explored the options of using MacBooks, netbooks, iPads, or iPods.

My research was centered around the premise that these devices would prove to be both a conduit and source of production for our students' learning. We will be creating a learning ecology adopted from what Ryan Bretag and Dave Jakes have created in Glenbrook and what Bud Hunt has created in St. Vrain. This means we need to have a device that will provide a good web experience using Google Apps, Moodle, Adobe Connect and a variety of other web-based tools (some requiring the use of Flash). We would also like our students to have the opportunity to create using the device.

After evaluating the devices above, we realized that a hybrid environment will likely be the most effective for our purposes. Even with a hybrid environment, though, we determined we needed one main device for the majority of our students. For that, we've chosen a netbook running Linux (for more on the Linux image we're using that Jim Klein created, see his page here).

In our environment, we plan on distributing a netbook running Linux to the general student population. We will, in some cases with some students who have specialized learning needs, use iPads to accommodate the specified needs if appropriate. We will also have 6 carts of MacBooks (previously purchased) available for teachers to check out should they want to conduct a more in-depth multimedia project. The majority of the student work, however, will be created and engaged on the netbooks.

When we were considering the various devices, the full laptops were ruled out fairly quickly due to cost and size. We were looking at a cost of roughly $800 per unit for the MacBooks. That means our cost for just the MacBooks alone would run us $848,000. That proved a bit prohibitive. We also ruled out the iPods as there was simply too many things that it couldn't do that the other devices could.

We then looked more closely at the iPads and netbooks.

For our consideration, we were looking for something that would afford our students a strong web experience accessing the web-based tools referenced above. We also wanted them to have the opportunity to build and create with the device. And, of course, we had to consider costs.

Our final breakdown was as follows:

iPad base 16 GB model: $500
bluetooth keyboard: $80
HP 1103 running Linux: $270

We found we simply had to have the physical keyboard for the iPad based on numerous research pieces of iPad 1:1 implementations and some of our own internal testing. Students reported that anything they wrote over 1 paragraph of text was very difficult without the physical keyboard.

At this pricing point, it would cost $614,800 for the iPad 1:1 and $286,200 for netbooks.

Also factor in additional app costs. The netbook is running Linux and is fully loaded with a variety of educational apps which are open source and free, whereas the iPad would require additional costs for learning apps. Yes, some apps for the iPad are free, but we've found that many of the apps that are equivalent to those found on the netbooks do come at a cost. For example, if we wanted a more fully functional word processor (and this is not a completely featured word processor) for the iPad, we would need to purchase Pages. The bulk educational volume price for Pages is $5 per unit, leaving us with a total cost of $5,300 for just Pages. If we wanted iMovie or Garageband, those would add to the final cost as well.

As I continued evaluating, I realized not only would the iPads cost us 2.14 times as much, they would also provide some serious limitations that we wouldn't experience with the netbooks. I'll get to those in a subsequent post, but if you just stopped to consider the following scenario based on cost alone, I think it provides compelling food for thought.

Take an average class of 30 students. If you were to get them all a netbook, it would come at a cost of $8,100. If you were to get them iPads, it would cost $17,400. That's a difference of $9,300. Now consider, what could you get for your class with that additional $9,300? Some possibilities:

In addition to every student having their own netbook, you could get
10 Kodak Playsport Camcorders (shoots 1080p video) $1,200
10 iPads (if you really wanted them for their apps or whatever else you argue the netbooks don't have) $5,000*
Apps for the iPad $500
And you'd still have $2,600 left over to play with
Or you could think of any number of other possibilities to do with the $9,300, including not spending it and showing fiscal prudence to your tax payer base.

Or, you could get just a class set of iPads and still need to find the money for the additional apps like Pages, Garageband and iMovie. And have a more limiting web experience and lower ceiling for learning experiences.

Looking at these two scenarios, I just do not see how one could justify purchasing the iPads as a 1:1 solution. Consider if you look at this school wide. The difference between the two, even before considering any costs for apps on the iPad, is $328,600. Again, consider what you could get with the difference. You could get 10 carts of MacBooks (that includes the cost of the cart) for multimedia projects if you wanted and still have $28,600 left over to work with.

And to be fair, even with Garageband or iMovie on the iPad, it still isn't as powerful an experience as what one can have on a fully powered MacBook. And, the netbooks have OpenShot for video editing and Audacity for audio editing. They also access Aviary through our Google Apps domain, so there is still a strong audio editing presence on the netbooks, just as there is on iPads using iMovie or Garageband. More on the software in the next post.

So, at the foundational level where we began making our decision, it seemed an obvious choice. And one I'm becoming more and more convinced was the right one.

For those of you who feel the iPad offers an experience and opportunity that the netbooks don't, we'll talk software, operating systems, and enabling vs. empowering in the next post. But I don't think that is the case. I believe the netbook can provide the educational opportunities with technology that we want our students engaging in. And we can do so at a fraction of the cost with an open platform that affords students more opportunities than an iPad does. We'll continue the conversation in the next post.

*based on price of 16BG wifi model without keyboard as students would use netbooks for long form text input