Why Chromebooks are schooling iPads in education

chromebook kids
Kevin Jarrett via Flickr/Creative Commons

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The humble Chromebook just seized the iPad’s place as the future of tech in education. U.S. schools are now buying more Chromebooks than iPads. Apple’s iPad also received another black eye this week as a federal grand jury is investigating the Los Angeles Unified School District’s much-touted and now-axed iPad contract. LA is now going with Chromebooks—and some cheap Windows laptops, too.

To be more specific, IDC’s numbers show 715,000 Chromebooks were shipped to US schools in Q3 2014, while Apple shipped 702,000 iPads in the same time. Sure, it looks close now—but Chromebooks are on the ascent and iPads are declining.

Here’s why.

Chromebooks are much cheaper up-front

There’s no getting around it: Chromebooks are just cheaper up-front. Some Chromebooks cost less than $200. Assuming a school wants the larger-size iPad Air—pretty much a given—that will cost them at least $379 an iPad. And that’s for the previous-generation Chromebook in its smallest 16GB size. The iPad Air 2 will cost schools $479 each, or $579 if they want 64GB instead of the paltry 16GB base model. The cost adds up fast!

The low price of Chromebooks makes them much more attractive to cash-strapped school systems. They’re also much cheaper to replace or repair, if necessary. And let’s be honest: Chromebooks don’t have a resale value as high as iPads, so they’re probably less at risk of being stolen, too.

Keyboards are still necessary

Chromebooks have keyboards. In spite of all the hype about tablets and touch screens being the future, physical keyboards are still the present. iPads may work well for some things, especially at younger ages. However, when a high-schooler needs to type up a research paper, that keyboard is going to come in handy.

Plus, assuming students will be doing typing in future jobs, they’ll probably be using a physical keyboard anyway. They should get some practice using a physical keyboard instead of typing on a touchscreen.

asus chromebook c200 left detail july 2014 Image: Michael Homnick

Chromebooks (like the pictured Asus Chromebook C200) all include physical keyboards. 

Yes, you can get third-party keyboard cases or Bluetooth keyboards for an iPad or any other tablet. But that’s yet another expense that adds up when you have to issue one to each student. Every Chromebook comes with a keyboard, and that keyboard can’t get separated from the device and lost.

Think Chromebooks are out of style, and that the kids these days just want a touch screen? You’d apparently be wrong. As Forrester’s J.P. Gownder told TechRepublic: “In our student pilots that compared Chromebooks to iPads and several other devices, our students in grades 3-12 overwhelmingly preferred the laptop form factor over tablets.”

Chromebooks offer super-simple management

Google’s Chromebooks are much easier for IT departments to manage than iPads are. Chromebook management is built right into the Google Apps Admin console on the web. If a school is already using Google Apps for Education, this should be very simple to use.

iPads, on the other hand, are more complicated to manage. A school will have to set up a Mobile Device Management (MDB) server and manage it on their own. There’s more complexity here, and maybe even less security—340 LA high-school students figured out how to remove the MDM profiles from their iPads to bypass those limitations back in 2013.

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iPads can’t be shared, Chromebooks can

Chromebooks are “stateless.” When you set up an iPad, you sign in with an Apple ID and that iPad then belongs to that user until the device is factory-reset. There’s no support for multiple separate user accounts.

On a Chromebook, a student can simply sign out, and then another student can sign in with their own account. Their settings and data will automatically be synced to that Chromebook.

chromebook school Kevin Jarrett via Flickr/Creative Commons

A legion of Chromebooks in an elementary school classroom.

Because of this, Chromebooks can be more easily shared. Rather than issuing an iPad to each student, a school district could buy 30 Chromebooks and leave them in a single classroom. Every student could use a Chromebook in that particular class. Good luck sharing an iPad in that way!

At the end of the day, Chromebooks also provide a more PC-like experience. They work with practically every website you’ll come across, including ones that use Flash. (Yes, Flash is terrible, but sometimes you still need it.) Students can have multiple windows open, which can be very important when working on a research paper.

But most of the benefits here are just gravy, and nice to have. Schools love Chromebooks because they’re low-cost and easy to manage. The iPad may get all the press, but Chromebooks just keep winning over schools. Apple is the hare, and Google is the tortoise. Slow and steady is winning the race, at least in education—though businesses are increasingly snapping up Chromebooks, too.

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