How to Choose the Right Tablet for Your School

Instead of getting lost in specs and features, education leaders and experts suggest starting with learning goals. Then you can match your school's unique needs to devices that meet those needs.

by / April 5, 2012 0
Students at Crothersville Jr. Sr. High School in Indiana now have KUNO tablets and use digital curriculum. | Photo by Drew Markel

While comparing one device to another might seem easy, picking a tablet that meets your school's learning goals and unique needs isn't so simple.

In conversations with four administrators and experts, we talked about five key factors to consider when you're thinking about starting a tablet initiative.


Consider your learning goals

Before you even start looking at hardware, step back and see the big picture. Ask yourself what you want to accomplish and how your instruction will change, said Tim Williams, director of product management for Absolute Software, which provides management tools for mobile devices. He has worked on tablet deployments with school districts across the country, including Chicago Public Schools. 

"When you talk about the choice between Android and iOS, that's a big decision. But the bigger decision is, 'Are we going to change our whole attitude to how we're delivering the lessons to the students?'"

Over the last two years, teachers have driven the mobile pilots at Township High School District 214 in Arlington Heights, Ill. Because they are proposing what learning goals they want to accomplish with different devices, they are taking ownership of their experiment, said Keith Bockwoldt, the district's director of technology services.

"Now that the teachers are really invested in it, it's growing exponentially," Bockwoldt said.


Figure out your digital curriculum strategy

Instead of beginning with the device, start with the digital curriculum, advises Drew Markel, assistant principal and technology director at Crothersville Jr. Sr. High School in Indiana.

Teachers at this 550-student school built their digital curriculum first. Then students received KUNO Droid tablets this year.

"Without a curriculum, you really have nothing," Markel said. "We have a lot of schools that come and visit, and they're so device driven that they lose track of the fact that you're going to be teaching students with this device."

Any platform will work for curriculum, including learning management systems such as Moodle and Blackboard. Crothersville went with CurriculumLoft, a cloud-based curriculum management tool.

As you create your digital curriculum, you'll need to consider whether your infrastructure will support the kind of digital content you want to use, said Emily Starr, president and CEO of StarrMatica Learning Systems, an education publishing company that specializes in digital content. She has advised several schools in Iowa and Illinois before their tablet purchases.

"If you have a really slow wireless connection, and you're going to have to solely rely on apps, the amount of educational apps available for the iPad far outnumber what's available for Android and the quality of them," Starr said.

But if you have a fast connection and want to use online content at no cost, remember that the majority of that content is based on Flash. The iPad does not run Flash, while Android devices do. In a few years, these websites won't work well on either device because Adobe no longer supports Flash for mobile devices, Starr said.


Pick your management style

Your choice of operating systems has as much to do with your management style as your educational goals, Williams said. A school that wants central control over its devices is going to choose a different tablet than a school that wants to leave most of the management up to individual classrooms.

"It's not just generally which one allows more manageability, but which one will best enable me to do what I want to do in managing devices," Williams said.

Teachers in the Arlington Heights school district have piloted tablets, including Apple iPads and Motorola Xooms. They manage a budget, grab no-charge or fee-based apps and control what happens at the classroom level.

In the district's second year of mobile device pilots, it's currently studying whether it can roll out iPads to each student for the 2013-2014 school year. But while the administration might buy specific apps, it probably won't try to manage the iPads.

"It's more work for us to manage the devices with a mobile device management solution," Bockwoldt said.

One of the main factors that Crothersville Jr. Sr. High School considered when it looked at Android versus Apple was whether it could individualize instruction from a management standpoint, Markel said. The KUNO tablets that the school bought have a management tool that allows administrators to push content, apps and curriculum to one student.

Purchasing management software for a schoolwide iPad deployment was too difficult and expensive, Markel said. But in smaller groups such as special needs classes, Crothersville teachers are finding it a little easier to manage 15 iPads on a single iTunes account.


Set your price point and refresh cycle

You'll want to look at what realistically fits in your budget and how you'll pay for management, curriculum and device tools.

For example, Apple doesn't compete with anyone on its iOS. But plenty of companies compete on the Android platform.

"On Android you have a lot more choices and certainly that gives you a lot more options in budgeting," Williams said.

One of the reasons that Crothersville went with the KUNO over the iPad and Xoom was cost, Markel said. For each student, the Indiana school budgeted $500 to cover a device, learning content and curriculum management over two years. Students will receive new tablets every two years so they can keep up with the technology.

While Apple devices work, they're more expensive for the school, Markel said.

"You've got to be fiscally responsible," Markel said. "For the way technology's changing, I've got to be able to roll these tablets over in a couple years."

Because the school needed to upgrade its technology anyway, it virtualized desktops and purchased Android tablets that the desktops could run on. And through Indiana's textbook waiver program, Crothersville uses textbook money to pay for both the digital curriculum and the devices.

Township High School District 214 is considering a four-year refresh cycle if it decides to provide iPads to every student, Bockwoldt said. Each freshmen class would receive tablets and keep them after graduation. Counting digital books, devices and accessories, the tab for each student over four years would be approximately $520 to $550, he said.

As the district moves to mobile, it's replacing computers less often and putting that money toward mobile devices. It will eventually eliminate computer labs. This strategy has allowed the district to purchase mobile devices without spending extra money.


Choose your top features

When it comes to hardware, operating systems and apps, you'll find that Apple and Android have advantages in different areas. But it's not just Apple versus Android; it matters which device you look at, Williams said.

Right now, Apple has a stronger ecosystem, more app options and is slightly ahead in manageability, Williams said. It also has a more mature operating system.

On the other hand, Apple tablets are designed for consumers, not for education. Ultimately, the control of the iPad will be in the hands of whoever's holding it, Williams said.

Unlike the Chromebook, which only has Web-based cloud computing, the iPad has apps and a cloud computing piece that the Illinois district wanted.

"What we're finding out is that the iPad is the best device right now because I consider we have the best of both worlds," Bockwoldt said.

The battery life lasts longer on the iPad than the Xoom, in Bockwoldt's experience. The Xooms gave him more maintenance trouble. And one teacher who had a personal iPad and piloted Xooms in her classroom said the Apple apps killed the ones available in the Android market.

With the KUNO, teachers can capture an app and choose which students should receive it, Markel said. The app is submitted to the cloud for administrative approval. Once it's approved, the app pushes out to students.

"It really brings the teachers in on the application process," Markel said. "It doesn't require the teachers to go meet with the technology director and say, 'I want this application.'"

Crothersville is a Google school, and Android plays better with Google Docs, Gmail and calendering. The KUNO also syncs with the school's user name and password system.

On rollout night, students entered their user name and password once the tablet was charged. Then the device automatically starts syncing and pulling down their schedule, contacts and everything else.

Fragmentation is a big issue for Android, Williams said. When Apple released iOS version 5.1, the update went out to every iOS device the company sold in the last three years. But when a new version of Android comes out, you don't always know if you can put it on your devices.

"You're going to have to be able to deal with a lot more change on the Android platform," Williams said.

Within the Android devices, you need to decide on the minimum version of Android you're going to allow. Version 3.0 and higher on Android has significantly more security and manageability functions, he said.


Match your school needs to devices

Ultimately, the device you choose should meet your schools' learning goals and needs. It should work with your curriculum, management style and budget. And the tablet should have the features that your school places the highest priority on.

"It starts with deciding what you want to accomplish, what policies you want to enforce — and choosing a tool that enables you to do that," Williams said. "And then you get down to which tablet you want to use."

Tanya Roscorla Former Managing Editor

Tanya Roscorla covered ed tech from 2009-2017.