On Switching from iPad to Chromebook in School

This summer, my school is making a substantial change in our 1-to-1 programme. After nearly ten years, we are switching from iPad to Chromebook. I thought I would write a bit about why we are doing this.

We have refreshed our iPad deployment twice now. We started in 2010 with the original iPad, then got the 4th Generation iPad in 2013 then the 9.7” iPad Pro in 2016. Now, here we are in 2019, ready to refresh again.

The first thing I’d like to note is that this isn’t a spur of the moment decision, made in a fit of pique. I have internal papers at school that date back to 2014 exploring whether we should stick with iPad or move to Chromebook. I’ve owned Chromebooks since the Samsung Series 3 came out in 2012. I have been tracking ChromeOS for a long time.

iTunes U: A Burning Platform

The problem with Apple’s iOS education offerings that started to really make me wonder what the future held came when I realised that iTunes U was clearly just being left to die a slow death. At the time of writing, iTunes U still does not support basic iOS multitasking features that were introduced in iOS 9 - four releases ago.

I found myself looking enviously at features in Google Classroom. Features that I had filed radars for years previously and which still lie open. Features like scheduled posts, homework summary emails to parents, posts to individual pupils or groups in the class.

Whatever learning platform a school uses is a vital part of the work of the school and, if it’s not evolving, it’s dying. Make no mistake: iTunes U is a dying service and it would be more honest and respectable of Apple just to announce the date on which it will be put out of its misery.

iOS Management

I’ve been doing iOS sysadmin since before it was a thing that you could reasonably do. It’s way easier now than it has ever been in the past, but it’s still not easy enough. Too often, something or other just behaves strangely. Whether it’s a device that doesn’t receive timely push notifications or which won’t install a particular app over MDM for reasons which have an error message but no clear explanation or it’s that one iPad that thinks it’s not enrolled in DEP when it definitely is.

The worst issue by far in iOS sysadmin is backup and restore of supervised devices. This process has never been properly documented and it seems to change freely with iOS versions. Every time I have to do it, it takes at least three hours of experimentation to get something that mostly works.

Still, there are many things that are excellent about iOS management and it’s a very controllable platform for many purposes. It’s particularly good for sitting formal exams with.

iPad Hardware

We’ve been using 9.7” iPad Pro hardware in this cycle and, while the hardware remains fast and capable, I have not been very pleased with durability. We have seen a lot of fatigue-related screen damage - that is, damage not caused by a catastrophic accident but rather just repeated put-downs in a schoolbag.

We have also seen several other kinds of issues with our iPads this year that haven’t been happy. I’ve seen video cards go, batteries just stop working, devices just refusing to start up or restore correctly. This is to say nothing of the very poor quality of chargers and cables that Apple ships with iPads. Charger and cable damage is a constant problem in 1:1 programmes.

iPad longevity in a 1:1 programme is something that you need to consider too. I would not feel at all confident in going into a fourth year with our current set of hardware. I don’t know if the more education-focused 6th Generation iPad is better, but I’ve been disappointed in this hardware cycle.

Official iPad repairs are now very expensive. When we started, we were paying about £127 for an iPad screen repair at the Apple Store. We are now paying £365. Buying AppleCare doesn’t help, because AppleCare is tied to specific serial numbers and I don’t know in advance which iPads are going to break. You’d have to buy AppleCare for every iPad, which is not cost effective, even at current damage rates.

When I realised I could buy 1.8 brand new Chromebooks for the cost of one Apple iPad repair, I started to think seriously about what we had to do.

Learning and Teaching

When we started with iPad in 2010, I suppose I thought that we were heading into a new era in education with creativity at the forefront. Particularly, I thought that Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence was going to usher that in. We were led to believe that all different kinds of assessment materials would be considered appropriate for submission to our exam board. None of that happened, and we seem to be moving away from that idea at a steady clip.

At the same time, it’s worth noting that we live in quite a different world in 2019 than obtained in 2010.

In August 2010, Google hadn’t yet shipped the Cr-48 Chromebook. Dropbox was only 3 years old; iCloud was a year away; Google Docs was a year old and Drive, Sheets and Slides were all a couple of years in the future. Mobile networking was not well developed. WiFi wasn’t all that fast. We were living on a 5 Mbit internet connection shared across our whole school.

Today, many things are different but a very significant factor is the sheer speed and availability of high-speed networking. We are looking at a world where TV, movies, virtualised PC desktops and, soon, Triple-A video games are able to be delivered to you over the network with no loss in quality.

It’s also worth noting the significant impact that the rise of tablets has had on the design and capability of laptops. In 2010, laptops weighed four-plus pounds - not including a weighty charger - and got 3-4 hours of battery life. Today, they’ve halved in weight and more than doubled in battery life while getting faster, more robust and more flexible. In the final analysis, I think that the long-term effect of tablets will be that they forced laptops to get better. You can increasingly see with devices like the iPad Pro that any significantly advanced tablet usage these days is barely distinguishable from using a laptop.

When I look at the world now, I see deep and real collaboration happening across the network. We are starting to see the end of people emailing documents back and forth. Synchronous and asynchronous collaboration with people across the internet is a serious technical and social skill that seems very important to me these days.

I feel that Apple has not grasped this issue correctly. There are only two ‘productivity clouds’ in the game: GSuite and Office 365. In 2010, we chose our computers and ran the software that came on our computers. In 2019, I think that we choose our productivity cloud and get the computer that best works with that cloud. Apple simply has not and is not competing in this space and is therefore at the mercy of forces it does not control.

It seems to me that, for a school, the choice is whether you’re a GSuite school or an Office 365 school and everything flows from that decision. It’s quite difficult to transition from one productivity cloud to another and nobody will do that without a compelling reason. Google and Microsoft are matching each other blow-for-blow in cloud features, partly for each to make sure that the other never develops such a compelling advantage.

That leaves Apple, happily making what might be the ne plus ultra of local-state computing. The best fat clients ever made. As Benedict Evans puts it, the best is the last. However, I think this model of computing is becoming increasingly irrelevant and I honestly don’t know if I can envisage a long-term future for software outside of the cloud.

The kinds of software that don’t run on the cloud these days are more constrained by the difficulty of getting the data on which they operate into the cloud, rather than the difficulty of running the software itself in the cloud. For example, editing 4K video in the cloud is difficult because moving raw 4K footage to the cloud is difficult, not because building a cloud-based video editor is beyond our reach.

So what do I hope to get out of our transition to Chromebooks? I hope that we will be able to better prepare our young people for a future where work is done collaboratively in the cloud rather than on local computers. I hope to use Google Classroom to improve the workflow between teachers and pupils. I hope to see a reduction in workload for teachers through collaboration on documents with pupils and the use of tools like self-marking Google forms, and mark recording in Google Classroom.

I would like a reduction in my own sysadmin workload when it comes to swapping out damaged devices and administering new ones. We will save 56% off our current iPad budget and I hope to be able to use that to provide new educational experiences for our pupils.

It was gratifying to see Apple put serious effort into getting the desktop version of Google Docs working in iPadOS 13. However, it’s too little too late for us at this stage in our development. We might come back to iPad in years to come but, for the next four years at least, we’re going to see what GSuite and Chromebooks can do for us.