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Racing the iPad in K12 Education

Competitors give the leader a run for its money.

In the move to 1:1 computing, school district leaders are increasingly looking for alternatives to traditional PCs and laptops, and for many districts, the go-to device is the iPad. But now, for a growing roster of Apple competitors, the time has come to give the iPad a run for its money. Lining up against Apple are some heavy hitters, including Google, Samsung, Lenovo, Dell, and CDI, the largest provider of refurbished computers to schools. Such competitors say their devices provide important benefits missing in the iPad: easy content entry, long battery life, lower cost and safe transferability among students.

And the iPad’s future dominance is far from certain. “The iPad is a powerful pedagogical tool, but we are seeing the market take its course. Other companies are now providing competitive alternatives at lower price points,” says Brian Lewis, CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education.

Still, it won’t be easy toppling a leader, especially one as popular as the iPad, which has hundreds of applications for K12 education and a range of lessons available through iTunes U, more than any other tablet. Hardly a month goes by without a new wave of school districts announcing iPad initiatives. “The iPad aligns perfectly with Maine’s statewide 1:1 technology goals,” says Rick Lyons, superintendent of District 22 in Hampden, Maine where the New Hampden Academy high school recently bought 840 iPads—one for every student and teacher. “Students and parents are already familiar with the device and we are getting great feedback.”

Apple’s Extensive Ecosystem

New Hampden Academy is working to take full advantage of Apple’s extensive online ecosystem. Each student creates an individual Apple ID to access course work, homework, and a multitude of educational apps available through the iTunes store. Teachers load the bulk of course materials on the devices to allow students to do schoolwork remotely.

Jeff Woodside, chief technology coordinator for District 22, sees iPads as an indispensable educational tool. “I think a few years down the line we will see iPads replacing textbooks,” he says. Indeed, New Hampden administrators are doubling down on the iPad and recently decided to phase in over 300 new iPad minis beginning next fall.

Chromebook Goes Educational

Google already competes directly against Apple in both the mobile phone and commercial tablet markets, and the tech giant has set its sights on K12 education. Partnering with hardware manufacturers Samsung, Lenovo, and Acer, Google has rolled out a host of education-oriented Chromebooks’ lightweight, lower-cost laptops that run Google’s Chrome operating system. Many districts eager to reach 1:1 but wary of both traditional PCs and tablets are seeing the Chromebooks as an attractive choice. According to Google, as of January 2013, nearly 500 school districts across 41 states have introduced Chromebooks in the classroom.

The Chromebooks operate much like stripped-down traditional laptops with a simple multi-user interface and a dedicated external keyboard. The Google Chrome operating system links students, teachers, and administrators by storing data in the cloud, so teachers and administrators can monitor and assess students’ work.

The Chromebooks are designed to address some of the iPad’s major shortcomings: the absence of a multi-user login page, difficult content entry, and a restricted Apple-only environment. All of the iPad’s education materials must be downloaded directly through the Apple interface and can only be accessed using the Apple ecosystem. For students taking note and writing papers, typing on the tablet’s onscreen keyboard can be a slow and frustrating process. With price tags as low as $279, Chromebooks offer the functionality of a laptop for less than the cost of an iPad, for which pricing starts at $399.

“The two most valuable things about our Chromebook is the affordability and the simplicity,” says Jennifer Langan, director of mobility marketing and enterprise business at Samsung. Langan says that the intuitive and familiar devices save schools money on both IT and set-up costs, while providing a computing experience with which students and teachers are already comfortable. “In an environment where budgets are tight, the schools we work with are trying to to get dollars to go as far as they can. Chromebooks can get districts to 1:1 without straining their resources or their IT staffs.”

Rocketship Charter Chooses Chromebook

Langan’s pitch resonates with Mike Teng, technology team manager at Rocketship Education, a California public charter network that serves 3,800 students across seven schools in California and Wisconsin. Teng acknowledges that choosing between the iPad and its alternatives can be difficult. “There are major tradeoffs when considering iPads, Chromebooks or any technology device,” he says.

But when Rocketship began to move toward 1:1 last fall, Teng and his team ultimately went with Samsung Chromebooks, rolling out 1,300 devices across its seven campuses. And price was a major consideration. “If you are choosing between 1,300 Chromebooks or 600 iPads, you have to go with what gives you the most instruction per student,” he says.

Aside from the price point, Teng maintains that Chromebooks more effectively meet the specific needs of the classroom. “When it comes to flexibility and overall suitability for the classroom, we prefer the Chromebook. We appreciate the dedicated log-in page, which allows us to restrict [students’] access; we also like the ability to input content, which is great for internet researching and writing papers.”

Teng also stressed that implementing and maintaining the iPad would have strained Rocketship’s limited IT resources and forced the charter network to retool its existing educational software, which is designed specifically for PCs. “Unlike the iPad, Chromebooks are fully integrated with our existing software; that was a big plus,” Teng says.

More Competition

Rival tablet manufacturers are also beginning to chip away at the iPad’s status as the default in-classroom device. New proprietary Android tablets built specifically for schools, such as CDI’s UnoBook, the MonkeyTab and Amplify Tablet, offer education-oriented interfaces at lower prices than the iPad. “The iPad obviously has the largest tablet market share right now,” concedes Erez Pikar, vice president of marketing for CDI. “Apple has a huge consumer fan base and widespread brand recognition.”

But Pikar thinks that the iPad’s position in the K12 market is vulnerable. “Apple isn’t focused on the education space the way CDI is,” Pikar says. “The iPad sold to schools is the same device sold in stores.”

At $300, CDI’s UnoBook is intended for districts looking for an affordable and durable tablet with an accessible interface. The device is built specifically for rigors of the classroom, with aluminum casing designed to withstand abuse, and links to the wide array of education apps through the Android operating system.

Pikar is confident that in the long run, CDI and the UnoBook can mount a serious challenge to the iPad. “We have better recognition in the education market and, from a price-point perspective, we offer a better value to educators,” he says.

Dell’s Latitude

Another big player in the K12 tablet field is Dell, which is positioning its Latitude 10 tablet, introduced last fall, as the ultimate iPad challenger. The Latitude’s key differentiator, says Jon Phillips, Dell’s strategic manager for global education, is its Windows 8 operating system. For teachers and students, he says, the Windows operating system is nearly identical to what they’ve been using on PCs for years, and for district technology managers, Windows 8 offers easy centralized management and control of all devices.

Phillips says other benefits of the Latitude 10 and its Windows 8 OS include a USB port, making it compatible with memory sticks and standard keyboards and mice, and the ability to use a fine-tipped stylus, so students can draw on it and take handwritten notes.

“Windows 8 provides the pieces that haven’t come together yet,” says Phillips. “It provides the multi-touch, app experience combined with the productivity of a desktop and the centralized manageability that’s critical for IT staffs.”

Nevertheless, the question remains: given the strength of Apple’s marketing, the loyalty of its users and the power of its pocketbook, can its K12 competitors dethrone the iPad? “Apple certainly has dominant mindshare,” says Phillips. “But its control of market share may be weaker than people think.”