The Hechinger Report is a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on one topic: education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get stories like this delivered directly to your inbox.

For an entire school year Hillsborough, New Jersey, educators undertook an experiment, asking: Is the iPad really the best device for interactive learning?

It’s a question that has been on many minds since 2010, when Apple released the iPad and schools began experimenting with it. The devices came along at a time when many school reformers were advocating to replace textbooks with online curricula and add creative apps to lessons. Some teachers welcomed the shift, which allowed their students to replace old poster-board presentations with narrated screencasts and review teacher-produced video lessons at any time.

Four years later, however, it’s still unclear whether the iPad is the device best suited to the classroom. The market for educational technology is huge and competitive: During 2014, American K-12 schools will spend an estimated $9.94 billion on educational technology, an increase of 2.5 percent over last year, according to Joseph Morris, director of market intelligence at the Center for Digital Education. On average, he said, schools spend about a third of their technology budgets on computer hardware.

iPads or Chromebooks
Seventh-grade social studies teacher Jennifer Harmsen reviews lessons in an online video on Roman life with her students at Hillsborough Middle School. (Photo: Meghan E. Murphy) Credit: Meghan E. Murphy

Meanwhile, the cost of equipment is going down, software is improving, and state policies are driving expectations for technology access. “It’s really exciting,” said Douglas Levin, executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association, “but at the same time it’s really challenging for schools to have confidence when they make a decision.”

iPads have so far been a gadget of choice at both ends of the economic spectrum: in wealthier schools with ample resources and demand from parents, and in low-income schools that receive federal grants to improve student success rates. Last fall, enthusiasm for the Apple device peaked when Los Angeles Unified Schools, the second largest system in the nation, began a rollout out of iPads to every student.

“We can’t keep up with the trends in personal devices.” Paul Smith, supervisor of network services for Miami-Dade County Public Schools.

However, the L.A. district quickly recalled about 2,100 iPads from students. At the end of the school year, leaders announced that schools would instead be allowed to choose from among six different devices, including Chromebooks and hybrid laptop-tablets. L.A. schools weren’t the first to falter: At the beginning of the 2013-2014 school year, Guilford County Schools in North Carolina halted an Amplify tablet program, and Fort Bend, Texas, cancelled its iPad initiative.

Hillsborough took a different approach. During the 2012–2013 school year, the district executed a comparative pilot, giving iPads to 200 kids and Chromebook laptops to an almost equal number. As other schools rushed into programs they would later scrap, Hillsborough took a more cautious approach, hedging its bets and asking educators: How can we get this right?


In June 2014, seventh-graders filed into Jennifer Harmsen’s Hillsborough Middle School social studies class. They sat in a u-shaped forum of desks. Native American artifacts hung on the walls and a world map mural enveloped a corner of the room in blues and greens.

Students pulled Chromebooks from their book bags, opened them, and got to work. They watched a video lesson covering topics like aqueduct architecture and Roman numerals. When they finished, Harmsen directed them to put the devices in “listening mode,” and they snapped the lids down.

After receiving teacher and student feedback from the 2012–2013 school year, Hillsborough sold its iPads and will distribute 4,600 Chromebooks by the fall of 2014. The students in Harmsen’s class had been on Hillsborough’s iPad pilot team, and Harmstead admits she was a little disappointed when the district chose to go with Chromebooks. She said being on the pilot iPad team transformed her classroom approach after 24 years of teaching and made her a digital-education advocate. But now that she’s spent a full year using the new device—a pared-down laptop that stores files on the Internet—she agrees with the decision.

iPads or Chromebooks
A student in Jennifer Harmsen’s seventh-grade social studies classroom at Hillsborough Middle School watches a video on his Chromebook about life in ancient Rome. (Photo: Meghan E. Murphy) Credit: Meghan E. Murphy

Other iPad pilot teachers came to see the benefits of laptop capabilities, too. “At the end of the year, I was upset that we didn’t get the iPads,” said seventh-grade science teacher Larissa McCann. “But as soon as I got the Chromebook and the kids started using it, I saw, ‘Okay, this is definitely much more useful.’ ”

While nobody hated the iPad, by any means, the iPad was edged out by some key feedback, said Joel Handler, Hillsborough’s director of technology. Students saw the iPad as a “fun” gaming environment, while the Chromebook was perceived as a place to “get to work.” And as much as students liked to annotate and read on the iPad, the Chromebook’s keyboard was a greater perk — especially since the new Common Core online testing will require a keyboard.

Another important finding came from the technology support department: It was far easier to manage almost 200 Chromebooks than the same number of iPads. Since all the Chromebook files live in an online “cloud,” students could be up and running in seconds on a new device if their machine broke. And apps could be pushed to all of the devices with just a few mouse clicks.

Hillsborough educators also tend to emphasize collaboration, and they found that Google’s Apps for Education suite—which works on either device—was easier to use collaboratively on Chromebooks.

“Our goal was [to find out] not really which device was better, per se, but which device met the learning goals,” Handler said.


Although Hillsborough ended up settling on Chromebooks, the laptop versus tablet debate is far from settled nationwide. The education market is currently split fairly evenly between the two types of devices, said Phil Maddocks, a market analyst at Futuresource Consulting. The laptop market is varied, but iPads account for the vast majority of tablets used in schools.

iPads or Chromebooks
Students sit down to watch an online lesson on Roman life in Jennifer Harmsen’s seventh-grade social studies classroom at Hillsborough Middle School in New Jersey. (Photo: Meghan E. Murphy)

David Mahaley, a head administrator and active classroom teacher at Franklin Academy in Wake Forest, North Carolina, has had iPads in his classrooms for four years. The AP human geography course he teaches is paperless. His students use the iPad to annotate text, share with other students for collaboration, and even create e-books. He says the device makes his teaching job easier and gives the students more opportunities for digital creativity. He’s encouraged other educators in the Wake Forest school system to use the 1,650 iPads for everything from learning materials to classroom assessments.

“I don’t own Apple stock or anything like that; I see the iPad as a great tool that we’ve been able to exploit,” said Mahaley. “I come at it as a practitioner.” Still, he acknowledges that different schools have different priorities, and the iPad might not be the best choice for students of every age and learning style. “You’ll probably never find the answer of what is the right device,” Mahaley said. “First you have to ask: What do you want the device to do for your children?”


To make the decision even more complicated, companies are constantly updating their products. In September, Baltimore County, Maryland, will pilot a new hybrid laptop-tablet in 10 elementary schools. Over the last year, teachers and students there have had the chance to experiment with more than a dozen different devices, said Lloyd Brown, director of the information technology department. When Baltimore leaders asked if teachers wanted a tablet or a laptop, the answer was, “Both.”

At Hillsborough, the Chromebooks are currently being supplemented by 3,000 Nexus tablets, handed out by Google as part of a new pilot program. Susan Fajen’s fourth-grade classroom is now littered with devices. Students work together in pairs, elbow to elbow, one holding a tablet, the other typing on a laptop.

During the past year, Fajen’s kids used tablets to record their voices for a project on tall tales, and to design parade balloons before making them in papier-mâché. But for word-processing projects, like blogging, the kids took out their laptops. Fajen paused when asked which device was better. “It’s hard to choose,” she said.

Money is, of course, a limitation. The Chromebook is the least expensive of the devices in question, with a retail price starting at $279. iPads start at $399. There are many hybrid and convertible tablet/laptops available, but one of the most popular, the Microsoft Surface Pro 3, starts at $799. And the HP EliteBook Revolve 810 Notebook, chosen by Baltimore County Public Schools, starts at $1,299. That’s almost 4 1/2 times the retail price of a Chromebook, though schools do get bulk purchasing discounts and negotiate with the vendors for cheaper prices.

In Miami-Dade County, Florida, a large urban district with 320,000 students, schools are promoting a “bring your own device” model. “We can’t keep up with the trends in personal devices,” said Paul Smith, supervisor of network services. Miami-Dade delayed its technology rollout after hearing of the Los Angeles iPad recall last fall; this year, it will have provided about 48,000 laptops: Ninth-grade history students will take them home, while seventh-grade civics students will each have a device in class. Some elementary students will have laptops on carts in their classrooms. Still, the system doesn’t have enough money to give a laptop to every student. So, leaders are urging parents to buy computers and will try to fill any gaps with district-issued devices.

“We’re doing as much as we can to move it from a school responsibility to home,” said Debbie Karcher, head of information technology for Miami-Dade County Public Schools. For now, only parents who work within the school system are eligible for credit-union loans to buy devices at the district’s bulk rate pricing. (About 30 percent of Miami-Dade schoolchildren have a mother or father employed by the district.) But Karcher believes that the declining cost of technology will make money less of an issue for most parents in a relatively short time.

“If you look back at the calculator, you almost had to be a millionaire to buy the first Texas Instruments,” Karcher said of the bulky scientific devices once needed in high school math and science classes. “Now it’s not even a technology we talk about anymore. I kind of see this going the same way.”

Reproduction of this story is not permitted.

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn't mean it's free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

Join us today.

Letters to the Editor

11 Letters

At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information. We will not consider letters that do not contain a full name and valid email address. You may submit news tips or ideas here without a full name, but not letters.

By submitting your name, you grant us permission to publish it with your letter. We will never publish your email address. You must fill out all fields to submit a letter.

  1. Megan,

    This article is a succinct description of what is going on with integrating 1:1 technology into the classroom. Being the Google guy I am, I think Chromebooks are the answer, but there isn’t really an answer. Systems have to do what works best for them.

    The one thing I feel is missing from this discussion is the notion of professional development. We can give teachers all the devices in the world, but unless there are people there to help teacher’s grow in using the devices, there will be issues. From the outside, that seems to be where the let down in the Los Angeles schools took place. Teachers had the iPads, but they didn’t know what to do with the iPads.

    If you are looking for a district that has done a great job of integrating devices AND providing professional development, look towards Richland 2 in Columbia, SC. They have provided wrap around professional development to assist in implementing a 1:1 initiative that has led to student success.

    Great read!

  2. So much depends on where across the K-12 landscape you focus. At a K-6 school that has moved technology into classrooms and conflated the library and computer lab into a Learning Commons, we see tech being subsumed in the curriculum (as it should be as a tool). Classes book Learning Commons time for PBL adventures and other cores like safety, research etc. but in the classroom, the technology becomes just another part of the modern classroom. For elementary learners, the amount of application firepower is clearly in the iPad court at the moment. Until we achieve an agnostic platform neutral understanding, most districts will need heterogeneously configured solutions.

  3. What’s missing from this article is a discussion of the pedagogy behind the technology choices. High time we moved these kinds of discussions away from ‘which tool is the best?’ to ‘what do I want students to achieve in their learning experience, and which combination of tools might help facilitate that?”

  4. Good read
    We in sweden are faced with the same issue. We are smaller in scale, some municipalities are actually on the the forefront on Sweden and Europe. We take largely a fotenote from you Americans first. The last five has been an amazing ride. I’ve always been using ICT in some form or the other started with PowerPoint’s with a massive old projector on the whiteboard. Now its like throw it on the wall and whatever sticks. From a mixture of Compaq winPC to iPads, macs and one year with chromebooks. I’ve seen it all. As a Google Edu school we are pushing Chromebooks; cost wise and flexibility, more integration with the Google edu apps and user experience. And don’t mean the basic apps… But pedagogy, drive and inspiration ais still the key. We are still facilitators of the raw information. We must facilitate, rework and adapt information in a form the student will appreciate

  5. Get all of this garbage out of our classrooms. Education is fundamentally the art of human interaction and the social and economic costs are simply too great.

    The whole premise of this article is disturbing – do we give our taxes to Apple or to Google? Furthermore, all of the technology spending is geared toward consumption. None of it is geared to turning students into developers.

    Lastly, when teachers do actually find technology that is useful for their classrooms, they are quickly told that there is no money for it. This underscores what “Technology in the Classroom” is all about, the transfer of public coffers to big corporations seeking highly profitable contracts.

    For those who think I am some 80 year old Luddite liberal arts teacher, I am a 38 year old AP Physics teacher who previously worked as a statistical programmer (quant) in finance.

  6. My district just went through this decision process. What settled it for us, in the end, was the huge difference in repair costs: $50 for an iPad vs. $250 for a Chromebook.

  7. Dear, SALVIATI.

    Please look something positively. Google Apps for education is absolutely Ad free. No payment for any services. It stops world aims to consume way big amount of budget for inappropriate investment for technology in education but something right and better way where we should aims.

    Truth is that world is changing by technology even if I don’t like to follow with money/tax going to big IT company. Our digital era is still learning from our generation any how. It is our responsible to direct correctly while school and family waste money and passion for something they believe that is right.

    I understand what you concern about digital/technology revolution in our classroom nowadays. The core value of education will never be changed while someone has a concern like you. So, we will see something better and efficient education with continues reminding.

    Buy $600 iPad for educational purpose and just use it for facebook and play minecraft, of course, it is wasting. But, $200 chromebook is still oriented to education within cloud computing and collaboration between teacher and students.

    This article helps to see what issues behind of choosing supplementary or could be primary tools for education today.

    Where will you stand while you are still young age?


    Simon Park.

  8. No one talks about the risk of theft or break in with these devices….

    In some cities, kids are already walking targets coming home from schools if they have pricey sneakers…Now, the schools give them computer to carry…..The schools become sitting ducks with so many ipads and mac books….

    There are school where AC units get stolen….. surely some will breaking and take an IPads(400 bill) or mac books(1200).

  9. perhaps the title should have read, Educationn vs. schooling: iPads vs. chrome books.

    if the argument is summed up by saying chrome books are better for testing..then what is the purpose?

    certainly not open ended learning..
    if there is a set syllabus, and testing regime, then the objective is to get highest scores possible, rather than be creative and develop understanding.

    sums up the education /schooling..21st century citizen/19th century factory

    the final assessment will be in ten years from now, when the syllabus is (even) less relevant and former students need to keep learning to adapt to changing circumstances..

    by all accounts the technology revolution has barely started!!
    the changes since apple ][ are small compared o what are in the ‘pipeline’..

    these conservative schools are making things easy for their staff at the expense of preparing future citizens..rather getting high test that is ‘their job’..

    teachers in 2014 have a greater responsibility!

  10. First, in California, it is illegal to buy any electronic device which replaces textbooks with school construction bond money according to the 2004 Bill Lockyear California Attorney General’s Opinion. LAUSD has been breaking the law by buying iPads at now $2,355 each for the package. This will bankrupt any school district and then they can privatize you. This is what Deasy, superintendent of LAUSD who has a phony PHD, just go to John Deasy, University of Louisville, on the web and see for yourself.

    If they are illegal to buy with this money in California why are we even talking about do they work or not. Now, Google has a program for electronic devices for learning which fits into the general fun budget using Title 1 and general fund items like the textbook account.

    In the LAUSD, Jaime Aquino, Feb.13, 2013 Power Point on page 16 LAUSD, Aquino and Deasy, state that they will not spend more than $200 with a 5 year guarantee for these devices. In another section they state they will pay $1,598 each, which is later approved by the so called Citizens Bond Oversight Committee. Highway Robbery in our schools.

    Later this same committee approved $2,566 each. Divide 1.5 billion by 650,000 enrollment or 541,000 ADA and see what the cost/student is in bankruptcy world.

    If you cannot afford it you cannot have it, unless the plan is to financially wipe you out in the first place.

  11. As others have stated, the focus should not be on the device. It is what the teachers and students DO with the device that makes it worthwhile – or a waste of money. If there is little or no professional development for teachers, the device, whatever it is, will be used as a substitution for paper and pencil and nothing will change all that much in the classroom. See the SAMR theory of implementation

    Many school districts are throwing tons of money into equipment and ignoring the need for the type and amount of professional development necessary to change pedagogy in a technology rich environment. Even if there is acknowledgement of the need for training, usually it focuses on how-to use of the device, not changing the way a teacher delivers instruction. Proven since the ACOT ( in the 1980s, many school leaders still ignore the importance of proper professional development and then do not understand why the program fails, or, at worst, why the students never use the equipment or use it only for games. I honestly do not understand why leaders do not take the time to read the research, or, at minimum seek out and listen to the people who are informed about the research, before implementing these expensive programs. Devices will change. Any device used well can support student learning in ways that go far beyond what was possible in the past. And, professional development needs to focus on the changes that can occur in a classroom with readily available access to technological tools whatever they may be.

Submit a letter

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *