When the Apple iPad launched in April 2010, it quickly made its way into many classrooms -- by August, the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) district announced that more than 20 of its schools would test the devices in the classroom. For an entire school year, the iPads were embedded in all subjects for children in kindergarten and into high school.
The consensus back then? “What we’ve found with the iPads as we’ve rolled this out is that having kids with a device such as the iPad in the classroom — within the curriculum — is very powerful,” said CPS Technology Education Director John Connolly toward the end of the 2010-2011 school year. “Our feedback from our teachers and students is that this is something they’re using every day."
Fast-forward to June of 2011, when Google began shipping its Chromebook, a thin client designed for use primarily while connected to the Internet, as most applications and data reside in the cloud. By January of the next year, nearly 27,000 Chromebooks were in schools across 41 states. And by August 2012, more than 500 school districts in the U.S. and Europe were using the device.
And those numbers are continuing to climb. Chromebooks’ share of the K-12 market for tablets and laptops exploded from just 1 percent in 2012 to 19 percent in 2013, according to research from Futuresource Consulting. And in the second quarter of 2014, schools bought more than 1 million Chromebooks, according to Google.
All of this is leading some to wonder whether the company is starting to challenge Apple’s dominance in the school tablets arena.
“Education is very price-focused, and the Google products are not only cheaper, they are less likely to be stolen than the Apple offerings,” said Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group.
“Schools are very cost constrained, and this typically forces Apple out of the mix as too expensive.”
Schools that have purchased Chromebooks point to low cost and minimal maintenance requirements as the primary selling points.
“We went with Chromebooks because they are cost effective,” said David Andrade, CIO of the Bridgeport, Conn., Public Schools, which recently chose Chromebooks and Google Apps for Education to bring affordable technology to its students. “[Chromebooks are also] easy to use, have long battery life, are easy to manage by IT and work with thousands of free applications.”
Andrade said Bridgeport Public Schools, which serve 23,000 students in Connecticut, are based in a working-class community with high unemployment. Ninety-five percent of the school district’s students receive free or reduced lunches. “Most students don’t have access to computers outside of school and, at the time, there was a limited supply in our schools,” he said.
Initially, Bridgeport Public Schools bought 4,000 Chromebooks for its high schools, where each classroom now has enough Chromebooks for each student. After the district received additional grant money, it bought more. Today, Bridgeport Public Schools has 11,000 Chromebooks districtwide.
Andrade said the district’s goal is to eventually buy enough Chromebooks to supply every classroom in grades four through 12.
“The benefits have already been seen: students creating projects, working together and exploring,” said Andrade. “They have already changed how teachers teach and students learn: there’s less ‘listen-to-me’ lecturing, and more active student involvement in creating their own projects.”
The Chromebooks have provided additional benefits to the district as well.
“Even with over 11,000 Chromebooks, there is almost no added workload to our IT staff,” Andrade said. “At the same time, we decided to start using Google Apps for Education so every student would have an email address, something we’d never been able to do before. We also used Google Drive to move student documents off of our internal file storage system – another way to save the IT team time and money. So students can now work together and communicate with teachers even while not in the classroom.”
With Bridgeport Public Schools showcasing the benefits of Chromebooks, and Chicago Public Schools highlighting the benefits of iPads, it's clear each has a place in the education market. But is one better than the other?
During the 2012-2013 school year, the Hillsborough Township School District in New Jersey took it upon themselves to find out: It executed a comparative pilot, The Atlantic reported, giving iPads to 200 students and Chromebook laptops to an almost equal number. The outcome was this: After receiving teacher and student feedback, Hillsborough sold its iPads and, by fall 2014, will distribute 4,600 Chromebooks.
But that doesn't mean iPad users dislike their devices. The iPad was "edged out by some key feedback," according to The Atlantic, namely that students saw the iPad as more of a fun, gaming environment, and the keyboard on the Chromebook was a perk, especially given that Common Core online testing will require one. Support was also key -- managing Chromebooks was simpler.
Going forward, the battle between the two in education market could intensify.
According to the 2014 National Survey on Mobile Technology for K-12 Education, a survey of 332 district tech and media leaders, more than 84 percent of respondents said they’d like to implement a 1-to-1 solution that would provide each student his or her own device. The cost of devices and the lack of technology infrastructure to support mobile technology -- both areas where Chromebooks tend to have an edge over iPads -- were reported as the main reasons for holding back.
But Google still has a long way to go to catch Apple. In October 2013, Apple CEO Tim Cook announced that Apple had its best quarter in education ever, generating more than $1 billion in revenue on sales of iOS and Mac products, including iPads, which took a 94 percent tablet marketshare in schools.
Last year, the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second-largest school system, authorized a $30 million contract with Apple (which was expected to expand to at least $500 million) to provide an iPad for each of the district's 600,000 students.
Last fall, however, the rollout of the iPads at 47 schools generated controversy. This spring, officials shifted their strategy and are instead allowing some schools to test and choose from among six different laptops and tablets, including Chromebooks, for their students.