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Learning Library Blog Are tablets better than laptops for 1:1? No
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Are tablets better than laptops for 1:1? No

By Roger Wagner
September 30, 2014
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Outside of the early elementary grades (K-4), laptops are best for learning, and I've got the evidence to prove it. Don't believe me? Test my reasoning for yourself!

Here are just a few ways that laptops beat tablets:

Preparation for college and career. College students and corporate employees nationwide choose laptops for getting " "real work" " done. Showing up at a university or startup knowing only how to use tablet apps won't get you in the door, let alone allow you to compete with all the laptop masters. As a result, tablet sales have already started to decline while laptop sales have enjoyed a resurgence. Even Alan Kay is disappointed, and he pretty much invented the idea of the tablet computer.
To measure this, look around the next time you're anywhere people over 18 are on Wi-Fi working and/or studying. Count the number of laptops compared to tablets, and notice what activity they're using each for. 

Efficient use of time. To make the best use of limited class and homework time, students should use the technology that makes research, integration, composition and sharing as efficient as possible. A fast processor, lots of usable memory, and multiple windows to easily drag and drop files all make a huge difference.

Assess this assertion by collecting and combining five images and five text passages in a digital storybook or slideshow on a laptop. Then try the same process on a tablet. Add music and a voice narration. How long did it take on each device?

Common Core requirements. Common Core asks students to cite the sources of information and provide links back to those sources in any research project. On a laptop, this is easy to do. On a tablet, the process of copying the source URL, pasting it into a citation site, then cutting and pasting the citation into the target document can be tedious.

Try it! Record the Creative Commons attribution and an ALA citation for five images. How long did it take on a laptop compared to a tablet?

Teacher professional development. The technology you use is more important for curriculum-related professional learning than it is for technology PD. It might seem like tablets are the easier tech to master because apps are so simple to use, but if every app does only one thing, it will take far more work to integrate them into a consistent classroom experience. 

Look at a chart with apps aligned with the categories of Bloom's taxonomy. Are there 50 or more? How long would it take to do PD for that many apps, and how long will teachers remember how to use each one? Laptop software is deeper and offers more functionality in a single integrated environment.

Enhanced learning potential. Technology should be an amplifier of human work, creativity and potential. Tablets are essentially smartphones with big screens, and apps are limited to a few functions and not very demanding operations. Laptops are used more in work and college because they propel their users further toward their objectives.

Ask yourself: When a student finishes using a tablet app, what's next? How easy is it for them to go further, explore new directions or expand what they've learned into a more complex activity? Do they need a different app? Does the second app work with the first? Make a diagram of some basic tasks — making a movie, recording a narration, publishing to Google Drive — and determine how often a laptop does something a tablet can't. What about when all of the tasks go together in one project?

The maker movement. Whether your students are into robotics, interactive electronic projects or 3D printing, they are going to need a laptop.

Make your own list: Try to control an Arduino with a tablet, and then with a laptop. Or print a 3D object. Or use conductive ink to make an interactive book. And so on.

School bandwidth. A school network with 500 Mb of bandwidth will be impractical when 1,000 students are streaming content from their tablets at the same time. A laptop operates and runs applications locally, which means it's much less taxing on a network.  
Do your own investigation. Access a file with images, movies and sound on a laptop and see how long it takes to open, move through all the content and save it back to disk. Then repeat the process with a similar document from an online source. How long did each take, and what was the bandwidth use? Now multiply that by 1,000 students.

Protection of student data. Students' written work and personal information should be shared only when they want to share it, not as an unavoidable consequence of required network transmission. Mobile apps are notorious for gathering user data, and parents have a reasonable concern about the government collecting student essays on politically sensitive subjects. An essay that a student writes on a laptop and submits to a teacher over the local network is more secure than a cloud-stored document.

Ask yourself: If one of your students wrote a politically controversial essay, would you be more comfortable keeping their opinions within your school environment or allowing it to be transmitted and stored by a third party that might submit its stored information to government data-gathering?

Commercial-free schools.
 Less than half of all apps bring their developers more than $500/month. That means " "free" " apps will inevitably either fail financially in the near future or resort to advertising, selling student data, attempting to hook students on a product, or a combination of all of the above. Are you willing to spend professional development funds for an app that may not be available next year unless it's promoting a consumer product? Are you OK with inundating your students with commercials at school?

Check for yourself: Try to identify the revenue sources for the vendors of tablet apps you use. Now do the same for your laptop software.
Bottom line: Laptops are a personal productivity and empowerment device. Tablets were designed as portals for commerce. Keep this in mind when you make device decisions for your school and your children.

Roger Wagner is a science and math teacher, entrepreneur, writer, DIY maker and presenter. He serves on the board of a state association for educational technology, where he advocates for student privacy, pro-student digital citizenship and objective implementation of technologies for education.