Open Letter to Phil Schiller re Student Success and Chromebooks

In case you haven’t seen it, this is a CNET Headline from November 13, 2019 . . .

“Top Apple exec says students who use Google’s ‘cheap’ laptops at school are ‘not going to succeed.’”

I know I’m very unlikely to gain a sit down with Mr. Schiller, but if I could, these are the things I’d like to talk about. Starting with this: the number one factor in student success, above ALL other factors, is “Collective Teacher Efficacy,” which means “a staff's shared belief that through their collective action, they can positively influence student outcomes, including those who are disengaged and/or disadvantaged” (source).

What devices students have access to is not on the list of the 252 most important influences on a child’s educational success.

So, I think it’s safe to say, Mr. Schiller, you’re wrong.

It’s hard to imagine an executive at a major company being so out of touch about my field as to make a statement like this, especially if he really believes it and it wasn’t just a publicity stunt or something spoken out of desperation for Apple’s failure to keep up sales in the face of the Chromebook. After all, according to the same article where Schiller was quoted, “In 2018, 60% of all laptops and tablets purchased for U.S. K-12 classrooms were Chromebooks, versus 18% for Apple products.” Are all of the educators making these decisions ruining kids’ lives as Mr. Schiller implies? I don’t think so. Here's why . . .

#1 Student success has absolutely nothing to do with what device students use in school. I definitely believe students should be using devices to create in school. I also believe that one of the most important forms of creation is writing, and as a person who does a lot of that, I’d say a device I can type on would be more conducive to writing as a form of creation. You can do that with a $650 iPad if you also buy a $60 keyboard, or you could just buy a Chromebook for ½ to ⅓ of that total price. Either way, you’ll be able to write and create most anything you can dream of, and that will be good.

#2 Devices that actually work are better than devices that don’t work. In most of the situations where I’ve seen iPads deployed, one of two things has happened: Hundreds of thousands of extra dollars have to be spent on backend equipment and software to be able to push out/control/manage those iPads so that they will “work.” When this doesn’t happen, educators often report the devices end up being used as gaming devices that distract students from learning. Unless your school or district has an extra few million lying around and is willing to spend that on people to touch, update, and maintain iPads AND a few hundred thousand to dedicate to hardware and software to manage them, you’re much better off with Chromebooks. A fleet of thousands of Chromebooks can be managed by one person through a free console.

#3 Creation occurs on the web, not on a device. It’s 2019 and nobody even talks about “Web 2.0” anymore because software as a service is so ubiquitous that we don’t remember what life was like before. No matter what device you’re using, what you’re creating is probably largely being done on a remote server. You’re just seeing images that help you manipulate that process, but the work (processing) is probably happening NOT on your device. Yes, yes, you can download apps on an iPad and use it offline; you can do the same thing on a Chromebook, but I don’t think you’re going to particularly enjoy it on either device. Want to pull in a photo? Internet. Want to look up a quote? Internet. Want to back up your work? Internet. Want to pull in a template, asset or resource? I bet it’s on the Internet. After all, you probably didn’t know what you needed or wanted it until the second you needed it or wanted it. Knowledge is not all in your head anymore; the skill is bringing it together from disparate sources and molding it into something new, different, and ultimately, meaningful. For this, you need to be able to access all of those sources . . . on the Internet, and publish . . . on the Internet.

#4 Creating in order to learn is a device agnostic process. It’s certainly handy to have knowledge of different pieces of software, whether they’re web based or apps to be downloaded, so that you can use the right tool for the job, but the device hardly matters at all. What does matter is a good teacher who understands that creating is a learning process and also understands how to make lessons where students are doing instead of consuming. That is the art of teaching.

#5 Access to two devices is better than access to one. For the price of one iPad, you could have two Chromebooks (or maybe even three). I don’t think all instruction or creation needs to be or even should happen using a device, but as an educator, I sure would like to have as many devices as possible all the way up to 1:1. I was an English teacher, and I never worked in a 1:1 environment during my K-University teaching career, but I got as close as I could, scavenging every computertized thing I could find for my students. In the rest of the world outside education, no one is writing on paper and transcribing later to a device; we’re using the technology that exists today to write, revise, edit, and publish, just like I am right now. I would want my students using the same process in the classroom that I use in my work. It’s faster, easier, and makes more sense to produce this way versus spending time laboring with a pen and paper. Unless the goal is learning handwriting (debatably worthwhile), I want to see students writing more, more, more. It’s one of the only things that can make writers better. Well, why not make a podcast instead, you say? Great idea! You can do that on just about any web connected device including a phone. I’m going to need to make some notes first; please give me a keyboard, and don’t make me share; I have to get in my own head to write and for me, and kids like me, sharing is not going to be effective until I get my own ideas down.

#6 Creating multimedia projects is an intriguing way to learn, and you can do that on any device, but honestly, you’re probably not. When you head out to Cupertino to drink the Apple juice, you’ll learn, probably to your great surprise, that kids everywhere are already using iPads to make movies, songs, podcasts, etc. on a daily basis as the core of their learning. I spend most of my waking hours in schools talking to and working alongside K-12 educators, and Apple’s message is profoundly out of touch with what is actually going on in K-12. The vast majority of school work is text based. I am not saying this is right or wrong, but it IS reality. State standardized testing, as much as it is lambasted, still has a stranglehold on public schools, and Mr. Schiller is right, you can do that testing on Chromebooks and not iPads, making Chromebooks a great dual-purpose purchase for school leaders who have no choice in whether or not to give those tests.

There are zero creative activities on any state standardized test.

Until there are, students are going to be working with words and numbers during most of the time they spend at school. Multimedia projects are skillfully and effectively woven in by top teachers, but this is far from the norm, even in the best schools. Once again, I’m not saying they shouldn’t be used, but a combination of teacher knowledge, device access, administrative support, and the ability to assure the curriculum remains front and center is required, and all of those things are often in some state of disrepair, no matter what type of devices are available.

#7 If you REALLY care about education, you’ll know that software matters more than hardware and Google gives theirs away for free. The Google ecosystem, called G Suite for Education, is a profoundly flexible platform that includes a workflow system called Google Classroom. A fully functional and safe system is free for any public school and can be used to manage Chromebooks in addition to the other features. This system ALSO works on every competitor’s device; that’s right. EVERY ONE. Due to the inherent limitations of iPads (no keyboard, difficult multi-tasking, tablet form factor, etc.), it’s not as easy to use as on a Chromebook, Mac, or PC, but it is still as fully functional as on any other tablet device. In fact, almost every school that has iPads ALSO uses G Suite for Education with which students are completing assignments on a daily basis. If Apple really believes their “stuff” is superior and can save education and therefore children, why aren’t they providing something similar to G Suite for any device?

Where’s web based Garageband or iMovie, free for every teacher and student, Apple?

I could go on (and on, and on) about why Chromebooks are actually a better choice for education than iPads, but the thing is, I don’t need to. No one at Google needs to either. We can instead spend our time and energy solving the problems of our education system and improving the lives of children instead of bickering about devices.


CEO, friEdTechnology

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