02 July 2014

iPads vs Macs

Why use an iPad in the classroom, if you can use a Mac?

OSx vs iOS

This is a question that has plagued me for some time, and behind it lies the assumption that if you are going to use an iPad, then you should make sure that you're using it to do something that you couldn't have just used a Mac for. Of course this assumes that you have the choice of using a Mac or an iPad, for the sake of this discussion I assume a context where the students would use an iPad in the classroom exclusively in place of a MacBook or an iMac. After some initial scepticism, I now believe that these devices do have a unique contribution to make to the classroom; below I will attempt to outline my reasoning as to why I believe this may be...


Cheaper than MacBooks at about a half to a third of the price (depending on the generation you buy), this means that you can get double or triple the tech for the same cost, especially important if you're attempting to get as many devices per student as possible. This can be the difference between one computer shared between four, or the difference between a classroom that is 1:1 or 1:2 compared to a classroom that is 1:2 or 1:4. It has to be said that iPads in particular lend themselves to a 1:1 context, as sharing them is not as easy as sharing a Mac, as they do not support multiple user accounts.

There are 'hidden' costs to consider, you most likely need to include a case, (I don't believe in screen protectors) a trolley for syncing/storage, and don't underestimate the amount of tech support required to sync and keep them updated, which is most likely much greater that that required for laptops etc.

Simplicity & Efficacy

iOS is a much simpler operating system than OSX, this means, especially with younger students, the operating system gets out of the way and students instead can concentrate on actually using the tech to learn, which is the point, right? Simply put, this means that students do not need to navigate through menus, create folders, filenames, organise files and folders and navigate the many additional conventions that would be expected by using a typical desktop operating system. Of course the question that follows this is ... When do we teach students how to use these operating systems? Surely that is also an important consideration…?

Apptasticicity (Is that word? It is now.)

The plethora of applications available for this device at a low cost or even zero cost makes for an extremely powerful learning tool. Yes, there are also plenty of Applications on the MacBook and iMac, but the Apps on the iPad are cheaper, and especially focused on doing very specific things. One App for spelling, one App for TimesTables, one App for drawing - I think you catch my drift?

The power of iOS apps versus full on computer applications is another major benefit. These are generally much, much simpler versions of their big brothers. Even the Pages App on the iPad is a much simpler pared down version of the full Pages application on the Mac. Often it seems to me that when using the full version of Applications on the Mac etc., most people are using 10%, maybe 20% of the capability of a program but the Apps on the iPad appear to focus on just doing the 10 to 20% that most people actually need. This means from a teaching perspective, we focus on the use of the tools in a way that is very effective and avoid getting sidetracked by less relevant or less important features that are not required for the task at hand.


Especially for younger students the freedom from having to control a mouse device to manipulate the cursor on the screen is a huge advantage, very few younger students have the necessary fine motor skills to control a device as (relatively) large as a mouse and often struggle to do so, especially managing left and right, and double clicking, never mind the dreaded drag 'n drop. The iPad, by using a haptic interface touch system completely bypasses all of these issues and is as easy for a three year old to control as for a 43 year old to control.

The iPad is a much more "modal" device, that is, the user is focused on one 'mode' or application at a time, you don't have the problem (or some would say, the advantage) of having multiple Apps open and accessible and usable at the same time. With the iPad it is very much one thing at a time, better for teaching and learning.


Whether you choose to use a stylus or to use the digits that God gave you (no I'm not a big fan of stylii) it has to be said that it is a much more natural, authentic experience to 'draw' or ''paint' on an iPad and it has ever been or is on a Mac, even if you try to use the trackpad as a substitute surface. 'Screencasting' Apps in particular are absolutely revolutionary on this device; I really cannot see any App on the Mac that comes even close to offering the power of annotation combined with drawing and talking offered by apps like Explain Everything and Screenshot et al. When this facility is applied to drawing, painting and image manipulation Apps, it takes on a completely new level of experience - with the ability to intuitively smudge and blur with tactile swipes and dabs there really is a sense of interaction with pixels which is almost as physical as print. Yes, I said it.


The portability of the device makes it particularly appropriate for capturing content with the on-board camera or capturing video, and then seamlessly knitting this content together in a meaningful way on the device with a minimum of hassle. Yes, this can be done with a MacBook, but trying to use a MacBook as a camera is something which would be impossible for small children to do and not advisable even for older students and adults. You have to bring the content to the MacBook whereas with the iPad you can bring the iPad to the content- particularly useful for field trips or subjects that are not portable, ie cannot be brought to the device.


The ability to group apps into folders very easily very much assists the pedagogical process as teachers can direct students to a group of apps that are focused on a particular skill, this is not often the case with a typical computer operating system.

No desktop. This saves a lot of trouble for the teacher, as the desktop paradigm leads to many problems, with a plethora of icons scattered across that virtual space - trust me this is the bane of my tech integration life. Students and teachers alike struggle with the organisation of files and folders and this often leads to work that is hard to locate or difficult to save in a way that allows the same files to be easily retrieved. The way iOS stores files within the application makes things much easier for student and teacher alike.

Sharing of student work is easy, utilising the Reflection App on a Mac (although using a classroom Apple TV makes this an option for MacBooks running Mountain Lion or later). Sharing iPad content with students using AirPlay is as easy as a couple of clicks, and then the content of the student's iPad is beamed onto the board for the whole class to see.

So why would you ever use a Mac?

Using an iPad is often very much about working around the limitations, although it has to be said that what a techie person might call "limitations" is what an ordinary student or teacher might call a welcome relief from complexity. Put bluntly, a full powered computer offers so many options that it easily becomes overwhelming - the simplicity of the iPad very much restricts what is capable of being done, but for most ordinary people this restriction is a relief rather than a frustration. But, no the Mac is not dead, not for more 'demanding' users anyway. There are times when you really need to use the other 80% of features left out of iPad Apps. Here are a few of the aspects of an iPad classroom that require some patience:

Professional/advanced Applications

If you are one of those few people, (especially High School/FE teachers/students) who actually need to use more advanced applications, I'm thinking particularly here of high end video editing, production, design, VFX, 3D modelling, CAD CAM, and applications that can that model dynamic simulations, then using an iPad is far from satisfactory. All of these require a 'proper' fully featured operating system like that afforded by an iMac or Macbook, or even a PC! But, in my experience, that puts you in the bracket of the few people who know how to use the 80% of the capabilities of a professional app that are ignored by 80% of 'normal' computer users.

Difficulties with printing 

Although there are ways around this, but you actually might not want to bother, as although this seems to be a problem with the devices, I think it highlights our over zealousness for hard copies. I actually feel this is really an opportunity to discourage the propensity for teachers and students alike to print everything that they can. The iPad encourages users to find digital medium to share their work rather than relying on printed paper.

Lack of Web 2.0 support

The '3 Cs' of Web 2.0 (creativity, collaboration and communication) are arguably one of the foundational elements of what is commonly called "21st century learning" and due to the kind of cutting edge web technology these websites require, many Web 2.0 sites will will not function as effectively (if at all) on an iPad - although this is changing everyday. It should be noted that many of these Sites provide App versions of their content, albeit usually scaled down. The Google suite of Apps are definitely more iPad friendly than ever, but they still have frustrating restrictions, like not being able to edit tables in Google Docs. If you really want to utilise Web 2.0 (bear in mind that most require students to be at least 13 years of age) you are still almost certainly better off using a Mac rather than an iPad.

iPads make it more difficult for users to share their content on third party platforms, eg, Google Apps, Sites or Picasa etc., most of these platforms cannot be exported to directly from an iPad and requires a mediating device, eg a laptop or desktop computer.


Getting content off the iPad is tricky. I've been using a central email account to make this easier, so students can just email content to the teacher, straight from a generic account on the device. Exporting captured video is more problematic, while it can, in theory, still be exported wirelessly, this in practice is extremely frustrating. Students do need to be taught the explicit skill to be able to transfer video from an iPad to a computer using a cable; on a Mac this is much easier if they use the Image Capture application instead of iPhoto. Sharing to Youtube, Vimeo, Soundcloud etc. are an option, but not if you want to avoid a whole lot of account detail entering ... Students can also utlise share Apps like Dropbox and Google Drive for this but these boil down to being variations on the email idea, and are just as useless for transferring video in my experience.


Distractions are a common temptation, this is true of any computing device but especially so with a device like the iPad that is now commonly seen by students as a gaming platform. The student may be intending to read an eBook but with the plethora of distractions only a swipe away this is something which will require close monitoring... That said this kind of monitoring is required for any acticvity is it not? I found plenty of ways to get distracted with pens, pencils and paper when I was a kid - yes, noughts and crosses, boxes, passing notes, paper aeroplanes, spit balls and biros, I'm looking at you.

There is no support for multiple user accounts; this means that in practice sharing an iPad is much more tricky than sharing for example, a MacBook. Because all of the content created by users is shared on the same device this mean they will need to be particularly careful about respecting work created by others and not deleting content that does not belong to themselves.

No Flash support

While this is gradually becoming less of an issue as more and more website shift over to content like HTML 5 etc, it is still far from being a non-issue, especially considering that so many educational websites still rely on Flash as their media tool of choice. It is possible to get around this issue by using for example the Puffin Browser App, but it is still far from satisfactory.


Logistics are a major headache with managing these iOS devices, and there are so many ways to do this although I personally find cloning one device onto multiple machines is the simplest solution. The biggest problem concerns the fact that these devices were designed to be used by one person who owns the device and not to be shared, this is clearly an argument for 1:1, but with young children many of the 'Cloud' services that are designed to make these devices so easy to use are not actually legally available for anyone under the age of 13. This effectively makes using Cloud services like Google Drive and Dropbox etc quite challenging, as it often means the teacher having to create an account which is then individually created or cloned onto each one of the class and devices; with 1:1 this is easily 22 devices or more, very time-consuming and very tedious. This is something that any user of an iOS device should be wary of, the time consuming/tedious nature of attempting to configure devices individually one by one - something I believe should be avoided as far as possible! Which is why I still rely on a mediating platform, ie, a class iMac which the students can use to offload, transfer, archive, share content, etc. That said, on a literally daily basis the ever expanding capabilities of Apps like Google Drive continue to make many of these points obsolete, iteration by iteration, eg Picasa used to be a no no, but 3rd party apps like Web Album now allow students to directly upload video and image directly to their Picasa accounts, even allowing management of albums etc, what will there be next week?

Caveat Emptor

All of these devices are changing, fast. For for all I know the next release of iOS could well make all of my concerns history - the next App update could make a tool that was a fiddly frustration into a dynamic delight; the Google suite of Apps comes to mind, although these are still far from being as effective as their equivalents on a desktop operating system.

The bottom line to me is sometimes less is more (more often in my experience less is just less) and that is often the case with the choice of an iPad over a MacBook or an iMac - for the kind of things that we want our students to use these devices for, we need LESS - we rarely need a state-of-the-art computer, a state-of-the-art tablet may well be much a more appropriate choice.

Using an iMac or MacBook for just web browsing and word processing really is just using a Ferrari to deliver milk.

Feel free to add your ifs, yes buts, and whys and more besides in the comments below.

Thanks to Shaun Kirkwood @shaunyk for providing the impetus for this post and some great feedback.

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