How To Pick The Best Device For Your Grade Level

We are living in a post-desktop era where bluetooth is ‘old school’ and cloud services are becoming a basic human right . Taking that into consideration, choosing the right device for students in and out of the classroom has become a more complicated question. What should schools, teachers, students and parents consider in their computing hardware choices?


The Operating System

ipad iosIs the OS even a consideration any more? Maturity in the educational technology sector now gives us sufficient time and space to reflect on the past with at least some distance. The traditional rivalry between Apple and Windows continues but seems to have less of the white hot intensity of just a decade ago. Historically Apple have been stereotyped as the 1980’s technology of choice for education with the green screened Apple IIe machines and software titles featuring “Logo” and “Where in the world is Carmen SanDiego”. In contrast Windows was the platform of choice for those who want to get work done. The business sector would arguably be Microsofts greatest gain. During the 1990’s the competition was so unbalanced one could be forgiven for thinking Apple had closed up shop yet their resurgence through the Ipod brought the company from the David and Goliath image toward a more level playing field. Despite Apple’s continued marketing as the more nimble underdog there can be little doubt that its similarities to Microsoft now outweigh its differences. Oddly enough while two traditional and fierce rivals are more evenly matched the passion for the fight seems to have come out of the public consciousness, instead replaced by a desire for harmony and a laissez faire attitude to operating systems.

Perhaps as a sector we have reached a point of maturity where the question is no longer about operating systems and brand names but rather pedagogy and educational outcomes for students. 

Leaving the choice of operating system aside, tablets, netbooks and notebooks all come with their own merits and downfalls.

Notebook Computers

google chromebook official

The greatest gain to be had in a fully fledged notebook is resources. Those resources reside in processing capacity, storage and variety of quality software options.

The detractors to notebooks for schools cite battery life, weight and cost as inhibitors to the technology.


hp mini netbook

Source: PCMag

In contrast to notebooks netbooks reduce the price and weight factors while still providing the option for full keyboard use and reasonable screen real estate.

Unfortunately this comes at the cost of software options, storage and processing capacity as well as battery life.


samsung galaxy tab android tablet

Source: IntoMobile

Regardless of the choice between Android and Apple the benefits of portability and battery life shine through in addition to the suite of applications available for a minimal cost compared with the larger forms.

Unfortunately tablets are not great devices for content creation. It is impractical to write essays on a touch screen, similarly most productivity and creativity tasks are impacted by the lack of grunt and ergonomic data entry mechanisms.

Computing Needs By Grade Level

Primary / Elementary School

While computing skills and web research are an important part of the early years of education security and safety for the students lead me to argue the one to one computing is inappropriate. Purely from a safety angle it is risky to have young children in possession of expensive, desirable devices for transport to and from school. Rather than setting children up for these types of dangers dedicated computing spaces kitted out with ergonomically appropriate furniture and desktop computers can provide the experiences required all with a lower risk, cost and maintenance profile. Supplementary to these dedicated spaces netbooks for classroom usage may be of benefit.

Junior Secondary

In the middle years of schooling access to technology for creation of content is central. The feature and power range to develop video style content and perform basic image manipulation is key and for that reason notebooks lead the charge in the usefulness stakes. It is also of great benefit for students at this stage to have regular typing experiences so that the skill set becomes developed prior to the intensity of senior years.

Senior Secondary

As students move toward external, high stakes examinations the need for information consumption takes precedence. While the creation of content such as videos and animations are good learning experiences those activities often don’t work on a cost benefit analysis (time / learning analysis).

It is in this context I would argue for tablet devices as a primary tool with desktop support in the home for the development of extended writing pieces.

In short there is no perfect one size fits all solution. Each form factor and operating system has their own strengths and downfalls. What is most important in the ongoing debate is that decisions are made with the major focus on student outcomes not on periphery factors such as brand or administrators personal preferences.

Author: David Matheson


  1. glovely

    August 19, 2013 at 10:31 pm

    Thank you for addressing the need to select tools based upon the learners and the learning. While I might agree that 1:1 might not be appropriate for some children and some locations when the children are carrying the devices back-and-forth to school and home in the Primary/Elementary School, I do not think that the choice of desktop machines is the best solution for early learners. Multitouch touchscreen tablets provide access to images, tools and other resources to young learners in ways a keyboard and mouse or touchpad simply do not. The tablet interface is virtually invisible to learners, getting out of the way of student interactive use of these devices. Young learners can create on tablets with ease. Please consider apps like “Explain Everything”, “Book Creator” and other creative tools as evidence of just some of the potential creative use by young learners.
    with respect, Gail Lovely

    • David Matheson

      August 20, 2013 at 5:18 pm

      Hi Gail,

      No offence taken at all. I was hoping someone could and would challenge that aspect of my thinking because it is the weakest by a long shot. My personal background is in Australian boys secondary schools (ages 12 – 18), from this vantage point we work closely with our primary school colleagues but never really know what it is like in the classroom. I’m not at all surprised by the suggestion around tablet devices in younger years because my one year old is quite capable of turning one on, unlocking it and opening the apps she wishes to play with (scary). My initial thinking around desktops is three fold: 1. Safety, 2. Cost, Ergonomics and maintenance and 3. My sense is that the early years of education is around the basics of numeracy, literacy, social skills, etc. which may be more effectively taught in other modes. Even while I write this reply I can see the applications which would support each of these ideas. In short I can certainly appreciate your perspective and see its strengths while acknowledging my own weakness in the area. It is the final lines in the original post that aligns with this conversation, every context is different and educational outcomes should be the main player in the decision making debate around devices.

      Thanks for your thoughts.