iPad or Chromebook: 4 Questions To Ask Before Choosing

ipad chromebook

Crude mashup for your enjoyment.

For the past few days, I’ve been playing with a Chromebook. Though I have been an advocate of Google’s myriad web products since the beta-test Gmail account that I was invited to open over 10 years ago, I had not previously put my hands on one of these devices. I may be in love.

This may come as a shock since I have spent the past two years completely immersed in iPads. I love my iPad too, and my iPhone, and my mostly retired iPod Touch. However, as mobile devices go, I don’t see the need for a monogamous relationship.

With schools and districts across the country, there seems to be this preconception that a single relationship exists with regard to technology, and in particular, with regard to making a decision about mobile devices.

However, my colleagues at EdTechTeacher and I think that rather than asking which device should my school use, the more poignant question may be ‘what do I want my students to do?’ or w’hich tool will best support my students learning needs?’ In this push to pick a platform and enter into a committed relationship, teachers, administrators, and even school boards have focused on the single device instead of ‘why do you want a mobile device in the first place?’



More often than not, the answer is access. Students need access to the Internet for research, access to writing tools, access to digital creation tools. Maybe teachers need better assessment tools and want to integrate forms, student response systems, or electronic portfolios. A school could be making a fundamental curriculum shift towards the Flipped Classroom or more student centric learning. The district could embrace the 4Cs – communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity – of 21st Century Learning or the Common Core. All of these are great reasons for why, but they do not answer which one.

For right now, let’s focus on iPads and Chrome Books as they seem to be the leading contenders in the device debate. If I was still the Director of Academic Technology in a school, before making a decision, I would also ask…

What will best support my students learning?

ipads in classrooms

What do my students need in order to succeed at their own level? Would they benefit from text to speech or speech to text? Do they need accessibility features such as optical character recognition (OCR), voice over navigation, or the ability to use an adaptive device? Are my students early elementary and just learning to read, write, and type? Or advanced high school students who write lengthy essays and run math simulations?

iPads are completely accessible devices, natively supporting text-to-speech, voice-over navigation, speech-to-text (new iPad as well as some apps), and a host of other features. They can accept input from Braille keyboards, and the touch screen responds to a number of external devices for those who have challenges with fine motor skills. While there are a number of Chrome extensions to support diverse learners, the entire environment is not quite as customizable.

For early elementary students, iPad lets non readers instantly create – listen, watch, draw, record audio, take pictures, shoot video – all without needing to read. At the higher grades, when students are reading, writing, and collaborating in addition to creating, the device choice becomes more closely aligned to the learning needs of the individual student as well as the curriculum of the faculty. Will a trackpad and keyboard better support those learners rather than a touch screen? Maybe.

What do I want my students to do?


When we first started asking Why iPad, we lauded the ability to create, edit, and publish from a single device. We looked at how iPad empowered students as creators of their own learning through screencasting, digital storytelling, and eBook creation. However, iPads are not computers. They require a significant shift in thinking and approach in order to be leveraged successfully.

Chromebooks incorporate the best of the web and integrate seamlessly with Google Apps – a major advantage for Google Apps Schools. Students have complete access to their Drive accounts, a full browser, the ability to install additional apps such as Evernote or Skitch, and a standard keyboard. Much like iPad, Chromebook has the charm of “easy on/ easy off” and total mobility. Though it lacks the touch screen and dual camera functionality, the overall similarities to a traditional laptop can make for a smooth transition especially when the curriculum still relies heavily on traditional assessments such as papers, presentations, and spreadsheets.

Both devices offer tremendous capabilities, so my next question might be…

Where does my school/district want to go?

document learning in school

This is really the big picture question. Identify a strategic vision, and then choose the best device to help get there. Chris Dede, Timothy Wirth Professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, uses vignettes when describing his vision of classrooms in the future. By telling a story, he creates a tangible image what he hopes to achieve.

Start with a pedagogical framework, create clear measures for assessment, identify specific learning objectives, and paint a clear picture such that the teachers – and consequently the students – can start to innovate in order to get there. In many ways, we can follow the principles of Understanding by Design (Wiggins & McTighe). Start with the outcome and then plan how to achieve it.

iPad or Chrome Book?

I started writing this article on my iPad in a Google Doc – how iPad has changed my writing process sits at the heart of another post. When I felt ready to start editing, I opened the Chromebook and signed in with my Google Account. Instantly, I accessed my Drive and continued to edit with the facility of the keyboard, trackpad, and keyboard shortcuts. From the Chrome browser, I logged into WordPress, uploaded images, and published this post.

What if we didn’t have to choose? What if we could have a polygamous relationship with mobile devices? I understand the realities of budgets, networks, and replacement cycles. But for a moment, imagine this: what if we could give every student an iPad – which is intended to be a single user device – and place carts of Chromebooks – which work seamlessly with multiple users – in strategic locations?

I wonder what the learning environment might resemble if students could consume and annotate custom content, create with an unlimited set of options, curate their work into a variety of portfolio formats, and then connect to other learners as well as to the work that they created….


  1. Niels Jakob

    January 22, 2013 at 9:57 am

    Thanks for the comparison.

    Could it be an alternative solution to give a Chromebook to every student, and place carts of Android tablets in strategic locations? It would be a lot cheaper, and wouldn’t it be at least as good?

  2. Julie DeNeen

    January 22, 2013 at 10:07 am

    Great shakedown of two very different but excellent choices for education devices. I would be hard pressed without my iPad AND my laptop so I agree that one is not exclusive of the other. I hope other educators making tech decisions will read your article. Excellent!

  3. Greg Kulowiec

    January 22, 2013 at 11:54 am

    There are a number of iPad keyboard cases available on the market and I wonder how the conversation changes when you add something like a keyboard case to an iPad. Yes, the price can begin to escalate…

  4. Paul

    January 22, 2013 at 1:02 pm

    Good comments – choosing the educational outcome and then the tech that might help you get there. In this way the tech tail isn’t wagging the educational dog. In terms of device polygamy (lol), the point I think to all of these devices was to only have to carry one around that could do everything. So far, there isn’t really a device that meets that criterion, in spite of what the fanboys will try to sell you.

  5. Jenny Ashby

    January 24, 2013 at 2:37 pm

    Thanks for this post. We are moving from 1:1 to a many :many model this year. Students will have access to iPads Netbooks Mac laptops and iPods. It will be a choice of which tool fits the learning. Our Internet bandwidth is not always good. So I wonder can you use the chrome books not on the Internet or via wifi?
    It will be interesting to see how the teacher cope as I know the students will cope very well. Thanks again.

  6. Colin Matheson

    January 25, 2013 at 8:21 pm

    It is really nice to see a focus on what students will do with technology. Another option to consider is Ubermix. It is a lightweight, quick booting version of Ubuntu customized for schools. It has given our district easy-to-use devices with keyboards that also have local apps and storage. For me having students able to use Scratch is a huge advantage Ubermix has over either iPads or Chromebooks. It is also a great chance to teach kids about Open Source. Check it out at ubermix.org

  7. SNP

    January 26, 2013 at 4:27 pm

    I agree wholeheartedly with the basic conclusion under “What will best support my students learning?”, which is that iPads are better for very young pupils in the preliterate age, and that Chromebooks are better for older students.

    The main differentiating factor is the build in keyboard and the Google Apps for Domains for Education infrastructure for collaboration for older students, and the touch and speech interface to teach reading and other pre-literacy skills to younger pupils who haven’t yet learned to read and write.

  8. krdario

    January 29, 2013 at 2:21 pm

    Great article – but I’d flip on thing – 1:1 with the Chromebooks for every student and iPad carts for specific activities – justs make sense especially with the adoption of Google for Education and the ease of Chromebook management over the ipad. If you are using Google for your primary productivity activities – why not use the device that best supports that. Having ipads available for specific activities is a real plus to any tech program.