Buying hardware? A decision making tool
Buying tablets or chromebooks? A hardware decision-making process for your school.
Digitalization of education is a given. The advantages of using digital solutions in schools are simply too great. Schoolbags become lighter, content becomes easier to access, and costs can be saved. Above all, computers unlock the enormous potential of digital exercises with immediate feedback and all the other useful services built on the data they generate.[link]
But all too often in our 5-year experience of working with schools, we see that schools have acquired hardware that didn’t fit with their needs. Not only will such tablets or PCs often go unused, they may actually be counterproductive if bad experiences lessen enthusiasm for digitalization in the school. Don’t think such bad experiences happen rarely; we have seen boxes of tablets discarded because the teacher was afraid to allow the children to use them. So to put it simply: never skip a smart and structured hardware buying process.
Start from objectives
As with any project, the first thing to do is to decide what you want to achieve with your hardware. Do you want to motivate students? Improve learning results? Make school bags lighter? Foster collaboration? Make your school look modern? Even if you have multiple such objectives, it’s important to list and discuss them within your team, and to make your digital strategy fit with your didactic philosophy and overall strategy.
When you know your digital objectives, you will want to list the services you want to use to meet those objectives. If you need to use only one type of service (Typing reports? Digital exercises?) then your hardware choice already becomes much clearer.
Determine your playing field
Your playing field is determined mostly by how much money you or your school can organize. But there may also be considerations of space in the class/school, for instance, or the amount of time teachers have for training.
Choosing a type of machine
When investigating options, it’s important not to spend too much time browsing catalogues and checking specifications of shiny machines. This is usually an incredible time sink. Your basic options are clear: tablets, tablets with keyboards, simple PCS with a touchscreen and PCs/notebooks keyboard-based computers (PCs) or hybrids (keyboard tablets, Surface or Chromebooks).
Based on your budget and basic needs, you will need to make a choice about the type of computer you will use. You can make an evaluation table, starting from the factors that you consider important. A list of factors you can choose from may include:
· Specifications: weight, cost, battery life, operating system
· Ease of use: graphic interface, familiarity
· Need for advanced functions: video/photo editing, teacher screen control.
Of course, you can weight the various factors if you have a spreadsheet, or simply indicate which factors are important to you, or less so.
Choosing a specific model
After you have made your choice on the type of equipment, selecting the specific make and model is a less important choice. Unless you buy an $18 tablet from Alibaba.com, really bad hardware is rare. How fast the processor is won’t matter very much in a classroom environment. You do need to look out for a good screen, a good protective cover and a solid WiFi component.
If your school already works with standard suppliers (or knows reputable local suppliers), ask them for a price list. You can also do a search for “education computer” on an e-commerce platform.
The next step is to make a shortlist: selecting between 3 and 5 models that may be right for you. The first thing you need to do is eliminate the options that are definitely not right for your students, using the decision matrix you have made or simply by going for the best brand name of highest price you can afford.
Basically, in this phase, just buy the best machine your budget will allow. There is some correlation between price and quality, so unless you have reason to believe your supplier is overcharging you a bit, a more expensive machine is a safer bet.
We have skipped the step of actually ordering the computers and taking delivery, as this depends too much on your school’s procedures and local laws and habits. You will of course need to make sure you know who to use the computers and how to explain their functions to students. In the case of PCs or tablets (which are just big smartphones without a telephone function), no training may be needed, but you are probably less familiar with hybrids.
A choice you will need to make is to install parental management software (PMS) or not. These programs, available for free for tablets from the app/play store, allow the teacher to decide what websites, what apps and what content are visible on the tablets. A general rule is that if it is easy to monitor your class (if you mostly use a digital exercise tool with real-time feedback, for instance) you won’t need PMS. If you plan on using the computers for long periods of time you may want PMS for specific groups and goals:
· Up to 7 years old: consider a fully “neutered” tablet with only the apps and content/sites you like (“whitelist”)
· Between 7 and 10 years of age: usually no blocking needed
· Between 10 and 14 years of age: go for an adult content filter
· From 14 years of age: no filters/blockages, since adult content won’t do much damage and they’ll find a way to get what they want anyway.
There are also apps that allow the teacher to see what the pupils see on their computers, and even allow them to control their screens. This has little added value and probably has negative effects on the atmosphere of classroom trust.
Evaluating the purchase and implementation
In the Evaluation phase, feedback from the classes that use the new hardware needs to be collected regularly. This provides input to other classes and other schools in your network about what instrument is right for them. But more importantly, evaluation and feedback allows optimal use of the computers in your class and a smart replacement decision when the current machines become obsolete in 3-5 years.
Please note that standard hardware is not complex to run and usually does not require much after-sales support. Don’t overpay for a supplier that promises a world of after-sales service or long warranties; just get a good 2-year warranty and make sure your school has a few spare machines. Remember that your computers may last only 3 or 4 years (although some may last well over 5 years).
So: what do I do?
The overall practical guidelines are:
· The younger the children, the more you go for tablets. And the older, the more you go for full notebook PCs. Hybrids can work well for children from about ages 8 to 14.
· The more you expect from your machines (hours per week, variety of services to use), the more you need a hybrid or full keyboard computer.
· The more you know as a teacher about technology, the less you will need to stick with quick-and-easy tablets.
If you stick to the process described above, you won’t go far wrong in buying hardware for your school. Good luck!