Why Windows Surface will replace iPads in schools

Okay, the title is provocative, but with the demise of Netbooks many schools are fumbling around with iPads as the natural successor. I’ve always said wait. I said wait last year to the CEO in Sydney and though pilots are a good thing, the iPad remains to me a ‘near future’ investment, as few IT departments have had time to establish the kind of processes and methods they have with Windows. Slow down, Wall Marts open all night.

Here’s why, and I’ll try to be concise. Apple’s business model is not to network people or schools – it is to connect paying consumers to it’s legion of app-developers. iPads are not designed to work on local networks – classrooms are. iPads deployment is volatile and the owner is a constant hostage to numerous ‘update’ demands. There is this insanity that Apple create workflows – and if you have enough apps you can build a Dreamliner on the train to work. Ahem …

So why the Surface?

  1. It is a real 64bit computer. It runs a nippy i5 processor with 4gb Ram
  2. It’s 10.6 inches, so looks and feels like a MacBook Air not an iPad
  3. It has real ports – microSDXC, USB3.0, Mini Display (HDMI)
  4. It has 128gb storage and a respectable 1920 x 1080 display
  5. It can be on a workgroup!
  6. It can use shared drives, have multiple user accounts and the kind of networking that schools like – student drives, teacher drives – the stuff that schools do well now.
  7. It has a ‘desktop’ and you can install things or image things – so you can fleet manage it without massive changes in work-practice.
  8. It plays Minecraft proper. And Steam, and Warcraft … so it’s going to grind though anything your school will actually allow to be installed.
  9. It has Narrator – which works really well for accessibility.
  10. It has Office – get over it, no school is going to give up Word and One Note anytime soon, and you can still use Dropbox and Google Apps, so don’t cry just yet.
  11. It has front and rear 720p HD cameras – I had it ustreaming and skyping at ver respectable quality, mirrored to a projector (standard classroom spec).
  12. it supports pen input. I know we all have fingers, but pens have proven popular with humans for hundreds of years too.
  13. It uses the metro ‘media’ interace for casual browsing and workflows, which feels way more fluid than iOS and if you are an Xbox user, you’ll know exactly how the system works. OR, press the ‘desktop’ tile and even the most un-interested teacher will recognise the familiar computer desktop.
  14. The 128gb version has 83gb of storage, which is more than enough for a thousand PowerPoints and essays.
  15. The one I’ve been testing has managed 6 hours on battery – enough for the school day!

Now the downside. Apple has provided many eLearning people with a fairly easy new ‘expert’ badge. Knowing about iPads and apps – pulling an off the cuff ‘oh, have you seen’ has enabled them to have a point of difference which they believe sets them apart from the regular Joe. However, most 8 year olds can read and use an iPad too, so I’ve never been impressed with iPad experts unless they’ve actually made an app or had an original idea.

So Apple iPad-ism will popular right now. The RT version of the Surface sold a mere million units in the last quarter of the year. This is due to the iPad compare and issues with Microsoft’s distribution, and early media bagging of the 23gig storage left over after RT was installed. Windows store is a ghost-town and Metro takes some getting used to (unless of course you’ve played an Xbox as millions of people/kids have).

The desktop interface is clunky, not quite useless, but hardly what XP users will be used to in your school. However, Metro boots Office nicely and in our Office no one really complained one they swiped right and booted Word. It was like someone opened the Window (pun) and in came some fresh air. It’s a tablet thats a laptop, but will slave to a desktop monitor and churn out school and university fare all day.

For most schools, the touch cover will be ‘okay’ and is essential to get the most out of the Surface experience. Things feel solid, there are click sounds – which are re-assuring, especially to those we work with who rely on audible feedback when using technology.

It took me a few days to get used to using the keyboard, but I liked it. I liked the Charms bar for navigation and loved the ability to arrange tiles into groups. Tiles being buttons which act as buttons to do things, like open a browser. If you have got an Xbox, Metro feels good and perhaps amplifies the clunky use of the ‘desktop’ interface, where tapping red ‘x’ buttons to close windows feels like a trip down memory lane. But – for those people I showed it to who have not be ‘iPad-ified’ yet, they didn’t say much about it at all. They largely ignored Metro and went back to their XP habits. Fair enough, as long as they use it right?

There are things Microsoft will work on. Apps (which for the most part schools don’t need), Video, Music and Games – which obviously they’d like you to buy as Apple does. However – for IT departments, these things can be disabled and made to go away. Even better if your school has NAS devices for audio and video, just hook into that … so play HD video around the LAN not over the cloud (saves time, money and frustration).

Reviews have said IE10 is sluggish – and of course it’s totally uncool these days. I did some load tests against a Macbook Air (Firefox) and Ipad 3 (Safari) and YouTube videos were marginally slower. However – what I’m saying is YouTube is banned most places, and the more sensible schools are running NAS servers with local streaming these days anyway – so videos are part of that place we called the Library. General websites opened just as fast in my opinion … and those using HTML5 with responsive designs loaded with less hassles than I’ve found on my iPad. So the web was not a slow-painful experience as some reports have suggested in my view.

The cameras do the job. They are not pro-sumer by any means, but for the kind of thing that kids might need them for in labs or assignments, both the video and still worked fine.

The question is – would I buy them for a school? Yes. Schools don’t have the capacity to buy into Apples vending machines in my opinion, and culturally parents and students don’t know how to create the kind of academic workflow needed, in the time eLearning gurus would like them to. I still believe great computing will come from renovating computer labs with decent, high end machines as well as a reformation of the geriatric IST, SDD, IPT and ITVET courses would do wonders.

So yes, I would buy them – despite the $1000 price tag for the 128gb model. Because as someone who’s designed and ran IT systems for 1000 plus kids and teachers on a network, the fact they can be workgrouped, managed and do the kinds of things that get kids though exams (not novelties acts at teach-meets) is the imperative.

I haven’t seen a Chromebook, but have serious reservations about thin-client machines in school or university networks. They never really worked well on a LAN let alone a cloud – and roaming profiles just lagged everything … so to me I still like my data on my network and my machines or use a VPN for teachers who are working at home for data.

More the point, I would not buy iPad minis (cost/desire) or iPads for the $369-$549. To me iPads are a bit like Alfa Romeos in the 80s. On a good day they are brilliant, but most of the time, you’re spending time and money maintaining them. There’s nothing more annoying in modern life than Apple’s relentless demands for passwords, syncing (most people wipe more than they transfer) and of course massive updates which progressively render the device with arthritis.

The CLOUD belongs to corporations – and subject to capture, abduction, outages and costs. To me the Surface presents somewhat of a hybrid device, which I could see lasting for the kind of time a school now needs – due to the end of IT funding. It also means that I could run intranets with HTML5 apps that will work to do all sorts of trick things to make kids and teacher lives easier. Yes Metro is ‘cloud’ ambitious, but the fact it’s not there yet actually feels okay to me.

The reality is that right now Apple is ‘cool’ and Windows is not. However Xbox is cool and as a first release, the have many aspects of legacy systems and infrastructure that can be more realistically handled by current IT departments. I realise many iPad advocates live in the ‘near future’ so to them the Surface will appear less – but I think different doesn’t mean less. I guess that’s why no ones asking me to design school networks … the crazy fools … designing a device for learning is like looking at the Harbour Bridge for a distance of three inches.

So 15 arguments for the Surface … and as iPads are not in schools to the kind of ‘spin’ the near-futurists claim … it might just be with more frugal times ahead, some clever school network managers might just find them just the thing to stop the tail wagging the dog.

30 thoughts on “Why Windows Surface will replace iPads in schools

    • Thanks. One day someone out there will actually take me seriously enough to actually take me serious … usually I get the ‘when I was at …” rebuff from people who of course have no idea or experience. But hey.

  1. Thanks Dean. I share your reservations about iPads in schools. I’d like to have a spare 1K to have a decent play around with a Surface, but your review will suffice for now. :)

    • Jenny, email me your address. I’ll see if I can send you one to borrow for a couple of weeks. Appreciate your feedback on this.

  2. Why either/or?

    Why not recognition that different devices and platforms will do different jobs…? And again, the digital tools are secondary to the way we support students how to think and use and navigate and organise the network? I want students to learn how they all work…and how a mobile device is a different tool than a desktop computer…and why and how they’d use each one.

    Don’t we need to steer schools and teachers away from “device” thinking – and towards facilitating learning and better supporting students to understand how they learn (as you’ve said before Dean?)

    And…all that said…how long have tablets got? 5 years? 8? 10? Ultimately, whatever the window you look through – they will all just end up controlling the rest of a networked classroom and world…

    I prefer the Ted Nelson vs Tim Berners-Lee tech arguments. Mac vs PC…I thought we’d done with that one years ago?
    :)

    • I think so Dan. I also think its linked to the Web1 vs Web2 rhetoric. There are so many devices (with halflings) between desktop and smart phone that the ideal solution is a way of funding multiple BYOD toolsets for kids, based on their needs. Funding that on an equitable level and meeting legal issues around the rights of children in education is going to be a massive challenge. We’re not in 2003, and it’s not a binary choice. Web2.0 is gone, finished and I can’t see any benefit in comparing web1 and 2 anymore. The need to me is to allow schools (and students) to have some level of discovery and expression – and in my view (which is just my view) the idea of being a Google school or an iPad school is about a market, not learning. But then the market is clearly more important in edu-social media these days as plenty of people are going to eat off the Web2.0 story for as long as they’ve got paying punters.

      I felt, that after a week or so with a surface that it had some retro-fit benefits in terms of school networking and existing knowledge practice, that I don’t think exists in schools who will no doubt buy iPads in droves. And me a life-long Mac user too – just saying, give the thing a run before discounting it.

  3. Nice post, very thoroughly-written to point out the practical advantages of adopting Windows 8 tablets over iPads.

    I would hone in and highlight one very (*very*) desirable capability of the Windows 8 “Pro” tablets, especially, for Education :: the fine-point precision stylus and Windows’ native support for digital ink annotations, handwriting, note-taking and even built-in digital ink to text conversion.

    Imagine K12 students using the coolest tablet for cursive handwriting exercises, precision drawing, annotating images, slideshows and most anything on Windows slates, taking notes, writing essay, these and many more school-related activities, all with a familiar fine-point pen. Teachers will essentially have an endless high-resolution blackboard… right in their hands…

    College students, mobile professionals, meeting goers, .et al shall also appreciate the Windows 8 fine-point stylus and support for digital ink, although being able to play the *real* Minecraft version might not do a thing to them, or so I hope.

    Greetings from Chicago.

    • Thanks Chicago. Following your comments, I spent some time with the pen and with our accessibility people using it – and we tried some rather improvised experiments with an iPad to do similar. We felt the surface had some in-built advantages too. Thanks for the input!

  4. Let me start by saying that I am a certified Microsoft engineer, so I am partial to Microsoft’s products. That having been said, I choose Apples iPad over the Surface every time.

    Let me address some of your points:

    “iPads deployment is volatile and the owner is a constant hostage to numerous ‘update’ demands.” – More than Windows? I have never had a deployment go smoother or had less support issues than the iPads in our school.

    “The RT version of the Surface sold a mere million units in the last quarter of the year.” – it’s an awful product that was released before being very useful. I am enjoying Windows 8 on a touchscreen laptop, but dumped my RT after attempting to spend concerted time with it. It comes up very short.

    “Schools don’t have the capacity to buy into Apples vending machines in my opinion” – I’m not sure what this statement means, but buying into a $600 iPad seems much easier than a $1000 Surface.

    “Parents and students don’t know how to create the kind of academic workflow needed.” The iPad Workflow is indeed tough, but getting better all the time. Our kids do not let the workflow stop them from utilizing the iPad in amazing ways to enhance their education.

    “So the Surface works like the machines we are used to.” Is that a good reason to adopt them? We are looking for new, innovative ways to move education forward. Doing things in the same old way doesn’t seem to be the right direction.

    “The CLOUD belongs to corporations” – a very untrue statement. Being a Google Apps school, we are learning new ways to use the cloud-based, massively collaborative system to engange with each other and the world.

    As for waiting on the iPads… The number one reason to sieze the iPad is the overwhelming support for it in the educational community. We are embarking on our full-fledged iPad 1:1 next year and we are connected and engaged with an iPad-in-education community that is enormous.

    The iPad is a fully-developed, mature, and vetted platform that has real, hard data supporting its impact on education.

    Surface is a brand new platform that has none of these.

    • Thanks Mike for taking the time to reply. I too have some quals in Mircrosoft, Novell etc, and its great to hear that the iPad roll out went well. When I say Apple vending machine, I am really focusing on the trend I see in education (often at the head-office level) of compiling large lists of third-party apps which many be generally useful to general subject areas. At the same time, no one knows more about a child than their teacher. In my view the on-cost of an iPad cannot be measured by the purchase price of the device, but add in the time head office spend with them. More importantly, the teacher is not leading here, but has to spend their own time (and often money) as well. I can’t agree that the Google Apps world belongs to anyone but Google. It is clearly proprietary technology of which the users data is stored within the corporation – and I don’t see any evidence that the iPad has overwhelming support in the educational community, but I welcome hearing more about the hard data showing it’s impact on education if you have time.

  5. Well done!

    I have only played with the Surface for about 10 minutes but I liked it.

    It felt like a computer and I like the much more network friendly aspect of the device. This is something I have been complaining about with the iPad since I started using in my classroom in 2011-2012 school year but I would frequently poo-poo’ed.

    The ability to workgroup and create a collaborative space is something classrooms need before personal digital devices become true learning tools. If the surface makes this happen, it immediately becomes a far better learning tool then the iPad.

    Think it is time for me to go pinch my principals and give it a real test drive.

    Thanks for this post.

  6. A comment on Twitter suggesting removal of computer labs was the best thing ever. I can’t agree with that at all. As laptops can also do science experiments as simulations, then perhaps remove those – and libraries as books can be portable and electronic, and of course wood, design, metal and art.

    Computing science continues to fall in popularity in years 9 onward and yet many executives and leaders agree technology is important. I find this hard to resolve when few schools have desktop machines which reflect the kind of environment needed to create video, audio, render 3D, play games or learn to code.

    This is my argument for computing lab renovation and rethinking the ‘everyman’ mentality and mass distribution of what have often been ‘cost-conscious’ netbooks.

    • This is what we are trying to do. Obviously with limited budgets though it is hard. Last year we bought 5 top end imacs for video effects/editing etc and have changed policies so Yr 11/12 can bring in their own top end notebooks (helpful for students doing Multimedia, Art etc).

      This unfortunately only really hits those students that have already decided they want to do this kind of work though. Still have to find ways to attract students to computing science courses. Hardware wise it does seem to be getting better over the last few years though. Yr 7-9s now using i5s with 4gig Ram (at cost to parent) and a lot of the Mac schools are buying low end macbook pros (Catholic System).

      3 years ago I could not do after effects, code a game etc with my students. Today I can and hopefully as this becomes the norm more students and teachers will find value in computing sciences and not just using an ‘app’ for a lesson.

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  8. I think the whole ‘mobile learning’ catch phrase is the cause of the sudden move to a ‘mobile device’ be it ipad or surface. I still think a laptop is a mobile device (lots disagree with me) and still has more benefits over a tablet at this stage.

    However, schools can often fall into the ‘look its new and shiny I must get it’ syndrome which means ipads/surfaces/tablets etc can be doomed to fail in a school setting unless a lot of thought is put into them.

    But this is just my thoughts….

  9. Hi Dean – have to say I fell for the title-bait! Thanks for getting my head going so well on this – it’s a brilliant and timely topic.

    I don’t really know your background – but for those I know who similarly have been awaiting the Surface and who have strong Windows PC management backgrounds I think the real debate is not Surface vs iPad but ‘more complex computer as we’ve known it for the start of the digital revolution’ vs ‘simple accessible computer that’s proving popular now’. My understanding of the surface pro (apart from its cost, lesser battery life, more weight, and small usable storage) is that its more laptop than tablet – which is fine for usage cases that require that. Perhaps upper high school needs the desktop apps that require it to be used in a desktop way (with keyboard and mouse) – but if the fact that non-PC iOS and Android tablets will overtake declining PC sales this year (even in businesses) is a sign of anything it’s that there is a fundamental shift in how we as a society are choosing to ‘do’ computing – shouldn’t school reflect that, quite apart from the advantages that the simple, personal, portable and connected characteristics of tablets bring to pedagogy? Sometime we know better than general mass of school leaders, and sometimes they are horribly led by short term ‘market my school’ goals, but they can’t all be wrong in choosing say iPads and there are now plenty of stories and research to support this and the use of simpler mor portable devices – that do yes in many cases challenge the central control over devices that schools have had – I understand this totally from the system I work in.

    Is it that the management of iPads is very different from managing PCs (not so controllable centrally)?

    Perhaps my ultimate opinion stepping back from my obvious iPad love is – why not a blend of devices? Sure perhaps there is one main one – but I’d love to see students get to choose the device small, large, PC, tablet that best fits the task – what a great preparation for life after school. Trucks for truck-tasks and cars for car-tasks so to speak?

    With your permission can I blog my reply and direct more people back here to read your thoughts? (No idea if I’ll have any readers tho!)

  10. Oh my! This article reads largely like troll bait (which makes me a troll, I guess). Consider the available user space on the Surface, after that bloated excuse for an OS manages to stumble to its feet. Granted, one can work from the cloud for a good deal of what one needs to do, obviating the need for massive on-device storage. Even so, the whole device is slow and bloated (really need another word – that one just gets too much use in connection with this beast). We’ve tested the Surface, putting it in the hands of PC-centric users who desperately wanted it to succeed. They’re back on their iPads now – every one of them. Will it improve? I hope so – we need competition. I don’t think the Surface is it, though – most definitely not in its current iteration.

    Further, it would be easier to take this article seriously if it were not so laden with egregious spelling and grammar issues….

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  12. Hi Dean – have to say I fell for the title-bait! Thanks for getting my head going so well on this – it’s a brilliant and timely topic.

    I don’t really know your background – but for those I know who similarly have been awaiting the Surface and who have strong Windows PC management backgrounds I think the real debate is not Surface vs iPad but ‘more complex computer as we’ve known it for the start of the digital revolution’ vs ‘simple accessible computer that’s proving popular now’. My understanding of the surface pro (apart from its cost, lesser battery life, more weight, and small usable storage) is that its more laptop than tablet – which is fine for usage cases that require that.

    Perhaps upper high school needs the desktop apps that require it to be used in a desktop way (with keyboard and mouse) – but if the fact that non-PC iOS and Android tablets will overtake declining PC sales this year (even in businesses) is a sign of anything it’s that there is a fundamental shift in how we as a society are choosing to ‘do’ computing – shouldn’t school reflect that, quite apart from the advantages that the simple, personal, portable and connected characteristics of tablets bring to pedagogy?

    Sometime we know better than general mass of school leaders, and sometimes they are horribly led by short term ‘market my school’ goals, but they can’t all be wrong in choosing say iPads and there are now plenty of stories and research to support this and the use of simpler more portable devices – that do yes in many cases challenge the central control over devices that schools have had – I understand this totally from the system I work in.

    Is it that the management of iPads is very different from managing PCs (not so controllable centrally)?

    Perhaps my ultimate opinion stepping back from my obvious iPad-eco-system leanings is – why not a blend of devices? Sure perhaps there is one main one – but I’d love to see students get to choose the device small, large, PC, tablet that best fits the task – what a great preparation for life after school. Trucks for truck-tasks and cars for car-tasks so to speak?

    With your permission can I blog my reply and direct more people back here to read your thoughts? (No idea if I’ll have any readers tho!)

    • Thanks for the reply Jonathon. I agree, and by being provocative – making a grand rhetorical statement – this was the kind of reply I was hoping for, so thanks.

      I agree with the problem that education tends to want a single solution and probably knows having trucks and cars is what is needed. I think the decline in laptops coincides with the blurring of public and private, or work and home and results in less choice. That sounds counter-intuitive given the range of devices and platforms available, so I can only try and explain with a short story.

      When I was 14 or 15 (some 30 years ago) my school was given a computer called a Research Machine. It was put in a small room, where the more expensive wood-work tools lived as I’m sure the school didn’t quite know what to do with it. A bunch of kids would gather at lunchtimes and try to figure out what it was and what it did. With no books, Internet or idea, we bunked off sport one afternoon and went to the local University looking for machines like it. We found some and a computer scientist. This woman eventually came to the school periodically (getting us out of class) and we’d learn to do something with it.

      The loss of computing labs is also a loss of innovation in schools. The idea we buy iPads and then a set of apps some ‘elearning’ person at head office discovered is a mistake. In my experience, computing science teachers (long ago co-opted to running the school system) still has a vital role to play. One I would hope would come under the goverment desire to ‘give principals more power’ and the demise of the DER laptop scheme and staff.

      My preference would be to operate an environment where ‘trust’ is placed before ‘suspicion’ – as I don’t think kids today see computers as a novelty item at all. I have followed Myles Carricks BYOD Tweets, where his IT-team put hundreds of kids on a network with no issues. Then there is the BYOD-N, where kids use their own 3G and BYOD-NM, where they also have online mentors to help them with certain areas of study (virtual school).

      To me, the Surface this week (and I agree it is less than optimal) has shown it can do many things well. I tilted it sideways today so my daughter could read the guitar-tab for a song in one hit – and then print to our cheap brother office printer.

      Perhaps I’m getting old, but I feel that when computers entered schools – and have had a good history of positive results – decisions were not made by people whom have almost no background in computing at all as tinkers and makers.

      My vote for the Surface, if a school is indeed to have tablets – is that by using Microsoft networked environment – the over all offering of support and instructional design materials does not have to be left to commercial companies for whom an ‘educational app’ is always about sales and not improvement. There are numerous stories about guys who took old java maths games and made iPhone apps.

      As I say, some mechanism for BYOD funding would be my preference, as it means that we are not training an army of Mac users, Google user or Microsoft users. But I get what you’re saying – the Surface and the iPad are different, just as Netbooks and Laptops were. The problem for me was the Netbook was treated as cheap-laptop – and if a school went iPad-mini, then it’s a further step away from what I think computing science should be in schools – now or 30 years ago.

      Thanks for the follow up.

      • Oh I totally agree. Especially about technology not being neutral. The issue is compounded by the problem that actually finding new models of learning (not just Blooms) or answer every second question from chapter 2, exercise 2b is very very hard. Even in trying to promote (and train) PBL and Imaginative Education, there is a constant sense that these are fringe, arty ideas. What to you feel about the ‘dirty bomb’ technology – the multi-author ‘text’ book, the typical fodder by Pearson and Jacaranda? I think that the duel technology (hardware/software) struggles to be neutral as the ‘easy option’ of text books is always lurking in the shadows.

  13. Hiya Dean – great article to get people up and about challeneging thinking and stirring the pot. Your arguments for the surface fit beautifully into the pre 21st Century model (management, control, desktop etc) – we have enjoyed the comments and discussion but think that it is a little more than just devices, ecosystems and workflows as we are sure you know only too well. We put our comments into the podcast. http://goo.gl/WoFYS

  14. I have been running all sorts of school networks and devices from Apple to cloud for 12 years. I agree with you wholeheartedly -thanks for the clear vision!

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  16. Hi Dean, Thank you for your thoughts- I think. I am a teacher and had decided I need to ask our system for an iPad so I could start using it with my students. Your article came up in the google search, I read it, and now I am greatly confused. Not in what you were saying, but in what I need to do. I don’t have an iPad, so I am not familiar with them, I have only used friends'; and I had not heard of the Windows Surface, so REALLY am not familiar with those. From the blog, I’m thinking the Surface would suit my students’ needs better, but am still unsure. I would love to be able to learn more about the Surface to see if it would be a good fit for me. Suggestions?

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