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Mac or PC in Education?

The following was my response to a question that was submitted to the eTech Ohio State Technology Coordinator Listserv by the Technology Coordinator for Berne Union Local Schools, David McManis when he asked, "Which is better in education, Mac or PC?"
 
Mac or PC? This post will attempt to cover most of the major points brought up in this long standing discussion.

The first thing that needs to be discussed is who exactly the computers are being deployed for, and for what purpose. The answers to these questions are very simple. The computers are being deployed for the needs of the students first, and the teachers, second. Since the primary goal of educational technology is to enhance the teaching/learning process that takes place between the instructor and the student, the needs of the educators and students should always be put before the needs of IT.

 

Having said that, students and teachers both need tools that will better enable them to explore, create, research, think critically, imagine, and enhance learning. Our students need tools that will excite them to learn and grow intellectually, eventually reaching their highest potential, not tools used merely to guide them into a learning path with the possible end goal of getting an "office job." If their career path happens to take them into the office, let's prepare them for rapid movement up the corporate ladder by helping them to develop the qualities of leadership, risk taking, innovation, motivation, and adaptation to change. Having taught at the elementary, junior high and college level over the past 10 years, I am convinced that project based learning is the key to bringing out these qualities in our students, and the impetus to generating unprecedented enthusiasm and motivation in the classroom.

I don't think that anyone can argue the fact that Apple's iLife suite is unmatched on any other computer platform when looking for a multimedia project based learning suite. Photos are imported into iPhoto, video is imported into iMovie, music is imported into iTunes, soundtracks are created in GarageBand, and audio/podcasts are recorded into GarageBand as well. Once this is accomplished, all of this media is quickly accessible to each iLife application directly from within that application. GarageBand has integrated access to movies, music clips, and photos that are being managed by iMovie, iTunes, and iPhoto. iMovie has integrated access to music and photos that are stored in iTunes and iPhoto.

This seamless, streamlined, creative environment gives students and teachers highly efficient tools to quickly and easily create powerful curriculum driven projects. When students are asked to create a video about a book that they have read rather than write a book report, the change in their attitudes toward learning is staggering. The excitement generated by technology enhanced project based learning cannot be exaggerated. The result is truly amazing.

The time wasted (not to mention the added cost) trying to duplicate similar functionality by cobbling together a number of third party applications running under the mainstream operating system (coupled with the time wasted trying to show the students how to "export from this app, import to this app...export to this file format...import this format...etc.") is too great a sacrifice to our academic calendar.

When looking at the effect of students learning on a Mac, specifically their needs when going to a college or university, we need to look at the following:

1. Does the school use a course management system that is platform specific?
2. Does the school require a computer of a specific platform?
3. Can a student quickly and easily adapt to a new platform?

I've been enrolled now at the University of Toledo since 2000 working on my PhD. I can count on one finger the time when I had an issue with my Mac and UT's course management system- WebCT. My wife teaches at Bowling Green State University. She takes her MacBook down to BGSU and plugs into their classroom presentation equipment without any issues. She also posts all of her classroom content to BGSU's course management system- BlackBoard. I would hope that any college or university in this day and age would decide that a major priority of theirs should be the posting of course materials online in international web standards.

A school that requires a non-macintosh platform is no longer an issue. Now that Macintosh computers run on Intel processors, it really is nothing to purchase a copy of Microsoft Windows and install it alongside of Mac OS X on the same machine. More and more IT personnel are finally realizing that a Macintosh computer running Microsoft Windows is just a fantastically engineered personal computer running Windows. Our school has Macintosh labs that give our instructors/students the ability to boot into whichever operating system they need, to run whichever software is required for their course.

The adaptability of today's students is really incredible. I recall a conversation with a parent from my previous school. He remarked to me how wonderful it was that his son would come home from school and teach mom and dad how to use various capabilities of Microsoft Office on their Windows PC. He was very surprised to find out that his son had amassed his knowledge of office applications by working on a Macintosh at school.

Let's talk about the real world. This desire to teach students "real world" technology has never been properly debunked. Are the students who graduate from high school in the many Macintosh-based school districts in Ohio (and the country) less successful in the "real world" when compared to districts who have standardized on the other mainstream operating system? I don't have this data but I highly doubt that that is the case. To be fair, any correlation between districts that use Macs and the success of their students once they graduate should also take into account the educational technology philosophy of the districts as well. One would also have to look at the effectiveness of the instruction in the districts who work under these educational technology philosophies.

A student's preparation for the real world is the sum total of a number of factors that begin with a district's educational technology and curriculum plan, and end with the delivery of the instruction to the student. The point is, all things being equal, the Macintosh provides a much better user experience, far greater stability and security, and a higher level of productivity. The aggregate of all of these components results in a lower total cost of ownership.

Let's look at this concept of computer markets as a measure of what we should be teaching. In 1997 Michael Dell made a statement that if he was in charge of Apple Computer, he would "...shut it down and give the money back to the shareholders." See: http://www.news.com/Dell-Apple-should-close-shop/2100-1001_3-203937.html

At that point in time, Dell's market cap was much larger than Apple's. Since then, under Steve Job's leadership, Apple has:

1. Released Mac OS X (Some would say it is the ultimate desktop operating system). See: http://blog.seattlepi.nwsource.com/microsoft/archives/110354.asp
2. Released the ultimate music download store (iTunes).
3. Released the ultimate music and video player (iPod).
4. Released laptops that are now the most popular in colleges and universities. See: http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/archives/2007/10/05/news/18871.shtml and http://arstechnica.com/journals/apple.ars/2008/03/03/tim-cook-apple-has-passed-dell-to-the-head-of-the-class
5. Released a cell phone that overnight singlehandedly changed the cellular industry and is paving the way for a revolutionary mobile computing platform that will most likely combine a great deal of what we now do on our PCs, iPods, computers, and cellphones into a single handheld device. See:

http://www.apple.com/quicktime/qtv/iphoneroadmap/

Currently Dell's market cap is $47.2 billion. Apple's is $154.5 billion. Who would have predicted this in 1997? I absolutely do not say this to stir up anyone's rancor. My point is that markets change, market leaders change, and we need to look at current trends in an attempt to predict what the future will bring. Current trends show Apple's marketshare exploding. See:

http://www.appleinsider.com/articles/08/03/17/apple_snags_14_percent_of_us_based_pc_retail_sales_in_february.html

Are we really preparing our students for the future by forcing them to focus on the most popular applications of the past and the present? Why not focus on the most innovative applications available rather than the most widely used? What applications that we learned in the 80s and 90s are we still using today and are we using them in exactly the same way? Who will the market leaders be 5 years from now? 10 years from now? I believe that we should be enriching our student's learning environment with as diverse an educational technology experience as possible. Our world is constantly and rapidly changing. The pace of change is accelerating. The future productive citizens of our state and our country need to be adapters, changers, leaders, innovators, and life-long learners, not robots that are conditioned to use a single office suite of applications.

In looking at costs of computers, the biggest mistake that people make when comparing systems is that they don't compare apples to apples (pun intended). If you compare the cost of laptops of similar specifications, the Mac laptops are almost always comparable (or even less costly) to a PC of similar specs. Once you factor in the licensing costs for anti-virus (over 4 years) and any other applications that you need to attempt to duplicate the functionality of iLife (you might want to specifically check out Apple's new integrated "classroom to server" podcast publishing solution), Macs have a much lower total cost of ownership.

Don't just take my word for it. Walt Mossberg, principal technology columnist for the Wall Street Journal recently reviewed both Apple's iMac and the Dell XPS One. He writes:

"Third, defying popular perception, the iMac costs less than the XPS One. The base, 20-inch iMac costs $1,199 -- about $300 less. And even if you double the memory, and add a wireless keyboard and mouse to match the Dell, it's still $1,399 -- $100 less than the base XPS One (though Dell is currently running a sale that wipes out the $100 gap). Even the cheapest iMac has a dedicated video card with its own memory, something the base XPS One lacks."

See: http://ptech.allthingsd.com/20071227/dells-all-in-one-pc-has-the-guts-design-to-compete-with-imac/

Some people might say that my proposition is impossible from a cost standpoint. My reply is that their alternative is impossible to sustain if we truly attempt to match levels of usability/opportunity/functionality across both platforms and keep costs equal. I've been doing cost analyses of both platforms for 7 years now. The other mainstream operating system requires vastly more administration, third party utilities (ghost, anti-virus, anti-spyware, Deep Freeze, etc.), and third party applications in an attempt to bring it up to the level of functionality and productivity of a Macintosh. I would rather put the money saved into peripherals, infrastructure, and opportunities that enhance and diversify the learning/curriculum process.

Macs enable us to leverage the platform's stability, user friendliness, and lack of viruses/spyware to a cost savings advantage.

I do not believe that the bar that Apple has set in terms of functionality, productivity and stability is currently being met by other operating systems/hardware. Consider something as trivial as waking up a computer. Apple's engineering team is concerned about this and how something so trivial can affect the entire Macintosh usability experience. Our PC laptops running the other mainstream operating system take around 30 seconds to wake from sleep/hibernation. Our Macintosh computers running Mac OS X wake up in under 4 seconds. In a 1 to 1 learning environment how much instructional time is potentially wasted over 4 years if we take that into account? 26 seconds X 6 classes X 180 days X 4 years= 31.2 hours of lost instructional time waiting for a computer to wake up. Macintosh computers do a cold boot in around 30 seconds. Most PC laptops running the newest mainstream operating system take well over a minute. Instructional time is too valuable a commodity to ever waste, especially when there is a viable and better alternative.

When I need to use a Macintosh, I log into it and it is ready to go. When I use my PCs, I feel like I am constantly swimming against a current of dialogue boxes popping up, anti-virus notices popping up, lagged shutdowns because the operating system wants/needs/demands to install patches, driver conflicts that add hours of troubleshooting to what should be a basic task, other notices from the operating system questioning my intentions not once, but twice and sometimes three times, limitations to what I can and can't accomplish due to the overuse of proprietary file formats, and precautions that I fear I absolutely have to take in order to keep the operating system viable. I'm working like crazy to complete tasks that are the utmost level of simplicity on my Mac. The bottom line is if we are using a tool that doesn't maximize our productivity at all times, something is wrong with the tool. The most important thing that matters is the quality of the educational technology experience that we can provide to our students, faculty, and staff.

I would like to address withholding administrative access from teachers on their computers to protect the computer from viruses. Running a computer operating system that requires one to run solely in a non-administrative account to protect it from viruses and spyware is a serious limitation, and one that makes a huge statement as to the overall security model of the operating system. I would love to see anyone (an IT administrator included) who is working on a very important project at home come across a problem that requires a specific piece of software, then they find an application that can solve the issue, and then they are stymied with a dialogue box telling them that they need an administrative password which they don't have. I would conjecture that there are very few of us who wouldn't be rather upset.

Teachers are professionals. If good acceptable use policies are in place, functionality and capabilities of a professional's workstation shouldn't be limited if the goal is to truly have those professionals do the best possible work for their students and the school. I would never buy a model/brand of electric drill that I was forced to take to a professional every time I wanted to change the bit in it.

Time and again I hear that Macintosh computers are proprietary in nature and PCs are not. The reality of this statement is more shades of grey than black and white. A great deal of standard desktop components work with any Macintosh computer. Hard drives, RAM, optical drives, and more all work in a Mac just like they do in a Wintel PC. In fact, until a standard form factor for laptops is developed, PCs and Macs are identical in their proprietary nature. You can't put an HP laptop motherboard into a Dell, just like you can't put a Dell motherboard into a Mac.

This idea of proprietary components is really not very applicable today when districts are focusing so much of their technology integration on mobile computing using laptops. Even more challenging to this concept is the fact that an ever increasing number of districts purchase extended warranties for all of the computers that more and more of them are leasing, not buying. If purchased equipment is past the warranty date and a hard drive, DVD drive, or RAM fails, it can easily be replaced regardless of whether or not you are using a Mac or PC.

Lastly, over the past 8 years I have compiled repair data for both platforms during my job as technology coordinator for my previous school, and now my current one. The results of that data clearly show a higher hardware failure rate among PC (Wintel) computers versus Macintosh computers. Software repair incident rates are similar. Contact me if you would like to see numbers from our current help desk/trouble ticket system. Currently we have about 5 times as many Macs as PCs with a computer total over 700. As a result of leveraging the power, reliability, and stability of the Macintosh platform, we currently employ only one technician who provides support to every aspect of our educational technology infrastructure. Once again, this reinforces my belief that the Macintosh platform lends itself to a lower total cost of ownership than the other mainstream operating system.

I realize that these are very strong words, and that some of you might take them personally. This is not my intention and I apologize if my words have offended anyone. It has always been my intention to learn as much as I can about educational technology, and to share what I have learned with others. Please take this post as my attempt to offer commentary that is as constructive as possible; commentary that specifically addresses the topic of this discussion.

Chris Hamady
Director of Technology
Toledo Central Catholic High School
(c)2008 C. Hamady