Windows tablets go to school: Why one school system chose Microsoft over Apple

One Florida school system chose Windows-based tablets and laptops for 345,000 students. Find out what went into the decision-making process.

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When considering enterprise technology, most of us look to large companies, occasionally considering their smaller brethren as we look for lessons we can apply to our own companies. It's easy to forget that there are "enterprises" that lack the cubes and profit motive of most companies, yet have technology challenges that can be equally or more complex.

Miami-Dade County Public Schools in Florida is one such organization. With 345,000 students, more than 40,000 employees, and more than 400 locations spread over 2,400 square miles, MDCPS is an enterprise in every sense of the word. Facing a similar decision on which mobile computing platform to adopt for students and staff, MDCPS recently standardized on Windows-based tablets and laptops. I had the opportunity to speak with staff from the school about the decision, and it was interesting to see the parallels to the decisions the average company must make when selecting a strategic technology, as well as some of the unique challenges faced in an educational environment.

An Apple for the teacher?

Once considered the sole domain of artists and students, Apple has made amazing inroads in the corporate space, with the iPad the undisputed leader in most boardrooms. With a long history in education, I was somewhat surprised that a major school system would select Windows for its tablet deployment. MDCPS took a pragmatic approach that would make any corporate CIO and CFO smile: "We took a number of factors into consideration. We looked at the content and resources that we already owned. We also looked at our infrastructure. Technical staff is already familiar with managing Windows devices and will be able to troubleshoot issues more effectively." Rather than succumbing to the latest trends, the school system's approach considered current tools and skills, as well as future-state functionality.

Another interesting point in Windows' favor was its availability on different devices. The school system plans on issuing laptops to its elementary students and providing tablets for secondary students. Windows is unique among tablet manufactures for its "split personality" strategy, whereby the same operating system runs on desktops and tablets, with dual interfaces optimized for each style of use.

Reading, writing, and most importantly, arithmetic

When considering costs, MDCPS took a holistic approach that some enterprises miss. While tablet pricing has stabilized, and most brand name tablets are +/- 10% for the unit, MDCPS "looked at the content and resources that we already owned. Some were not compatible with iOS or only provided a fraction of the functionality, and purchasing iPads would have meant purchasing additional resources to replace incompatible content." The school system also considered everything from teacher training costs and support costs to keyboards and plastic cases, building a comprehensive cost model for their deployment—a task that's just as important to a dozen-employee small business as it is to a school system with a user count that rivals the world's largest corporations.

Environmental challenges

Like most businesses, education comes with its own challenges, from government mandates to student distraction. When I asked how equipping every student with a device designed to distract would affect student-teacher interaction, the answer was a great marriage of technology and old-fashioned change management. MDCPS plans on investing in classroom management technology, so if the teacher wants all the attention of all students, she can use the classroom management tool to black out all screens so that students won't be able to use their devices.

Rather than just throwing technology at the problem, the school system also plans on investing in teacher training that will provide strategies on using the devices effectively so that students are more engaged, monitoring student behaviors, and keeping students on task. Too often in the enterprise we forget that merely sending out tablets with all the right tools won't change behavior or fix a broken process. At the end of the day, the people also need to change to best leverage the enabling technology.

Like every enterprise investigating tablets, the school system hopes for small, more powerful devices that can easily last through an entire school day. When asked what enterprises can learn from MDCPS, staff noted that, "it is important to take into consideration the resources already owned by the organization and look at all costs with deployment, not just the device itself." There is obviously something to be learned from Miami-Dade County Public Schools.


Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent ...

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