A Lack of Critical Thinking

Posted by on Sep 24, 2011

I’m a bit frustrated and discouraged at the general lack of critical thinking taking place in educational technology today.

I’ll give you a couple examples, and I’m sure some people will take the opportunity to disagree with me. Which is good. Because it will provide evidence both for and against why I’m frustrated.

I know I’ve been talking a lot about netbooks lately. Many people have responded to this post I wrote a while back, and I still think it’s an important conversation to have. Because some people are way too caught up in a device that costs way too much to do way too little for our students. Let me break this down.

First of all, people who have responded or written back about this topic saying my focus is too device-centric are wrong and didn’t take the time to read what I said at the outset of the article above. Our goals for our students are to empower them to learn how to learn. We want them immersed in experiences that will afford them the opportunity to develop their skills of critical thinking, problem solving, written and oral communication, collaboration, and creativity. The coined “21st century skills.” And, of course, we want them to continue building a solid foundation of general knowledge. That’s what we want. Now, how do we get there?

When I talk about a netbook running Linux, many people lose their minds. Because it’s not an Apple device. We are getting our HP 1103 for $267. That’s a total cost. We are running ubermix with over 50 applications. The software is rock solid. If something happens to the software on the device, it has a quick restore function that allows us to restore the machine to its original state in less than 20 seconds, while still keeping all the student files. It has full access to the web, and by full access I mean it runs everything like Flash and a completely native and full Google Apps experience that requires no work arounds. It has full access to all cloud services we utilize with students. It has a web cam. It has the LibreOffice suite, along with a wide variety of other applications for a wide variety of uses. It runs Audacity for students to create podcasts. It has a light-weight video editor. You can save and share files from a USB key. It has Scratch to help kids learn problem solving and programming. It has over 6 hours of battery life, and it wakes immediately from sleep. It presents a real, immersive means to address all the 21st century skills we are aiming at.

But, it’s not an Apple. Which some people just can’t stand. I’ve had the same conversations over and over on this, and I just don’t get it. Because people are convinced that spending at least $500 for an iPad, plus the cost of apps, to have a machine that actually does less overall, is the right thing to do. And I know there are many free apps out there, but many of the valuable apps teachers want to use with students come at a cost. Again, let’s review the purpose of why we are selecting a device. Look at that list above. Yes, an iPad can do many of those things, but the netbook can address those skills just as well, and I’d say better, than an iPad can. And, the students are in complete control of the device. They have full admin rights. They aren’t restricted to the experience that we (or Apple) are dictating for them. The netbook is still a better writing experience both for the speed and accuracy of typing and the experience of moving between applications when composing. If the solution to the speed and accuracy issue is to buy the keyboard for the iPad, you can add another $70 to your cost.

So, let’s think critically, and let’s focus on students in grades 3-8 for the exercise. Because as stated above, I do think the iPad is a wonderful device for primary age students, but the netbook is the stronger option for grades 3-8.

You can have a device for $267 that does more to accomplish the goals above, is easier to manage, is easier to maintain, is cheaper to own, and allows students to entirely experiment and learn how to operate. Or, you can have a device for twice the cost that is the opposite. Now before you melt down entirely, yes, I do think the iPad is a compelling device. It’s just not the right tool for the total cost, experience, and goals as set out above.

Let me give another example. MacBooks. I’ve had the same conversation as the one above, only substitute the MacBook for the iPad. At a cost of around $800 for the unit, plus the cost of software licensing, and possibly Apple Care, we’ll assume an average cost of $900. In fact, that is the figure that Jeff Mao states is the price that Maine paid for their MacBooks in a recent refresh of their 1:1. That means for the price of one MacBook, you can get 3.3 netbooks. Let’s discuss.

One quick point of clarification. I think Apple makes incredible hardware. I would rather have my iPhone than any other phone on the market right now. My MacBook Pro is an amazing machine that I love using for video and photo work. I say that to negate the “you’re just an Apple hater” argument. That’s not what this conversation is about. It’s about thinking deeply about what we’re making available to our students and how we are being fiscally responsible in our process.

So, thinking deeply, the netbook allows students to do 90% of what a MacBook can do. At 1/3 the price. That’s important. Because it demonstrates that 90% of the time students would have more machine than they need. So, if we can accomplish the goals stated above 90% of the time with a $267 device, why would we do otherwise? The most immediate response to that question is multimedia work. I agree with that. Video work, in particular, is a much better experience on a MacBook. And, I absolutely want our students to be creating using video. So, we provide two carts of MacBooks at our elementary buildings and six carts of MacBooks at our middle school that teachers can check out when they want to do heavier multimedia projects. We do this understanding that kids aren’t spending the majority of their time on the devices creating videos. If they are, something is wrong with your curriculum.

Let’s break this down a bit further. For our middle school, we have approximately 1,060 students. Equipping each student with a MacBook would be $954,000. Equipping each student with a netbook is $283,020. That’s a difference of $670,980. Is the 10% of what a netbook can’t do worth $670,980? As mentioned, we have six carts of MacBooks at our middle school that are available for projects. These carts were purchased prior to our 1:1 implementation, but even if they hadn’t been, we could have purchased them, with the carts, for $172,000. That would still leave us $498,980. That is a significant figure.

So, people who are telling me that a MacBook is still the right device for this scenario, I really need to see some critical thought in a rationale that justifies that difference. Because we can accomplish all the goals at a fraction of the cost by using a 1:1 netbook and several checkout carts of MacBooks.

And just because this is already a silly-long post. Let’s hit one more example. Device control.

A tech director shared recently that they force all the schools in their district to lock down their student computers to the degree that students can’t change the desktop background or modify the location of any applications. He said they do this because it liberates the teacher. And that’s all backward. Because we want to liberate the students. We give our students full admin control of their netbooks to actually learn how the device works. We encourage them to experiment and get creative and find out what makes the thing work. If they mess it up, we have the quick 20 second restore to get them back up and running. Isn’t that the kind of inquiry we’ve been seeking for our students? Don’t we want them to have ownership over the device? We talk a lot about problem solving and innovation, yet we lock down one of the best conduits to authentically learn these kinds of skills? I don’t get that at all.

So, that’s where I’m at. I know many people are doing great things with iPads and MacBooks and even full laptops running Windows, but I’d argue you could do all those great things at a fraction of the cost with a system that will be more effective and allow students more freedom in their learning.

And, I would imagine, a couple of you might disagree.


  1. Barry Stewart
    October 3, 2011


    Went to Staples after work and cleaned them out of HP netbooks 🙂 installed on a clean system and it took 15 minutes again. I’m using a fairly old USB stick so my next test is to use a newer USB stick and see if it makes any difference… will let everyone know. My wife (Educational Consultant in our school division) is about to steal this netbook (I’m using one of the ones I purchased/image to write this) to play/learn with… crap, I’m sunk 🙁 LOL

  2. Karl Fisch
    October 3, 2011

    A faster flash drive will definitely help – I have couple that do take longer to install, but not twice as long (maybe 2 minutes longer?). Are you doing the base install, or also the simple updates, or have you customized the image? Just curious.

  3. Barry Stewart
    October 3, 2011


    Yes, including simple updates as well… does that make more sense? Spousal unit still “playing” with it… had a few “oh, that’s kewl!” comments 🙂

  4. Ben Grey
    October 3, 2011

    Wow, thank you all for the excellent conversation. To those I’ve not yet responded to over the past week, I plan on doing so soon.

    Just wanted to take a quick moment to respond to Barry and Karl. Barry, I believe Karl is correct that something must not be quite right with the USB key you’re using. Jim replied on Twitter tonight, but he’s been seeing some issues with Dropbox and downloading the image. Make sure the image is 2 GB in size. I had this problem the first time I tried to create a key, and after checking the image, it was missing some data.

    We purchased 4 GB USB flash drives for somewhere around $12 each, and while the actual creation of the bootable key took time, the installation from the key on the netbook took just under 5 minutes per machine. 15 minutes seems very high. Let me know if you’re still having issues, and I’d be happy to do what I can to get you to a lower install time. I know Jim would be happy to help as well.

  5. Rob Freidhoff
    October 5, 2011


    Thanks for your articulate and factual discussion. In your blog post there are three points that jumped out at me:

    1. Our goals for our students are to empower them to learn how to learn. We want them immersed in experiences that will afford them the opportunity to develop their skills of critical thinking, problem solving, written and oral communication, collaboration, and creativity.

    2. It’s [iPad] just not the right tool for the total cost, experience, and goals as set out above.

    3. It’s about thinking deeply about what we’re making available to our students and how we are being fiscally responsible in our process.

    To me, keeping this focus in mind makes the decision a no brainer! I live in the West Michigan area and we have several districts at various stages of 1-to-1 computing, with many of them going the Apple route. This year there are a few districts who purchased iPads. I wonder to what extent they did their research on cost/benefit like you laid out above.

    If we can assist students in learning the necessary “21 skills” and be fiscally responsible at the same time, I’m all for it.

    Thanks again for the great post!


  6. Travis Hodges
    October 5, 2011

    I am the Network Manager here at Oak Lawn-Hometown District 123, and after much debate, I thought I would add my two cents.

    For people concerned with users having root level access, I assure you; this shouldn’t be something to worry about. With the wide array of devices coming in and out networks these days, individual OS policies shouldn’t be considered a security measure. It’s more of a tool to keep devices consistent. It is impossible to anticipate every type of OS, software, or potential threat that will occur. Rather than trying to limit the flaws of each OS, I would suggest taking a more secure approach on networking. With the proper VLANs and ACLs setup, you can stop the ability to perform DDoS attacks, network probes, and recon attacks in general.

    I would say one of the biggest threats in any network and especially school districts, is the ability to browse the workgroups. I’ve seen countless businesses and schools leave this wide open, yet a single ACL of denying NetBIOS Name Service can eliminate this all together.

      We have seen major improvements in the tech world in the last couple of years. Between the cloud services / applications being offered, virtual environments, and different OSes being deployed…we are now empowered to choose devices with more options. With the general development and direction technology is going, I’ll put my money on a device that can get me to a web browser quicker.

                For those of you who haven’t had a chance to mess around with Jim’s Ubermix, I strongly encourage you give it a try. It’s an amazing shell on top of an already great OS. As mentioned before by other members, I will gladly offer my advice and support for setting up devices with Ubermix or any other flavor of Linux.

    The basic fact is this, despite the OS, the students have the resources they need to become better learners. Not only are we enhancing the learning environment for our students, we are doing it without digging deep into our already shallow pockets.

  7. Karl Fisch
    October 6, 2011

    Jim just tweeted that he moved the downloads to GDocs – hopefully it will perform better than DropBox was.

  8. Ben Grey
    October 6, 2011

    Gretchen- I still think there’s an important discussion to be had about the device for the MLTI program. Because I suspect that going with $267 per device instead of $968 gives a district (or the state DOE) $701 per child to spend on all the auxiliary components of the program. For a middle school of 1,000 students, that would be $701,000. There’s a whole lot we could do to move learning forward with that kind of money.

    Tim- Clearly you’re a very thoughtful guy, and someone who is thinking critically. However, I’m afraid you’ve missed the point a bit. Because many of the anti-Apple arguments you state that you’ve weathered in your first response are exactly the criticisms doled out to Linux.

    Yes, I know that training on a netback running Linux could be just as easy as training for an iPad. We have carts of iPads as well, so I’m speaking from direct experience.

    And, can we all stop using the “it’s so easy my 90 year old grandma can use it” line, please? Or the 4 year old. Or even 2 year old. Because those aren’t the people our program is servicing. We aren’t measuring the success of our program or device on how entirely drop-dead simple something is. Though, if you want to go with this argument, the netback is a worthy rival. Ubermix was designed to be incredibly accessible from the jump. I had one of our staff members tell me last week that she left her netbook home, and her 80 year old grandma picked it up and started using it during the day while the owner was away. She was, in the words of my staff member, “clueless about technology.” She had no trouble getting online and enjoying other applications on the device. But this isn’t really fair, because I said let’s stop it with this weak argument. So I will.

    And, I’m going to be blunt, you’re simply wrong about the training needed for open source. We’ve now had our program running with 7th and 8th grade students and staff for 3 weeks. The teachers are constantly amazed at how easy it has all been for the kids to pick up and learn. I watched on our deployment date, and it literally took the students one minute to figure out the device, and get moving with making stuff.

    I won’t get you going about thin clients. Because I agree with you entirely on that one.

    Your argument about derivative work is interesting, but irrelevant to this conversation. Because every idea is begotten from some other idea. There is no way to separate the influence of other ideas on any product. And, Apple is notorious for borrowing from other product ideas.

    We run MacBooks, iPads, iMacs, and now ubermix netbooks in our district. We have about 5 times more netbooks now than any other device. And they are, by far, the easiest to support.

    “No one is buying notebooks anymore.” Again, irrelevant. Because we just bought 1900 of them. And I’d invite you to come out and see the awesome work our students are doing with them.

    And, please don’t misapply the words that I’ve said about critical thinking. I never said that if people don’t agree with me, or choose Linux for their devices, that they are not critical thinkers. I simply stated that there is a lack of critical thought about the rationale for why people would choose the more expensive device that doesn’t accomplish more than the netbook. And, in your very thorough responses, you didn’t once actually give a sound rationale for the learning goals you have and why an Apple product would better meet those goals than another product. That challenge still stands if you’re up for answering it.

    William- Thanks for the comment. I don’t feel I need to justify. I’m just sharing a solution we developed, and after having many conversations about our solution, I’ve grown frustrated that people can’t articulate why another product can better meet their learning goals. Even after all this discussion, no one who has an opposing opinion has been able to accomplish that.

    We are currently exploring options for a BYOD, but we’ve not yet implemented it. I have some thoughts in general about BYOD programs, but I’ll save that for a later post.

    Charlie- Thanks for the link to your program. I’d love to talk with you any time about how it’s going for you guys. I’m a big Apple fan as well, but I just couldn’t come up with a rationale for why we would spend so much more when we can still accomplish all of our goals, and in some ways, more, with our ubermix netbooks.

    Dave- Please go back and read my post. I think you missed some important points. Because this is all framed within the context of what learning goals we have established and how our devices can meet those goals. There’s a lot more to the post above than cost. And, the reaction by people in favor of more expensive solutions still aren’t supporting specifically why going with that option is better for learning. They are providing tautological arguments that don’t address the issue.

    Karl- Thanks for the comment. Lots of good stuff in there. I appreciate that you talked about your professional development not being specific to Linux, but rather what to do with the devices. That’s the approach we are moving forward with. It’s interesting to watch the people who are so opposed to the idea of netbooks running Linux. Especially since 95% of them have never actually tried it.

    Jim- Thanks for continuing the conversation here. And thanks for putting together and sharing ubermix. You already knew it would be the case, but it’s proven an outstanding solution for us.

    Dan- Wow, 5,000 units. That’s impressive. I agree with you that the iPad has proven an incredibly valuable device for students with specific learning needs.

    Mike- Excellent points. Many of those are the very reason we went with netbooks so students can have a full computing experience with their devices.

    Barry- Thanks for all the great information and feedback. Thank you also for being open to trying things out that Dean throws at you. I hope you get a chance to read Travis’s response below. We’d be happy to talk with you guys at any time about our network environment and how we’ve worked Linux into the ecosystem.

    Tom- I agree with what you’re advocating for your next round. That’s the way we went, and after seeing it in action now, I’m even more convinced that it was the right way for us to go. I’m still not entirely sure about the BYOD model. Perhaps I’ll have to write up a post about that for a conversation soon.

    Jim Mackey- Exactly. Getting more access for more students really supersedes much of any other argument.

    Rob- Thanks for the kind words and the comment. I’m glad you caught the salient points of the post. I’m afraid some people are missing those and thinking I’m just writing an anti-Apple commentary. That’s not at all what this is about, and I appreciate you seeing that.

    Travis- Thanks for weighing in. And thanks for all the great work you’ve done to make this successful in our district. I owe you a hazelnut coffee and triscuits.

    I want to reiterate my point and my challenge. I wrote this post because I was hearing much of the same stuff when I shared our approach with others. People get very excited about Apple and the fact we weren’t going that route. People tell me I’m wrong, and that I shouldn’t be thinking about the cost. That’s where I think we lack critical thinking in our field. Because all I’ve asked in all of my conversations about this, both online and offline, is that people explicitly articulate what your learning goals are, and tell me how the iPad or MacBook or PC solution better meets your needs in a way that our program wouldn’t. I’ve received a lot of feedback about misconceptions and inaccuracies about Linux, but nobody has yet shown us the specific merits of the other option. I’m hoping someone soon will.

  9. Barry Stewart
    October 6, 2011

    @ Karl… awesome… thanks 🙂

  10. Garybau
    October 7, 2011

    hmm.. a little confusion on the purpose of having a screen at all.
    the confusion stems form the mixed intents which are the elephant in the room.
    IF students are to perform the higher order learning tasks, they will need to be creative. IFF they are creative, they will very quickly outgrow the netbook.
    But, there is no certainty this will happen.
    The main intent, or at least the stated intent of the various administrations (i’m in Australia! – but the conversation is scarily similar!) is about cost of distribution of textbooks, and large volume of centrally purchased software. The learning tasks are never detailed.

    Those that are creative overwhelmingly use apple macbook/MBP and more recently MBA and ipad( and ipod touch) however, these are those with the cash and the passion to win the argument of experiential rather than maximum benefit(hardware) for the dollar spent.

    so the answer is, as always, it depends.
    We are about to take delivery of 350 netbooks and 190 ipads this situation arises out of the immovable locked in platforms wars that developed at parent teacher and student discussions…
    the only way through is to allow BYOD and supply either for those who cannot afford them.
    the emphasis is on the learning!
    not the teaching…

    and the assessment

    so now the blockers have been removed…it’s up to all to get on with the learning and show how ‘good’ or otherwise the various approaches can be.
    several staff have stated they do not want any computer devices, that is allowed, but the alternative program is required to be documented and outcomes measured and published..

    just get on with it!!
    the admin ‘telling’ the teacher professionals how to teach, or restricting options by the technology available has now been removed as an issue

    it remains to be seen if all members of the school community can gather their energies to respond cohesively, but even that is not really a requirement.
    diverse responses to various classroom/learning space settings is entirely appropriate.
    just leave out the platform wars..no-one needs that.
    it is a sales and marketing device to garner brand loyalty
    ..it has no place in schools( or education)
    we also mix the idea of schooling and education too often, as if all we do in schools is somehow always education!..it’s not!
    too often it’s a bureaucratic institution which has other priorities than the students in its care..time is too short.
    students only get once chance (at a time)

  11. Alexander
    October 14, 2011

    THANK YOU!!! I so appreciate this site.This is news I need to know.

  12. Barry Stewart
    October 14, 2011

    The platform arguments are a moot point/red herring… to a point. We support Macs (iMac/Mac Mini/Mac Book/Mac Book Pro/Mac Book Air) as well as iOS based devices, Android based devices, Linux-based netbooks as well as all sorts of BYOD as well as our primary platform, Windows XP and 7. DO they all have the same capability or level of integration NO! Do they all support the exact same curriculum, NO! Should they… NO! Is it harder (for the IT Department) to support multiple platforms, yes/no/depends on expectations users have of each device/platform. Do staff/students sometimes find it difficult to change between different devices/OS’s, yes… and no. Will the more “creative” (someone needs to define what that means/looks like for me) staff/students gravitate to systems with more capacity, sure. The caveat to this stems from the fact that financial resources in the education sector are, to a large degree, finite, so the investment in technology becomes VERY relative. So a financially “underprivileged” school division/district may have a very difficult time rationalizing the purchase of a Mac Book Pro (no Mac Books anymore… now you drop to the Mac Book Air… smells like maximizing profits to me) when they could purchase 7 netbooks or 2 – 3 PC systems. So if we start from the premise that all systems/platforms have value (some more than others… depending on the application) the argument (if there really is one) becomes how much can I afford to spend on my technology tools? The second and likely more important part of this discussion is how ANY tool is implemented in an education setting… is the tool (could be a computer, a text book, microscope, etc.) dropped on a teacher/students desk and they are told “It’s new and shiny… go!” or is there an implementation and support plan put in place… implementation with fidelity. Is there ongoing PD and collaboration amongst groups (Grade-Alike’s, PLC’s, etc.)… is there a culture of support and sharing and building capacity among the stakeholders. OK… the philosophical part of my brain has over-heated… time to get back to work/the real-world. Great conversations again everyone… I value your input and feedback.

  13. John Bates
    October 18, 2011

    I’m a fan of what works best in an educational environment, regardless of manufacturer.

    I agree with Ben’s strategy for using the HP/Linux/Ubermix combination for his school in lieu of an Apple product. As a technology broker, I’ve tested just about everything out there.

    When a particular school wants to forego netbooks for tablets, Apple is still not the recommended solution for an educational platform. With everything said in Ben’s article, it comes down to how you plan to use technology and what that technology gives back to you.

    When tablet machines are requested, I recommend the Asus Eee Pad Transformer. With USB interfaces (expandable memory, I/O devices), dual processing power, a 10.1″ display, Android operating system, native flash support and an actual keyboard- when used with the keyboard dock this system provides 16 hours of battery life all for the same price as an iPad.

    It’s not about being a fan of a particular piece of hardware, it’s about taking a look at your hardware requirements and making an informed and economical choice for the benefit of your student users. I/O limitations are about the biggest issue I have with iPad. Add a Bluetooth keyboard to your iPad and battery life is significantly reduced. But hey, it’s an iPad and while it’s out of juice it looks just as pretty sitting on your student’s desk waiting for it’s next charge.

  14. Barry Stewart
    October 18, 2011

    Couldn’t agree more with you John… good points. I think we need to make better business/educational cases than “It’s shiny!” as a rationalization 🙂

  15. Diigo post 12/08/2011 (p.m.) « Jordan Stephen's Educational Blog
    December 8, 2011

    […] A Lack of Critical Thinking […]

  16. D123 Forward Learning- Our Beginning - David Pohlmeier - Print, Web & Architectural Design
    December 9, 2011

    […] This fall we began our implementation by equipping each student in grades 5-8 with their own netbook running Linux. We also added a grade level cart of netbooks at each elementary building for grades 1-4 and an iPad cart at each elementary building for primary students. We also have 2 carts of MacBooks at each elementary building and 6 carts of MacBooks at the middle school for higher-end multimedia projects. I’ve written more about our device selection here and here. […]

  17. Ping Ocean
    March 9, 2012

    You can’t operate a company by fear, since the approach to eliminate fear would be to avoid criticism. And ways to avoid criticism is to do nothing at all.
    Business, more than another occupation, can be a continual managing the near future; it’s a continual calculation, an instinctive exercise in foresight.

  18. William
    April 23, 2012

    I think for the younger children, iPads are certainly a better option, as they are more simple to use. An app to check out is A Jazzy Day app. Its focused on educating young children on jazz music. I found this app to be extremely useful and entertaining for the kids. There have been so many innovations among mobile apps that I believe are unparalleled among netbook software. You can find a little more about this particular app on their website:


Leave a Reply