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Making The Grade: Does your deployment need physical keyboards?

Making The Grade is a weekly series from Bradley Chambers covering Apple in education. Bradley has been managing Apple devices in an education environment since 2009. Through his experience deploying and managing 100s of Macs and 100s of iPads, Bradley will highlight ways in which Apple’s products work at scale, stories from the trenches of IT management, and ways Apple could improve its products for students.

A question I often get about iPad deployments is whether or not to purchase keyboards. It’s a difficult thing to pick because it’s really going to depend on how you plan on using the iPads in the classroom. Are you doing tasks where the keyboard would make it easier? Then use a keyboard. If not, don’t use a keyboard. With iPad, the default should be touchscreen keyboard unless a student is doing work where the physical keyboard would make it easier.

Downsides of using a physical keyboard

I have a love-hate relationship with touchscreen keyboards. I love the flexibility that they bring, but I also know that I type a lot slower on them (I’ve used TapTyping to help train students on touchscreen keyboards). It does open up the power of the software keyboard, though. It disappears when it’s not needed, and it gives you the full screen for content. This concept is one of the key things about iOS. It’s all screen. It’s what has made the iPhone different from all other smartphones. If you are planning lessons that require the use of a keyboard 100% of the time, your deployment might be better served with a Chromebook.

Benefits of using a physical keyboard

Adding a physical keyboard to the iPad certainly does increase the ability to type quicker. I’d argue that is just a small reason to use a physical keyboard on the iPad, though. One of the main reasons I use it when I do is so that I can see the entire screen. When the iPad software keyboard is activated, half of the screen is gone. When you are using an app like Google Docs, being able to see more of the screen is a huge feature. The 9.7″ iPad feels very cramped when writing using the software keyboard for long periods. I also struggle ergonomically when I use the iPad for longer period writing. I feel like I’m hunched over the iPad to be able to write and see the screen.

Which keyboard for the classroom?

This question is one where I answer differently if I am choosing for myself vs. a classroom full of students. I love Bluetooth keyboards for myself, but the thought of pairing 20+ keyboards to a class full of iPads is not something I want to set up nor manage ongoing. My favorite keyboard for iPad deployments is the Belkin Lightning keyboard. It’s a wired keyboard, so there is nothing to configure. A student plugs it up and can get to typing. It also includes a stand, so it keeps an iPad at an optimal height. We’ve had them for a couple of years, and I’ve been very happy with them.

Like I said earlier, I don’t think you need these all of the time. I wouldn’t recommend it for your entire deployment. I ordered 20 when I purchased our iPads to have when we needed to. When students are writing reports, we bring them out. Otherwise, we rely on the software keyboard.

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Bradley lives in Chattanooga, TN where he manages Apple devices for a private school. 

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