Apples (The White Plastic Kind) Endangered at TDSB
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Apples (The White Plastic Kind) Endangered at TDSB

Why, at the very crest of Apple’s latest wave of buzz, is the Toronto District School Board moving to phase out Mac computers in all its facilities? Lots of reasons.

The decision was announced in a briefing note, submitted to the TDSB’s trustees on November 13 by Lee Stem, general manager of Information and Technology Services for the Board. The rationale for instituting the plan revolves around the costliness of Macs as compared to similarly equipped PCs, and the alleged difficulty and expense of performing automatic maintenance on two platforms, rather than one.
“The Apple computer in a large-scale network―their capabilities for automatically managing that many machines really pales to what’s available in the PC world,” said Stem, during a phone call. The Board’s network serves nearly 63,000 computers (for over 250,000 students), roughly 8% of which are currently Macs.
Under the plan, the Board will stop introducing Macs into classrooms for general-use purposes. The Board’s existing general-use Macs, once they reach the end of their service lives, will be replaced with PCs. The Board will then continue to purchase Macs, but dramatically fewer than they currently do, and only for use in classes dealing with subjects where Mac is considered the industry standard (like video editing, or art).
“At the end of the day, it really comes down to getting as many devices in the hands of as many people as possible,” added Stem. “Every penny that we save…all that money is going to bring more technology into the hands of kids.”
Many teachers at TDSB schools have publicly objected to this planned course of action. Among them is Chris Higgins, a Swansea Public School tech instructor who started an online petition in protest (it currently has almost five hundred signatures, many from community members and TDSB employees). In particular, Higgins mourns the impending loss of Garage Band, a program that comes bundled with new Mac computers.
“It’s really a unique program,” he said, speaking over Skype from a computer in his school’s Mac lab. “It does podcasting better than any other program. It’s unique to Mac. Not only can you record your voice and do the fade in, fade out, and all those types of effects, but you can put multiple tracks in.”
Higgins employs Garage Band with primary-school students, who use the program’s intuitive interface to make multimedia class projects. There is no PC version of the program.
“I have never seen a child who didn’t love the program Garage Band,” said Higgins. “There are some really good PC programs, but none that reach or even come close.”
Higgins is concerned that primary-school students might be the group most severely affected by the Mac-reduction plan, since the type of specialized skills training for which Macs would be reserved doesn’t generally begin until secondary school.
Over at Grenoble Public School, a second technology instructor registered his dissatisfaction in a video plea for sanity, which he recorded on one of his school’s iMacs and posted on YouTube (see below).

Grenoble Public School media literacy teacher Colin McAuley makes a YouTube plea for continued Mac support in the TDSB.

The strongest pushback to date came on January 5, when Trustee Michael Coteau introduced a motion [DOC] that insists not only upon continued support for Macs at the TDSB, but also upon the immediate integration of iPhones into the Board’s systems. The motion will go before the Board’s Administration, Finance and Accountability Committee on January 27 (coincidentally the same day Apple is expected to confirm the existence of its mythical “iSlate” at a press event in San Francisco).
Scott Baker, a teacher at Pringdale Gardens Public School and a former technology consultant with the Board, has also been publicly opposed to the plan. He wrote a lengthy and impassioned open letter to Chris Spence, the new Director of Education for TDSB. The letter argues, among other things, that Macs are actually, in the long-term, cheaper to own than PCs, despite the fact that their initial cost of purchase is higher. Supposedly, this is because Macs are built of high-quality components and are less prone to breakdown and malware infection.
Unequivocal proof of this claim is difficult to come by. Apple computers inspire a devotion in their most enthusiastic users that has often been described as “cultish,” and, as a result, a majority of the anecdotal information available on the long-term costs of Mac computers relative to PCs is suspect. In any case, anecdotal reports have little value for organizations the size of the TDSB.
Professional IT research firms occasionally take stabs at the “total cost of ownership” question for large organizations, but the resulting reports cost hundreds of dollars to read, and are only freely available in bullet point form. Stem said that several of these were consulted prior to the announcement of the Mac-reduction plan. (Stem: “We’ve done our homework on this.”) It is true that there is currently less malware targeting Mac OSX than Windows, but experts speculate that this has to do with Mac OSX’s comparatively small market share, rather than any kind of inherent invulnerability to attack.
Another common lament over the handling of Macs at the TDSB is the Board’s perceived over-reliance on Microsoft-focused networking architecture. Evidence strongly suggests that this complaint has some basis in reality. In 2006, Microsoft published a case study describing TDSB’s experience with a Microsoft-certified consultant, who sold the Board’s IT department on the alleged superiority of Microsoft’s ill-fated Vista operating system. Vista, released to the public in 2006, was superseded after less than three years when Microsoft released its latest operating system, Windows 7, in 2009.
At the moment, the exact fate of TDSB’s Mac minority is uncertain. An internal committee consisting of teachers, administrators, and representatives from Information and Technology Services has been formed at the Board, and is currently negotiating the precise terms of the Mac rollback. Whatever the outcome, though, it’s a certainty that the next generation of computing resources in Toronto’s public schools will be PC-centric. TDSB renewed its contract with Dell last year, and will pay an estimated annual sum of six million dollars for new desktop PCs and associated hardware over the next five years.
Other large urban school districts, meanwhile, have built networks that successfully integrate multiple different computing platforms. Chicago Public Schools, with nearly twice as many students as the TDSB, pointedly assert equal support for PC and Mac in their technology plan [PDF]. It is unclear what additional costs, if any, might be associated with integrating the two platforms.
It is difficult to say how much of the conflict over Macs at TDSB truly springs from issues of cost, and how much is tangled up in simple preference for one type of machine over another. Do the Mac’s easy-to-use applications and low malware infection rates outweigh the PC’s easy automation and low initial cost of purchase? Absent a detailed analysis of the relative weights of these considerations from the Board, teachers who rely on Macs in the classroom can’t help but feel wronged.
“The bottom line,” wrote Baker in response to an emailed question, “is that decisions that affect the classroom are being made by the IT department without input from the people (teachers) that these decisions affect.”