When selecting a device, the first thing you want to do is a needs assessment. Who will be using the devices, and for what purpose? It is very painful to watch administrators and educators make a decision to buy the latest and greatest devices when they don’t even know how they are going to integrate them into the learning process. Unfortunately, this happens all the time, and it can quickly become a money pit. So, my advice is to conduct a needs assessment (you can find plenty of examples with a quick Google search). It’s also a good idea to consult with an instructional technologist as well as someone in IT. You need to know what type of technical and instructional design support you will get for the devices you choose.
Now, I will weigh in on the pros and cons of the different devices:
Tablets. These are all the rage, and many claim that the iPad will revolutionize education. Keep in mind that the jury’s still out on that one. I love my iPad, no question. And as a student, I use it all the time for downloading and reading articles, making digital flash cards, and browsing the web. Do I think tablets are good for libraries? That depends on what you will be using them for. I think tablets are an awesome solution for library staff, provided your library catalog is mobile. Roaming reference, mobile inventory, mobile checkout. You can really do a lot with a tablet in the library. What about students? That depends on what your students will be doing with them. Research on a tablet is not ideal, and not all database vendors have decent mobile apps (yet). Instruction using tablets can be done, but from an instructional technology point of view, there are better, cheaper options out there. Ever heard of Apple picking? That’s what happens when someone steals your Apple device. Considering all the students that leave their stuff laying around in the library, and then walk off to use the restroom or get a drink, if you purchased and circulated iPads, theft is something to be concerned about. So, bottom line, don’t buy tablets just because everyone else is. Really consider your needs and uses.
Netbooks. Netbooks are an inexpensive alternative to the laptop, and a good choice if the main uses of it will be web browsing, word processing and spreadsheets. Two advantages I see in the netbook, as compared to the tablet, are keyboards and USB ports. These make more sense for doing research, writing papers and creating presentations. And they support flash (unlike the iPad). If you already have laptops that are heavily used, consider the netbooks. They cost half as much. And that might mean you can buy twice as many.
Chromebooks. Vacillating between netbooks and tablets? Consider the Chromebook. These have much of the same functionality as netbooks (keyboards, USB ports), without the operating systems. Everything is done in the cloud. Google Docs, Skydrive, and now Office 365 can be accessed through Chromebooks. They are also good for reading e-books, though there is not currently a Google app for Overdrive (a Kindle Cloud Reader app is available). Schools and libraries are just beginning to adopt the Chromebook. And at a similar cost to the netbook, but without the expense of licensing software, Chromebooks are the one to watch.
Finally, there is a trend in both schools and corporations to adopt a BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) program. I am not yet sure how successful this will be. If it is successful, there is potential for enormous cost-savings. Consider how a BYOD program would look in an academic library. I see a lot of physical space being freed up where PCs once sat. And maybe more libraries could adopt the learning commons model. Something to think about.