Crunching the Numbers: The Cost of Going “Paperless” with iPads

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We, as tech-loving teachers, have all heard this statement before: “Just think of all the money you’d save by going paperless!” With iPads dominating the education technology landscape as the go-to alternative to paper, teachers across the world are pleading with their school administrators for more funds in order to make the transition from paper to PDFs and handouts to handhelds. Not only would this save trees, many argue, but also a ton of money. But is this premise true? Are the costs of purchasing and maintaining iPads offset by the savings produced by eliminating paper and photocopies? I sought to get to the bottom of this, and the results may be surprising.

The “True” Cost of an iPad

A few assumptions must be made in order to proceed with calculating a “true” cost of an iPad. First, let’s assume that, in addition to a bulk purchase of 30 iPad Air (16GB) units, each unit will require a protective case and a storage option. In terms of storage, most educators will insist on a powered cart for ease of charging, syncing, and security.

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We must also think about how long an iPad will last. Some believe that its lifespan is two years, but let’s be optimistic and assume each unit will last three years.

Finally, to make a fair comparison of costs between iPads and paper handouts, let’s calculate the average cost of both options for one student per school period, assuming an instructional day consisting of four periods, and 180 instructional days a year (or 90 per semester).

All the prices that I’ll be using are based on those listed in the TDSB’s purchasing catalogues. So, without further ado, let’s go shopping:

30 iPad Air (16 GB) (@ $5005 for 10 units x 3): $15,015.00
30 Big Grips Slim Frame cover (@ $31.92 each): $957.60
Bretford PowerSync Cart: $2799.95
Total Cost: $18,772.55
Total Cost per period, per student, for 3 year life-span: $0.2897

This cost per student, $0.2897, for an iPad for every school period is likely an underestimation, as this assumes a 100% use rate for the iPads and does not take into account the inevitable costs of repairs and replacement units.

The Cost of Handouts

I must confess – I give lots of handouts to my students. Many of my math lessons involve pre-made slides using an interactive whiteboard, so I give students the unannotated slides on handouts so they can easily follow along and focus on the learning activities, rather than vigorously scribbling every word and getting distracted from discussions. For some classes, these handouts are four pages in length (two pieces of paper printed on both sides), but often reach up to eight pages if I’m providing practice questions. So, for the paper handout calculations, let’s assume the high end of the spectrum and go with eight pages of handouts per student per class.

So, exactly how much does a photocopy cost? According to the TDSB photocopier price book, “The cost per copy is $0.01183. This cost includes; equipment, all supplies except paper and staples, all service and repair costs including parts, labour, delivery, pick-up, rigging and other related charges, plus all training costs.”

Okay, so what about the cost of the paper and staples? Thanks to my school’s budget secretary, I found that a box of 5000 sheets can be purchased for $39.74 (or $0.007948 per sheet), a rather reasonable price. However, what really shocked me was the price of the photocopier staples: 25000 for $213.30! That’s $0.008532 per staple, which is greater than the cost of a sheet of paper. Comparing that to a box of 5000 conventional staples for $0.83, the photocopier staples are over 50 times the price! Bananas.

Anyway, back to the cost of a handout, consisting of eight copies, four sheets of paper, and one photocopier staple:

8 copies (@ $0.01183 per copy): $0.09464
4 sheets of paper (@ $0.007948 per sheet): $0.03179
1 photocopier staple (@ $0.008532 per staple): $0.008532
Total Cost per Student: $0.1350

Compare this to the cost per student per period for the iPads, $0.2897, and it’s clear that iPads actually cost over twice as much as paper handouts.

Other Considerations

Of course, iPads offer much more than just an alternative to paper. The value added from the myriad of other functions and capabilities is really what makes the iPad (and other tablets) the revolutionary educational tools that they are professed to be. The question is whether the added cost is worth it? Depending on the type of use, the answer can go either way; any use that’s on the lower end of the SAMR model of technology use would not justify the cost.

From an environmental and ethical standpoint, it would seem wise to consider the switch from paper to iPads. After all, the plight of forests and the environmental and ecological impact due to paper production is widely known. However, the production of iPads is not without its share of controversy. Notably, the minerals used to create iPads were sourced from countries that would use the revenue to finance war. However, Apple has recently made aggressive efforts to reduce the use of such “conflict minerals,” but cannot confirm the end of their use.

Conclusions

Let’s get back to the main question: does it make sense from a financial standpoint to switch from paper handouts to iPads? I would say no, unless teachers are committed to using them at or near 100% of the time and take advantage of their enormous capabilities. Then one can argue that the cost of iPads would be worth it. Before taking the plunge and “investing” $18,000 towards iPads, be sure to have a plan, or else you might just end up using the iPad cart as an extra surface to organize your eight-page handouts.

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