Reading into the value (and limitations of) Chromebooks

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Update 5.21.13: added some info from some posts I made to groups as follow ups to this article to the tips section, as it may be useful info for some. 

I was lucky enough to be asked to be on a panel at this month’s NYCIST meetup, to discuss the value, challenges and advantages of a 1:1 program. I was thrilled to be included, but my little not-so-secret is that we actually have no 1:1 program at my school. Instead, I’ve set up what I’ve started semi-jokingly calling our 1:whatever program, primarily using Chromebooks.

A little history. Google first introduced the Chromebook in the summer of 2011, along with a really enticing pricing model for education: subscribe to the hardware, don’t buy it. $20/month/unit would get you the hardware, Google support, cloud management from the web-based admin console (part of your Google Apps for Education dashboard, actually), for a 3-year term. The initial offer was amazing: sign up, get the Chromebooks, use them for 3 years, keep the old hardware at the end of three years and get new hardware if you sign up for another term.

That didn’t last. Sadly. Google didn’t want to stay in the hardware, billing and sales game, and shifted the model slightly so that sales of the units are now actual hardware cost up front, plus $30 for lifetime management and support. Hardware warranty now (sadly) shrinks to a year or whatever the manufacturer offers, and repairs go through the OEM, not Google.

Because the subscription model was amazing, and I had a small staff and a large user base that primarily needed web and Google Apps access, we jumped in. We got three class sets, then replaced all our Dell laptops in the Library, then added additional units for other class sets, self-services carts and smaller collections students could check out from offices. It’s obviously harder to do this now, since large orders have a large price tag, instead of the glory days when you’d just pay by the month (sad face).

(Some practical lessons: have a good sign-out system (we use Google Calendar and sign-out slots) and suitable charging carts or Chromebook lockers, and perhaps some rolling cases (we used the pick-n-pluck to make it easy to run off with a full class set). Make sure you have excellent dual-band WiFi, and note the configuration tips below at the end of this post. Additionally, for printing, I would recommend a dedicated Cloud Print server – some always-on machine that all your networked printers are installed on/added to with the Cloud Print server running on it.)

Back to the panel. At last month’s meeting, Jay really got me thinking about the value of iPads; he made a really compelling argument that (heavily paraphrased language follows) “working within a single platform allows you to curate an amazing experience on that platform that is consistent for all your users” (please correct me if you remember what you actually said, Jay!), which is totally true, and perfectly sums up why a 1:1 iPad program can be utterly amazing if you do it right. Many on the panel noted that one of the main goals of a 1:1 program and edutech in general at present is enabling access: getting technology the hell out of the way so that students can actually find/research/create/share/communicate in the moment without the technology becoming the activity. Properly implemented 1:1 can do this, however there are many practical considerations that drag along behind this like a cartoon prison ball. Can your school afford the FTE’s or contractors (or leasing) needed to support all that hardware? Do you have policies or a faculty that can deal with constant distraction presented by a student-attached device? Can you afford all the hardware itself?

This goes a long way in further explaining why something like Chromebooks was a good practical option for us to explore. We have a small staff (myself and three amazing technologists), a large student body (over a thousand) and a few hundred faculty and staff. We needed a hardware system that would require minimal staff hands-on time for any and everything (updates, fixes, installs, troubleshooting), be inexpensive to purchase, deploy and replace (even purchasing outright, you can get four 11″ Chromebooks for the price of a single 11″ MacBook Air!), meet the needs of our students and faculty (again, almost everything was web or web app-based) and be fast and easy to use.

So here we are. Now, to be fair, there are caveats to using Chromebooks:

  • No Microsoft Office, which really only impacts people doing extremely heavy data crunching or graphing in Excel or folks who need to do elaborate rich formatting in Word. 
  • No Java, which used to be an obstacle that prevented us from using some great things like Geogebra, but any Java apps with educational value are thankfully migrating to HTML5.
  • No touch interface, which does prevent some of the amazing & innovative apps you’ll see on an iOS or Android device from becoming part of the everyday student experience if you rely mainly on Chromebooks
  • If your school is not running Google Apps for Education, then this does not make practical sense for your organization most likely, because of the tremendous and necessary features/value of the integration with Google accounts & Chrome sync.

But that said, as I’ve mentioned twice above, for > 90% of your users, this may not be an issue. Things like video editing or desktop publishing will always need a media lab with beefy processors, a desktop OS and big screens (though maybe not too much longer for video editing…), but really, step away from Creative Suite Cloud (oh Adobe, why have you forsaken us?) and why do you need a true computer? Honestly. Chances are you don’t.

So the strengths? There are several. Going back to the aforementioned idea of access: as long as you can place carts or sets of them nearby enough that they can be had easily with sign-out/advance planning or within a few moments of a neat spontaneous idea, they go from cold boot to signed on in literally fewer than ten seconds. Once a user is signed on, their bookmarks, their extensions, Chrome apps (including the ones you’ve selected for them), heck even their Chrome theme all sync down. This enables a student to grab one, sign on, have an experience and then continue that exact same experience wherever they log into Chrome next, using the desktop browser at home or on another Chromebook anywhere else on campus later on. Files can’t get lost, hard drives dying becomes moot, and perhaps one of the biggest barriers of all to access is removed: the hardware itself, because the thing that’s being used like a computer is really just a cute dumb terminal, like back in the old days. Along those lines, Chromebooks are a lousy choice for a 1:1 device, only because it defeats the purpose! They’re meant to be shared, and there’s no point in buying 1:1 hardware if you can get enough so that 1:whatever works: people should be able to access one where and when they need to, and it’ll take some time and planning to figure out what the right numbers are.

But perhaps the biggest strength is something that didn’t occur to me until a comment made in the final minutes of the NYCIST meeting. Someone noted that we are always teaching students to use a certain collection of technologies that seem like the right idea at the time, but many become obsolete or overly proprietary in time. While this certainly could be true of things like email in general/Gmail, Google services, certain educational sites that are popular at present, etc., unlike any other piece of hardware, Chromebooks do not present a risk of teaching students a platform that will not exist. Let me put that another way: devices like iPads, Nexus tablets, laptops with keyboards, hybrids like the Surface Pro – all of these are hardware platforms with their own software ecosystems, and by committing to any of them, you are placing a bet. Some are safer than others (BlackBerry Playbooks for everyone!), but you’re still opting for one at the expense of whatever the others might offer (and more critically, teaching students how to use a system that may or may not endure into their adult years). VHS beat Beta, but was killed by DVD; HD-DVD lost to Blu-ray, but the thing that was consistent throughout was the video itself. Similarly, among the various app ecosystems on the different tablet/desktop OS platforms, there is also a consistent thread: the web.

This is the main strength of the Chromebook. Make no mistake, you are indeed completely, totally missing out on all those shiny, lovely, amazing touchscreen apps, but you are also avoiding teaching/locking students into a hardware platform. Instead, you are simply enabling them to harness the power of the entire web in a way that is transparent, portable, consistent from classroom to classroom, Chromebook to Chromebook and campus to home. Despite Wired’s inflammatory cover story, the web is not dead, and it’s not going anywhere anytime soon; with the incredible power HTML5 offers and that Google is showcasing at I/O right now, once the Pixel doesn’t cost $45,999 anymore, maybe having a touchscreen and the web will mean that touchscreen OS devices aren’t so special after all. I mean, it’s already started.

Finally, a final note on access. If you’re not 1:1, then it can be difficult for faculty to assign work without knowing that all your students have a device at home they can use to work on; even if they do, they may not have fast or reliable broadband. Having a Chromebook with integrated 3G is a very inexpensive way to hand students a safe, sturdy broadband connection and computer in a single device. Also, having made it through Sandy, Chromebooks with 3G were really valuable during the recovery.

Finally finally (really this time), here’s my list of specific recommendations if you’re interested in/thinking of deploying Chromebooks in a shared environment:

  • For hardware, if you need tiny or lots of devices, get the 11″ Samsung. Otherwise, get the Lenovo. Why the Lenovo? Because it’s fast as heck, has every port you’ll ever need, and it’s built like a goddamn tank. I think it’s actually built from old armor plate (but it’s still light). More on the rationale for this recommendation in a separate section below.
  • When configuring your device policy, I would disable guest mode and restrict logins to *@yourdomain.edu
  • For shared situations (carts, libraries, etc), set the policy to erase all local user data after each sign out, and never show user names and photos on sign-in. The former fills the SSD and causes errors after a few months, the latter makes logging in a headache for students.
  • Make collections of Extensions and Chrome apps to pre-load! Google is starting to have better tools for this, but you can select any app from the Chrome Web Store and pre-install it for anyone in a particular OU (and I highly recommend sorting student accounts by grade in OU’s for this reason). Ditto with extensions, or even URL’s to load in tabs upon login (the latter is really handy for libraries or classes working on a particular unit).
  • In User Settings, make sure you set Always automatically lock screen on idle, which means if a student closes a Chromebook without logging out, no one else can access their account.
  • There are many ways to set up a wireless network for them; we are using a hidden SSID network (dual band) with WPA2-PSK security and MAC address white listing for all Chromebook hardware. We pre-load the SSID via the Google Apps/Chrome device web control panel, and enroll them on an open network; they then pull the Chromebook SSID as part of the Chrome profil and connect on their next reboot.

Update 5.21.13: Another note on hardware selection to clarify the Lenovo vs. Samsung choice. Firstly, the comparison is the Samsung 11″ vs. the Lenovo, NOT the Samsung 550 vs the Lenovo. We own the 550′s, and they cost the same as the Lenovo (weren’t out when we purchased), have fewer ports, are a bit more flimsy and totally non-standard VGA/video outs.

So if one is twice the price, so why bother? The answer is simple: ports and performance. If you need VGA out at all or ports in general, the Lenovo is your pony. If performance is a concern or you want to make sure they’ll keep up with complex HTML5/4K YouTube videos/WebGL 3D as they get close to EOL, get the Lenovo. If neither of these apply, get the Samsung 11″. The 11″ Samsung has an ARM chip, not an Intel or similar x86 chip, meaning that it’s basically powered by the same processor than a current gen iPad or Nexus device is. Which means it’s a very good, but not stellar performer. You notice it with video, 3D, dense flash and lots of tabs open. You’re paying half the price, and getting 90% of the performance in most circumstances, but not when you really need some extra horsepower under the hood.

It’s a pretty easy choice – your intended use will make it for you. They’re both great machines. That said, under no circumstances should you get the Acer. A totally unnecessary HD, and a pathetic ~4 hours of battery life make the $50 savings over the 11″ more like a total loss. The HP is needlessly huge. If you win the Powerball, get the Pixel, and one for me too!

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3 Comments

on “Reading into the value (and limitations of) Chromebooks
3 Comments on “Reading into the value (and limitations of) Chromebooks
  1. Informative! I noticed the link you provided for the charging cart. Do you use the Agosto cart? Based on lots of great reviews, pricing, and security, our district has chosen to use the Chromebook carts from Datamation System. Very secure, maneuverable and top loading so there is no more bending down. We’re really happy with them. Just thought I’d share

  2. Pingback: November – Remembrance Day | Educational Technology in Palliser

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