I help schools think through hardware choices, deployment logistics, cost and on-going manageability. I spend most of my time with district public schools in Oakland, where there are sometimes enough devices for 1:1 simultaneous use. But nowhere in our pilots do kids have their own unique device that they can personalize as their own. Devices stay in a single classroom for the next group of students.
Despite my best effort to stay “device agnostic,” lately I find myself increasingly recommending Chromebooks. Below I lay out my reasons. Despite some twists and turns, my hope is that this line of thinking can help more schools make their own decisions about what works best for them--even if they don’t go Chrome. (Disclosure: I use a MacBook for my daily work and I love it.)
To be clear: I do not think that there exists a one-size-fits-all device for K-12 students. Every current option is imperfect and comes with opportunity costs. And every device requires high-quality, regular instruction and practice on proper care, use and maintenance for students, teachers, and administration.
Just Go Mobile
Perhaps it’s best to preface this with why not to go with desktops. The physical spaces of blended learning schools need to be uber-flexible, and desktops require way too much infrastructure and manual labor to set up. Even a Chromebox is hard to deploy because of the required wired Internet and electrical connections. (And don’t get me started on wireless-enabled desktops for classrooms.)
Within the mobile category, one has to choose between laptops and tablets. (One can dive deeper into the operating systems as well, but I'll stick with this basic decision for now.)
I like physical keyboards. The Common Core Smarter Balanced Technology Strategy Framework Executive Summary mentions a mechanical keyboard (see page 5) and I personally would want one for those longer constructed response items. Yes, there are physical keyboards for tablets, but they better have a wired connection because managing 25 to 100 simultaneous Bluetooth-connected keyboards sounds like a mess--not to mention the additional cost. (Also, please see the teeny tiny footnote at the very bottom of page 4 on how tablets may need a mouse connected, too!)
I often hear about how tablets are great for consuming music, video and reading text, but not great for producing documents, spreadsheets and presentations. The iPad can be used to create wonderful content, particularly within a specialized app like Popplet or Toontastic, but I don’t think students would enjoy writing their term papers on it. Thus, I arrive at a clear choice: laptops with a fully-attached, mechanical keyboard.
Things to Consider
Within laptops there are still many options and issues:
Affordability: Plain dollars and cents to scale from classroom to school, districts and CMOs.
Deployability: At each level of scale, what kind of money, time and labor does it take to go from unboxing a device to putting it in students’ hands? Some may lump this right in with “affordability.”
Usability: Does the device do the things that stakeholder needs doing and in an age-appropriate way for K-12 students?
Supportability: What does it take to keep the devices humming day in and day out?
As I said earlier, I work with schools that cannot afford to give each child their own unique device, and where not all parents can afford BYOD. I need a solution similar to what we all experience at the public library, where students can access limited parts of the operating system but can’t change critical settings. Nor is anything that they do stored locally on that device or affects it in ways that a simple restart wouldn’t fix. Students basically experience a terminal to access web pages, cloud-based storage and services like email, social network, and online files. Other users, whether two minutes or two weeks later, see no traces from previous users.
This experience is not so easy for me to replicate on MacBooks. I can get a classroom set of MacBooks configured with student user accounts that are limited with Parental Controls. But I have to do this manually, basically going to each and every MacBook. Same goes for keeping them up to date via the Mac App Store--someone has to click, click, click. And if I make a mistake on the “image” of that student-facing experience, I have to fix it X number of times--again, manually. Perhaps there are third-party providers that are happy to take my money to help with this, but to me, that just means the device costs even more than the sticker price. (Editor's note: this was written before Apple’s iOS 7 announcement.)
This is true for Windows, too, as far as I know. If you’re stuck with an existing Windows lab of computers, you can make a go of it using a tool like DeepFreeze. Similar to MacBooks, it still can take a lot of manual work to keep them up-to-date, but you can approximate the Apple Store experience. I invite someone to share with me more about Active Directory in a Windows environment, but my immediate questions are still about ease of use and cost. For me, Windows and OS X lose on affordability, deployability and supportability, and arguably usability, too.
Chrome Is Where My Heart Is
Which brings me to Chrome OS running on Chromebooks:
Affordability: Samsung’s $249 Chromebook is comparable on price alone with plenty of Windows laptops, and both beat Apple’s $999 MacBook Air. (Budget $279 for the extra, one-time $30 on the management console license.)
Deployability: You unbox, enroll, and get them into students’ hands in two minutes. (Kids can even do it themselves!) Mac OSX and Windows don’t even come close.
Usability: It runs the full modern web, in which you will likely find solutions to most any problem you face in the classroom, including all of the most popular adaptive online content. Managed Chromebooks may be the easiest to use when it comes to administering the new online Common Core Smarter Balanced assessments.
Supportability: They’re always up-to-date with limited-to-no manual intervention required by your tech department.
A school, district or CMO that has set up its Chrome Management Console with a high-quality hierarchy of nested sub-organizations of users will have the flexibility to deploy personalized, cloud-based user experiences. It’s the same amount of time and effort to simply give your kids Google Accounts, so regardless of whether or not you use Chrome OS, many schools and systems have already done this. Through the console, you can push a personalized launchpad of web bookmarks or web apps to different students and classes. When kids log in to a managed Chromebook, they’re also then logged into their Google Drive, Calendar, Sites, Blogger, and websites, such as Khan Academy, that support Google single sign-on.
Last, I’d like to address a common criticism: Chromebooks only run the web. I can hear it now: “But what about Word? PowerPoint?”
I do not think Google Drive’s productivity suite is the equivalent of the Word suite. Indeed, far from it: I think Google Drive is more age-appropriate for most K-12 uses. It has just enough bells and whistles to provide good functionality without being overwhelming--and it’s free. And good news for those “power users": Office365 runs just fine on Chrome OS.
Yes, it’s true, Chrome OS does not run applications that must be installed. Windows apps, Mac apps, Android apps and iOS apps--none of these will work. But you also cannot natively install an iOS app or a Windows app on a Mac either. Those are each walled gardens to some extent. Chrome runs the one walled-garden to rule them all--the World Wide Web. So while it’s one single platform, it’s also the biggest and most flexible.
What do you think? What might be some downsides to Chrome OS that don’t have a relatively simple work-around? What devices does your school or school system use? Who takes care of them? How well are they deployed? How easy is it for kids to use them to a variety of everyday tasks? How much did it all cost and what are your funding sources? And is Apple’s latest iOS 7 for Education a game-changer?
Let me know below: I want to hear your thoughts!
Ed note: the original version of this story was accidentally published with a non-Creative Commons image. We have updated it since. Apologies!