Chromebooks officially on sale: Is your school buying?

Chromebooks have gotten mixed reviews by the general tech press, but in schools, these devices make for quite a story.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

I've had the opportunity to speak over the last couple of weeks with some of the early pilot districts using Google Chromebooks in K12 settings. Now that Chromebooks are officially on sale, both commercially and to schools, the real question is whether these will be on your school's or district's summer purchase and hardware refresh list.

If you talk to Rachel Wente-Cheney, CIO for education in Crook County School District in Oregon, there is little doubt that their Chromebook pilot was not only a resounding success but that they will find a way to continue the program with commercially available Chromebooks. In fact, her excitement is so infectious, one can't help but feel the need to drum up donations and apply for grants to make sure that your own kids have Chromebooks in their schools.

As she described an educational IT rollout done right (superb professional development, teacher and student ownership, you name it), it's clear that, with the right support, devices like the Chromebook start coming pretty close to the Holy Grail of Ed Tech and 1:1. Integrated throughout the curricula at a middle and high school in her district, the instant-on, long battery life, and focus on Web-based collaboration and content creation meant that students and teachers felt immediate benefits during the pilot program.

Talking to David Fringer, district CIO for Council Bluffs, Iowa, painted a different, but equally compelling picture of the little devices. Again, extensive professional development eased the machines nicely into Thomas Jefferson High School, but there were too few machines to institute a 1:1 program. Mr. Fringer and the TJHS faculty developed innovative ways for most students to be able to use the computers in powerful ways that simulated 1:1 in particular classes and during especially useful curricular focus areas. Avoiding the use of the machines as mere "lab computers" as often happens when full 1:1 can't be achieved, students were able to work across departments and classes in the sorts of teams that students might not experience until they hit the workforce.

One consideration that Mr. Fringer brought up was ROI. As he noted, he could buy 2 netbooks for every Chromebook at their $20/month subscription cost. Adding those netbooks to their existing investments in netbooks would put them much closer to their ideal of 1:1 computing. He and his faculty and staff were still considering whether the higher cost was outweighed by the very low maintenance costs and incredibly easy management. As he explained, it didn't even matter which Chromebook students used; because they were tied to their Google Apps domain, all of a student's work was immediately available, regardless of what machine he or she used and without any backend work on the part of the IT department.

I've reviewed the Chromebooks extensively and have been universally impressed. The educational possibilities in a school willing to hang its hat on Google's cloud and embrace a collaborative approach to education are quite extraordinary. Add to that Google's Web-based management tools and the ability to dispense with re-imaging and regular upgrades and maintenance to potentially hundreds or thousands of machines and it gets very hard to dismiss Chromebooks in educational applications. In fact, I would argue that education in general (and 1:1 in particular) is the number one use case for Google's latest foray into personal computing.

I'll talk more about the management tools I mentioned above as soon as I can get my hands on them. However, from the discussions I had with Google product managers on the topic, it's going to be very easy to handle everything from security to application management, all from a single free console. We'll see if adoption is widespread enough to make this a real game-changer. However, I think it's safe to say that it should be a game-changer in Ed Tech. This isn't just my Google fanboi nonsense. A light, durable machine with a battery that lasts all day and an Internet connection that is instantly available, all for around $20 a month (they're available on subscription plans) with management and maintenance facilities that exceed anything else out there is nothing to sneeze at, regardless of who designed it.

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