Back to School with Google Chromebooks

Today was the first day of school for Grace Lutheran School in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Among the various tasks that the students had to accomplish today were establishing their Google accounts and setting up their new Chromebooks. There's already a certain excitement that comes with a new school year, but according to principal Peter Iles, the students' reaction to the Chromebooks was "pretty magical." Several told him it was their favorite part of the day and the thing they were most looking forward to using for the rest of the academic year. That's a ringing endorsement for Google's new venture into hardware, sure, but it's also a great attitude to start the school year.

Grace Lutheran is one of many schools that is taking advantage of the new Chromebooks for Education program, announced earlier this summer at Google I/O. For $20 per month per device, schools can rent the netbook-like, Web-only devices. There have been lots of criticisms of the Chromebooks from tech bloggers -- they are underpowered computers for the price. But according to Iles, Chromebooks were the logical choice for his school.

Updating the School Computer Lab

The Grace Lutheran computer lab was woefully out-of-date. The machines were six or seven years old. To refresh the lab with new desktop computers would have cost around $35,000, not including all the software and licensing. To replace the old desktops with laptops would have cost about $15,000, again plus software costs, according to Iles. Instead, he opted to go with the Chromebooks -- 20 of them will run his school about $14,000. But as the Chromebooks are rented, not purchased, that's a monthly bill, and Iles said that it was far easier for the school to handle a small monthly payment than come up with a big chunk of money at once.

And just as importantly, perhaps, the Chromebooks were easier for Iles to administer and support. He's the principal, the seventh and eighth grade teacher, and the school's head of technology. He describes himself as "pretty computer savvy," but he confesses he just couldn't maintain a server environment. With Chromebooks plus Google Apps for Education, he doesn't have to.

In contrast, the staff at The Fessenden School in West Newton, Massachusetts operate with a bigger budget and their school's new Chromebooks will supplement rather than replace exisiting Macbooks and desktops. But the argument for the ease-of-use on the end of IT administration is the same: with Chromebooks, as with Google Apps for Education, there's no need to handle software and OS updates on each individual machine. There's no need to run a server on the premises.

The focus instead can be on using the computers for teaching and for learning. Indeed, the conversations I had with Chromebooks users today quickly became about Google Apps for Education and for the collaboration that the productivity suite enables for teachers and students.

The Future of Education is on the Web

While some critics of the Chromebooks have claimed that the Web just isn't ready for people to rely solely on cloud-based apps, the schools I spoke to today disagreed. Some of the teachers at The Fessenden School might not be ready, Curt Paine, the school's director of technology joked, but the students definitely are. And so are the Web apps. "The Web is already where we go for great educational content," says Paine, and the apps -- both Google Apps for Education and others -- are getting "more and more powerful."

There are things that Chromebooks can't do, of course. The schools say they are eager for Google to implement offline Apps, as it's promised to do by summer's end. They said that high-end video and photo editing desktop software is still superior to Web-based versions. The Chromebooks don't work with The Fessenden School's interactive whiteboards, and the USB interface isn't adequate for uploading things like photos.

But these drawbacks are all minor, the educators I spoke with today said, compared to the benefits that the Chromebooks would afford their schools: ease-of-use for students and staff, administrative controls to restrict what students can download in terms of extensions and apps, storage in and reliance on the cloud. The cloud, says Paine, is clearly "the way we want to go." It's the future for software and for schools, the educators I talked to today all insisted.

Pointing to the older model of desktop computing -- the IT administration that came with it and the lack of customer support from other computer vendors, Grace Lutheran principal Iles says, "I don't ever want to go back."


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