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Scaling Education with the Web

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This year's graduating class will be the first not to know a world without the Web. According to Google Chromebooks Group Product Manager Rajen Sheth, this has serious implications for how we educate.

In his keynote session at FETC 2012 National Conference in Orlando Wednesday, Sheth, opened the conversation with a question: "How many of you," he asked, "remember the world before the Web?"

Nearly every hand in the room went up.

"It's interesting," said Sheth, "Not long ago it occurred to me that this year's graduating class of high school seniors will be the first group of students to not know the world before the Web. Every student in every classroom from here on out will be part of the Web generation." That, he said, has serious implications for how we educate.

Learning and the Web
Kids are learning from the Web right now, and that, said Sheth, means anything we plan to implement going forward has to harness the Web's power and its resources in ways that will benefit students and enhance their ability to learn. The good news, he said, is that open standards and frameworks like HTML5 make leveraging this power for learning possible.

According to Sheth, over the last few years, technology has advanced to a point where "you can do everything on the Web. In fact," he offered, "you can do many things better on the Web than you can on a thick client, and it's only going to increase over time." Sheth projected that, over the next few years, Web applications will be indistinguishable from hardware-based applications, allowing schools to provision any number of devices without the issues associated with traditional client-based computing. It becomes a game-changer, he added, for licensing, administration, security, and you end up with a much simpler computing environment. "Chromebooks is just a facilitator to that world."

Grabbing a small laptop from the podium, Sheth opened the device and powered it on. "Eight Seconds," he said. "That's how long it takes to boot a Chromebook." The implications of that are significant, according to Sheth, if you consider how much time can be wasted in the beginning of class waiting for traditional devices to power up. With other features including an eight hour battery life, built-in security, and a cloud-based administrative dashboard, the Chromebook for education as more than just a new device, Sheth said.

3 Districts Adopt Chromebooks
In support of his point, Sheth revealed three school districts that have decided to leverage Chromebooks as part of 1-to-1 computing initiatives. Richland School District 2 in Columbia, SC will implement 19,000 total devices over the next 18 months; Leyden High School District 212 in Northlake, IL will deploy 3,500 devices; and Council Bluffs Community School District in Council Bluffs, IA will implement 4,300 Chromebooks. Representatives from the three districts joined Sheth on stage to share their thoughts on why the move made sense for their students.

Brian Weinert, director of technology for Leyden High School District, said the main driver behind the 1-to-1 initiative was the realization that "pockets of excellence in their schools typically developed where students and teachers had better access to technology." If technology contributes to excellence, Weinert said, then there's an opportunity to "make excellence more systemic" by making technology more accessible. The Leyden District program includes swapping netbooks for Chromebooks as a way to simplify management of the devices by leveraging the cloud. "We want a device that can be invisible," said Weinert's colleague, Jason Markey. "Many times the device is the focus," and that takes time away from learning. According to Weinert and Markey, Chromebook's use of the Web to deliver applications made it "the right device for our students."

For Donna Teuber, technology integration coordinator for Richland School District, the journey into 1-to-1 computing began with "asking ourselves what we wanted the outcomes to be." The answers, according to Teuber, were straightforward: create twenty-first century learners, improve digital literacy, and help students develop strong research skills. Teuber's colleague, Diane Gilbert added, "by giving the students a personal device, they are able to own their individual learning." For Richland--which also has a tablet program--the Chromebooks have provided an easy way to publish on the Web, something that was not as seamless with tablet devices. "Another benefit," according to Gilbert, "is that you're not locked into a specific set of apps"; you have the power and the freedom of the entire Web.

David Fringer, executive director of information systems for Council Bluffs Community School District, echoed the sentiments of the other panelists, adding, "We've collected some really powerful data from our teachers participating in the initial pilot, and many of them feel their students are more engaged and are producing better work." His district is leveraging these devices, he said, to create an environment of around-the-clock connected learners.

When asked about the administrative costs, Richland's Teuber was quick to point out that professional development is key.

"You can't cut corners here," She said. "We've determined that it takes about 20 hours of professional development per teacher to prepare them to use these devices effectively with their students."

But, she added, her district has also noticed enhanced collaboration among professional staff. By using these devices collaboratively, she said, "they're actually modeling this behavior for their students."

Other implications for administration of the new devices included ensuring adequate wireless infrastructure, as well as making sure district computing policies account for the distribution and use of the devices. Because each student in the Leyden District will be issued a Chromebook, said Weinert and Markey, "we're analyzing our current policy to make sure it aligns with the plan."

Closing out the session, Teuber acknowledged that, in order for the move to 1-to-1 to be successful, "teachers need to learn to let go a little. In our district," she said, "students just get it. Our students are becoming teachers, and that's really changing the way we work."