Mobile Computing

3 Reasons Chromebooks Are Shining in Education

For districts looking to get the most bang for their ed tech buck, devices that fall somewhere between tablets and traditional laptops can be just the right fit.


The iPad buying frenzy may be over. The late 2013 introduction of the low-cost Chromebook has given school districts an affordable alternative that they're gravitating to with gusto. Official numbers from market research firm IDC confirmed the news last December when the company announced that while Apple had shipped 702,000 iPads to educational buyers in the third quarter, Google partners had shipped 715,000 Chromebooks.

While some observers might refer to this changing of the guard as a "return of the laptop" or the "tailing off of the tablet," to those doing the buying, that’s not quite the case. Valerie Truesdale, chief of technology, personalization and engagement for North Carolina's Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, said of the HP device in use at her district, "It's the size of a tablet; it's portable [like a laptop], but this Chromebook is another animal in between.”

Vendors, too, are using different approaches to classifying the Google-inspired device that includes a built-in keyboard, stores most of its files online and runs applications directly from the Internet. Acer and Samsung put Chromebooks into the "computer" menu on their website, and give tablets their own pages. Dell and HP include laptops, tablets and Chromebooks all together; while Lenovo includes various members of its Chromebooks on both the laptop and tablet pages.

No matter how the Chromebook is classified, it's definitely filling a gap that addresses specific educational needs.

The Price Is Right

Charlotte-Mecklenburg began the evaluation for its latest device purchase (for 32,000 middle schoolers) by pulling together a dozen educators to test drive laptops, iPads and Chromebooks from a myriad of companies. The choices were ranked, and Chromebooks won. The district's middle schools were already using Samsung Chromebooks that it has purchased two years earlier to address a need in its science and social studies classes for supplementary digital materials to augment dated textbooks. For that purpose, the IT department had put at least two — and sometimes four — carts of 30 devices into each school.

In the most recent buying round, teachers gravitated to HP-built Chromebooks for several reasons. First, they wanted to use Google Apps for Education, the free suite of online applications for word processing, spreadsheet work and presentations. Chromebooks are almost purpose-built for those programs. Second, North Carolina was initially a Smarter Balanced consortium member (it has since withdrawn), and computing specifications for the Smarter Balanced online assessment required a non-touch keyboard and the ability to lock down the browser, which the Chromebook handled masterfully. Third, it came down to price. "HP came in with a bid that is about $220 per device, which is significant," said Truesdale. "When you're trying to provision 32,000, price is key."

Now 33 schools have received enough Chromebooks for a 1-to-1 ratio. Another 14 schools were scheduled to get their devices by mid-March.

A Practical, Durable Form Factor

Before New Caney Independent School District (TX) chose a device to lease for its 1-to-1 program, director of technology Dustin Hardin asked high school students what mattered to them. "We met with each one of their leadership groups and I asked them, 'If we were to give you a device to improve your education, that would help the learning process, what features would you want to have?' " Unanimously, he said, they wanted to have a keyboard, which was "very surprising."

3 Best Practices for Device Rollouts

Before moving ahead with their 1-to-1 initiative, educators and IT people from New Caney visited a "ton of campuses," said Hardin. For one of those trips, the group included the district's CFO. That was a smart idea because it allowed her to "see what a 1-to-1 looked like and how it changed curriculum. It helped finance understand why this is important."

As Charlotte-Mecklenburg was handing out devices, each school library received a cart of 30 Chromebooks. Truesdale recalled, "We said to them, 'You've always been central to research in your school. You've always been critically important to connecting students to digital resources as well as print. Now we want you to be front and center on digital literacy.'"

According to Norwalk’s Valenzisi, the “biggest mistake” his district made in its device rollout was equating easy device management with no management. As he explained, "Don't think that just because it's completely managed in the cloud, you still don't need support in your buildings. We scaled, adding an extra 5,000 devices in a year and a half with no additional staff. My staff has been able to do it; but in the long run, we still need to increase just because of the sheer number of devices."

The district considered Windows devices at $500 to $600 a pop, but since it was already heading down a "Google route," Chromebooks were on its radar as well. The district brought some in, showed the students how Google Docs worked and, Hardin said, "They all said, 'This is going to be perfect.' " But the deal was sealed when the high schoolers learned that the lower price point of the Chromebooks would enable the district to buy enough of the devices to go all the way down to third grade. "They wanted to make sure the little ones had access as well," he noted.

Choosing just the right Chromebook took a bit more testing. The IT department brought in two of every model available, set them up side by side, and did speed tests to figure out which ones were the fastest. Once that was determined, says Hardin, the machines were put through "a stress test, where we did drops and threw them around a little bit to find out which ones were the most durable." Dell won the contest.

That said, Hardin regrets not bringing students in on the durability part of the decision-making. "Whenever we did a 4-foot drop, it held up very well,” he said. “Once you put it in a student's hands, it's a different story. They find unique ways to break it." He's hopeful for progress, though. "I think as the kids get more familiar with the devices and get more used to handling them, the breakage [rates] will go down."

Straightforward Device Management

State assessments drove Norwalk Public Schools (CT) to expand its inventory of student devices. Ralph Valenzisi, chief of technology, innovation and partnerships, needed to make sure every elementary and middle school had enough devices to cover its largest grade level so that students could take the Smarter Balanced online tests.

At the same time, Valenzisi said, the IT team wanted to move to "more of a cloud-based computing platform" that would deliver applications and provide a "21st century learning environment that would allow creative thinking, collaboration and communication" among students while giving them "access to whatever it is they need." That meant the district needed to come down on the side of either Google Apps for Education or Microsoft Office 365. Since most of the teachers were already using Google "in their own little pockets," Valenzisi said, "It was the easiest tool to move forward with."

The IT department brought in multiple devices to evaluate, and one stood out in several ways. "The best bang for our buck was from Acer," Valenzisi recalled. "They were one of the only ones at that price point that had an Intel processor instead of an ARM processor. We felt as though they were a little more durable than some of the other Chromebooks that we had seen. Their battery life was great. And they were just lightweight and seemed like they would be a good fit. We've been — knock on wood — really, really happy with them."

Ease of management was the icing on the cake. "I don’t want to call it dummy-proof, but the Google environment is not a difficult admin console to work with," Valenzisi said. It's integrated with the district's Active Directory accounts so that as IT makes changes in AD, such as with passwords, it passes through to Google and reflects the updates. "Once we went over that hurdle, things were pretty smooth sailing," he said.

Ultimately, whether a district chooses a tablet, Chromebook or laptop, a device is just a small factor in the equation for increasing student engagement and extending learning beyond the classroom. As Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s Truesdale asserted, "We have tried to be deliberate: Infrastructure first. Capacity of teachers next. Then technology for learning."

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