Chromebooks: Things we Love, Things We Love Not So Much

We are told that 30,000 Chromebooks a day come online in K-12!!  The Chromebooks are coming! The Chromebooks are coming!

Here is our take on the Chromebook in K-12… First, the things we love:

  • Cost: Hey, in bulk, $175 or less for a laptop computer, that is a good deal. How do they do that? Well, storage is in the cloud, screen is small, processing power is limited – and the software is free!  Compared to the “other” (once) popular educational computing device, we feel that on the cost/benefit scale, the benefits win big time!
  • Cost: Yes, we did say this already, but we wanted to make a point. Point made.
  • Ease of use: All user actions are accomplished inside a browser: from accessing and using full-blown applications (e.g., concept mapping, text editing) to reading static webpages, every URL is just a tab in a browser. Thus, a computer-based learning activity  involves opening a URL; moving amongst learning activities amounts to moving amongst a collection of browser tabs. Pretty straightforward! Yes, each “app” may well have a quirky interface, but in general, teachers and students can learn how to access and use the browser and those skills can be used over and over again. Bottom line: Blended learning here we come!!
  • Ease of maintenance: Since everything is stored in the cloud – the files on the actual machine are copies of what is in the cloud – then when/if a device goes kaput (e.g., goes missing, goes broken), the IT department simply swaps in another one.  A student signs in with his/her Gmail address and bingo, bongo, the student is back to where he/she was before the machine went bye-bye.
  • Reasonably featured software: The Google Apps for Education Suite – Docs, Sheets, Slides, etc. – is a reasonable collection of productivity software. And, with developers discovering that HTML5 is a viable tool, more and more educational software will become available to run as just another tab in the browser.
  • Lightweight: The 11-inch Chromebooks are featherweight. But, even the 13-inch models are also quite lightweight. While we feel that while Chromebooks are not mobile devices (disagreements are allowed… but first, see below), they are definitely highly transportable devices. Watching third-graders carry their 7-pound laptops back to the charging cart – clutching the laptops, with arms crossed over their chests, it just seems inappropriate to issue a child a laptop that weighs more than the child.

Now, for the things we love… not so much:

  • Optional camera:  At least for K-12 students, their computing device must have a camera. The camera enables students to make a connection between the abstract ideas they learn in their classrooms with the concrete things in their everyday lives. An obtuse angle is an abstraction; taking a picture of a side window on a car makes that idea concrete; talking about roots of a tree is an abstraction; taking a picture of a complex root system of a tree that is on the walk home from school makes that idea concrete.
  • Some Chromebooks come with cameras. But, if it’s optional, schools will try to shave off cost and buy ones without cameras. And, how much does a camera add to the total cost? $10?  (See the bill-of-material breakdown for the Apple 6 and 6s smartphones – which are top of the line.)
  • Will a student use a Chromebook to take a picture while walking home from school – use the Chromebook like a truly mobile device? Well, for the 53 percent (students in grade 4-12) who have smartphones and can take the picture on that mobile device and send it over to their Chromebook, the answer is moot. But, what about the 47 percent who have no smartphone? Tough luck?
  • Optional touchscreen: Some Chromebooks have touchscreens, in addition to touchpads. For drawing, a touchscreen is pure heaven!  In the spirit of shameless self-promotion… our Collabrify Flipbook app is a dream to use with a touchscreen. Flipbook supports two or more students working together synchronously, co-located or not, as they co-create drawings and even animations. Drawing and animating is not an optional learning activity; touchscreens should not be optional either.
  • WiFi network required:  At the heart of the Chromebook is a robust, fast network. The network is what makes the low cost of the Chromebook possible. But, a school’s worth of classrooms, all hitting Enter at the same time demands sincere network connectivity. 
  • Learning is 24/7 – all the time, everywhere. But WiFi is not all-the-time, everywhere quite yet. Working on a Chromebook not connected to a WiFi network – so-called “off-line – is definitely possible. Some files and apps are stored on the Chromebook itself. Again, for the 53 percent  who have a smartphone, they can piggy-back off the smartphones’ cellular network – but the remaining 47 percent, what are they supposed to do with an off-line device?
  • Lack of provocative software: While there are a few brave souls (e.g., PHET simulations, Collabrify Apps for Synchronous Collaboration, it’s going to take a while before there is a whole cornucopia of apps that have been rebuilt in HTML5. (HTML5 is a “programming language” that enabled developers to create apps that are device-agnostic.)  
  • Lightweight: Lightweight devices tend to be more fragile devices. It is too early in the Chromebook life-cycle to truly assess their ruggedness, but at first-blush, there is at least reasonable cause for concern.
  • Google e-mail required: Our education friends in Europe flatly refuse using our collabrified apps because their use requires a Google e-mail address. (We have liberally used Google’s “free” software to create our collabrified apps.) In the United States, we appear to be less concerned about Google and student privacy. It’s an issue; how big an issue is an open question.

On the whole, we are very excited about Chromebooks and their use in K-12. 1-to-1 is the new normal. 1-to-1 is a necessary condition (but not a sufficient condition!!) for dramatic educational transformation. Since Chromebooks are going to help K-12 get to 1-to-1 faster – then that’s a thing we love love love!

What’s your favorite thing to love… or not to love about Chromebooks? Add your comments below. 

About the Authors

Cathie Norris is a Regents Professor in the Department of Learning Technologies, School of Information at the University of North Texas. Visit her site at

Elliot Soloway is an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in the Department of CSE, College of Engineering, at the University of Michigan. Visit his site at

Find more from Elliot Soloway and Cathie Norris at their Being Mobile blog at

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