According to recent figures from the US, in 2014 the Chromebook quickly became the bestselling device in Northern American educational markets and is continuing to grow in popularity. But are Chromebooks really a panacea for the ever growing and ever evolving educational market? Or are they merely a fad destined to burn out in the years to come? (Netbooks, we are looking at you). And what should schools consider before dipping their toes into the Chromebook realm?
A Chromebook is a laptop of a different breed, one that runs Google’s web-based Chrome operating system. At the core, a Chromebook is designed to be used with an Internet connection with most applications and data residing in the cloud, which is accessed through the Chrome web browser.
The first Chromebooks to go on sale were manufactured exclusively by Acer and Samsung. Announced at the 2011 Google I/O Conference to much fanfare, they have not quite gained traction in the consumer market. This is a different story in schools, where tight budgets exist and, when it comes to technology expenditure, bang for buck is paramount.
To date, customers from the education market have formed the most common type of user for Chromebooks. Big names like Dell, Toshiba, ASUS, Acer, Lenovo and Hewlett Packard are competitively manufacturing a variety of Chrome devices to satisfy the market, with some companies producing up to three different models. The consumer here wins, spoilt for choice when it comes to size, power, form factors, warranty support and accessories.
But under the hood, the principle of the Chromebook remains the same; they all run Google’s Chrome operating system, rely almost entirely on cloud-based storage and apps, and – most importantly for schools – cost between $300 and $400, much less than a tablet or traditional laptop. They come with USB slots to support an array of devices, integrated web cameras, headphone/microphone jacks and HDMI display ports. Some manufacturers even offer cellular Long Term Evolution (LTE) connectivity, touch screen capability, Gorilla Glass screens, rubberised edges and anti-spill keyboards to last the distance in children’s hands.
Popularity for the device is picking up pace around the globe. In Malaysia, the national school system utilises Chromebooks for 10 million students in its primary and secondary schools. Malaysia’s efforts of integrating the Web through the Chromebook and Google Apps for Education forms part of its national plan to reform its educational system (see http://bit.ly/xywyy).
Chromebooks merge perfectly with Google Apps for Education, which is now used by more than 40 million students and teachers around the world. The productivity suite, which includes already popular apps such as Docs, Gmail, Calendar and Drive, also includes Google Classroom, which allows students and teachers to collaborate on homework and other assignments in real time.
But Chromebooks are not only limited to Google Apps products. Through the Chrome Web Store, web apps and browser extensions can be installed to increase productivity, with a bevy of apps and extensions that can enhance the technology experience for teachers and students who use Chromebooks in the classroom. Moreover, as a fully fledged web browser, users are only limited by their imagination when it comes to tapping into any pocket of the vast World Wide Web.
Upon opening the lid of a Chromebook, it boots up in seconds and prompts the user to log in with an associated Google account. Once connected, the device automatically sets up the user’s profile and synchronises the preferences, apps, bookmarks and Drive data. (The system is even speedier when returning from sleep mode from the closure of the lid, resuming almost instantaneously). Within moments, anyone can be surfing the web, authoring Docs, or checking emails. This is speed and simplicity at its best; having a Chromebook at one’s disposal makes it easier to get on the Web and get on with it.
The secret behind the Chromebook is the operating system ChromeOS. Lightweight on resources, it does not require massive amounts of CPU cycles or RAM storage to run the laptop or boot from scratch. This means the end-user is not paying the price for high-end processors and memory storage employed with traditional operating systems. Moreover, battery life figures on Chrome devices are extremely impressive, as the device efficiently consumes minimal power on basic hardware in operating modes and in hibernation.
As a thin client based on the cloud model, massive amounts of hard disk drive storage is neither required nor warranted. All Chromebooks come with minimal amounts of solid state drive space for any local files or downloads, as the whole ideology of using a Chromebook is to utilise cloud storage.
All of this ‘down-specced’ hardware equates to a lean package, which means that Chromebooks are incredibly lightweight and portable machines. And considering that there are no licensing fees to pay for, or operating system or office tools, it means that the device also becomes extremely affordable.
Updates occur automatically, do not break the Internet, and do not take seemingly forever to install. A quick reboot is all that is needed when the update is ready and the user is running the most recent version of ChromeOS, which continues to improve in performance, functionality and security over time.
The Chromebook does not come without its perceived caveats and limitations. It does not run Microsoft Silverlight web applications, which some rich web interfaces require. It does not run legacy software, or premier multimedia suites. However, what developers are currently achieving through a web browser using HTML5 standards of late has been very impressive and is continuing to improve.
All in all, Chromebooks are an extremely affordable option as a purchased computing device, but also in the upkeep and management of the device. There are no setup times or imaging requirements. Google supports most Chromebooks for up to five years with free ChromeOS updates. There is no need to automate backups of files.
For this reason, Chromebooks have been a hit with school deployments as they do not require extensive IT departments to support and manage each device. To deploy technology across a classroom, school or even sector, computing devices need to be simple, manageable and secure. Chromebooks make this ideal. Administrators can make changes to a whole fleet of Chromebooks through a web-based console without even having the device physically present. Teachers can share them throughout the class, under individual student logins, for each session. Schools can set the appropriate measures for accessing content, and design the user experience with pre-determined bookmarks and apps.
With reduced overhead costs, Chromebooks are a cost-effective option to deploy technology at scale. Many schools are realising this is an affordable option for closing the technology-equity gap whilst promoting the kind of rich digital learning that educators believe in.
For case studies of Chromebooks in education, see http://bit.ly/evkdx.