Caption: Students at Notre Dame high school use Google Chromebooks. The "dumb" laptops have no programs installed on them; instead users work from "the cloud." Peter Vogel / The B.C. Catholic.
About a year ago my school first gave consideration to having students use Chromebooks, the unique laptops introduced by search giant Google.
It is not often that software and Internet companies have success with hardware ventures, and it may still be early days yet to judge the outcome of the Chromebook program.
Chromebooks are essentially "dumb" laptops configured to work over an Internet feed, be it a local wifi network or a 3G telephone network. The term "dumb" in this case means that there are no programs installed on the devices and that user data is stored remotely, in the cloud.
When a Google Chromebook is powered on it immediately connects to a Google server; there is no boot-up time to speak of. A user needs only a Google access account.
Essentially the machine uses a version of the Chrome Internet browser as its operating system. A user logs in and is immediately presented with his Google Docs (now being rebranded as Google Drive) area, along with other Chrome/Google apps.
Initially Chromebooks were available only in the United States, and they are still not retailed here. When they were first offered to Canadian schools I asked colleague Andrew McCracken, a librarian and Christian Education teacher, whether he saw merit in a limited Chromebooks pilot program.
My colleague had been the first in my school to make extensive use of another Google cloud initiative, Google Docs, with his students. Docs allows students to work collaboratively and gives teachers the ability to comment on and grade student work on the fly.
Initially McCracken and I thought of a small pilot of 10 machines; budgets were tight and it was already mid school year. We floated our idea with other departments and eventually found such interest we decided to purchase 30 of the units and pay over three years.
We dealt directly with Google. The company threw in a very handsome and practical charging and management cart, as well as a cloud printer. The cart, in our opinion, is an essential component of the program. Without it, charging the devices becomes a nightmare and damage to the power packs is likely.
Our Series 5 500 model Chromebooks, produced by Samsung, have a 12.1" screen and a long, about eight-hour, battery life, exactly what you want in a school. An SSD drive, a weight of 3.3 lbs., and exceptionally cool operation are additional welcome features.
I recently asked Andrew McCracken how the Chromebook program had affected his teaching of Christian
AM: I see CE 12 less as a delivery mechanism for religious knowledge and more as an exploration of deep questions about faith, so I have challenged my students to take on the burden of learning about their faith as adults. The Chromebooks have allowed them to explore Catholicism (under my direction, of course) with a freedom that was not previously possible in the classroom.
A concrete example: as my students were examining how we can prove God exists, I saw an article on Newsweek's site written by a brain surgeon who claimed to have seen the afterlife while he was in a coma.
I was immediately able to share the link on my webpage so the students could consider this new information source. That sort of adaptability is very difficult in a normal classroom.
BCC: Has the collaboration allowed by Google Docs or Chromebooks become a factor in CE?
AM: I want my students to listen to and learn from each other. They can do this through small group seminars, conversing on topics of religious interest. The same listening/learning can happen in the Docs environment too. There can be some really fruitful online discussions between students as they "share" their work with each other.
BCC: Have there been frustrations in the transition?
AM: There have been technical growing pains, for example, with running a class set of Chromebooks on our school's wireless network. We solved that by moving the machines to a dedicated network.
BCC: How have students taken to all this?
AM: There have been very few problems; most of them have quickly adapted. Occasionally a student takes awhile to grasp the idea of cloud-based computing and tries to hand in work on a USB device, but I'm pretty firm in what I will accept: no USB, no paper, email only when absolutely necessary. In general, everything is shared in Docs.
The quality of work I'm getting is much higher than even two years ago, and I'm seeing this in their marks. I credit this improvement to the emphasis in our Catholic schools on assessment for learning (AFL), which asks teachers and students to focus on the process of learning as well as the product.
Google Docs works very well with an AFL approach, since any document can be edited and revised at any time. There is not the finality of "handing something in" with Docs that there is with a piece of paper.
I'm finding that students are returning to their work and making revisions, a process I can easily track in Docs. Of course, I am happy to adjust the marks of students who think they can improve their work.
BCC: How do you like the Samsung Series 5?
AM: The units seem quite robust. They are quick to power on and log off, and their battery life has been excellent. I wondered how they would endure the rigours of constant daily use by teenagers, but I have to give my students credit: they treat the machines with care and seem genuinely grateful for the opportunity to use them.
BCC: Can you recommend this for teachers who've never used any form of cloud computing?
AM: My simple recommendation to colleagues: jump right in. I miss nothing. I will never accept paper again. I will never hear a complaint about a printer that won't work or a file that won't open. I will never carry stacks of assignments home.
I will never be chained to a school network or a specific machine, nor will my students be so chained. Having worked in the cloud for more than a year now, I never want to go back to the way things were before.
The Google Chromebooks, in their various incarnations, have not been generally well-reviewed. However those reviews don't take into consideration use in school, and certainly not the day-in, day-out use to which my colleague subjects them.
Reviews tend to focus on shortcomings in the underlying Chrome operating system rather than on the hardware itself. Chrome is updated as often as every six weeks, so problems tend to be dealt with quickly.
Management has to consider the Chromebooks excellent. There is nothing to install, no software to license, no need for anti-virus or other security software, no need to consider "total cost of ownership," because there are no other parts to buy.
Chromebooks may be the first type of computer hardware in our school for which the only cost is the immediate purchase price. That's certainly not the case with typical laptops and desktops.