One of the best decisions I’ve made as the learning technologist at our school was to persuade my boss to buy a class set of Chromebooks a few years back.
Now, before I get on to explaining why it was such a good idea, a quick word about what a Chromebook actually is. It’s basically a very cheap laptop which doesn’t have an operating system on it such as Windows but instead runs one programme: the chrome browser. This means that it’s pretty much useless unless you are connected to the internet, it can’t run programmes like Word or PowerPoint and it doesn’t have much internal storage for storing documents on it. Doesn’t sound too great, does it?
Actually these things are amazing, particularly in education. First off, not having Windows on it means the laptop starts almost instantly, within ten seconds of opening the lid you are up and running. If you’ve ever been in a computer room with students and had to wait 4–5 mins for Windows to start up, you’ll know what a godsend this is. Oh, and there’s no maintenance as well, no waiting for Windows to install the latest updates at the start, the Chrome browser just updates itself in the background and is ready to go with the latest version the next time you use it.
Because there are no files or installed programmes on the computer, they are not tied to a individual student and it means the device can be used by anyone. All they need to do is click the Browse as Guest mode when they open up the laptop to be able to use it. If you have a gmail account or your school uses Google for its email services, there’s also the option to log into that from the start screen. This just gives greater integration with things such as the Chrome browser and Google Drive and gives the feeling that you are using an operating system rather than a browser.
Another upside of the ‘light’ nature of these devices is the battery life. We easily get 6–8 hours out of these, which means they can be used with multiple classes throughout the day without the need to plug them back in. And students don’t need to power them down when they finish using them. Instead they just log out and close the lid and the device goes into a deep sleep that hardly drains the battery at all.
And these devices seem pretty damn robust. We’ve had 50 of these things now for a couple of years and we haven’t really treated them with kid gloves, they get slung about from room to room, I’ve dropped one or two on occasion – not from a great height admittedly – and they’ve all survived and still work. This is likely to do with the fact that is has fewer moving internal parts than Windows laptops.
Although we have two computer labs at our centre, these tend to be used less and less by the teachers with their classes and are mainly only used by students in the break to check their email, browse the web and print out documents.
The major benefit of the chromebook is that they give teachers more flexibility with the technology. They don’t have to take the students to a special room to use the computers and they don’t feel obliged to be using the devices the whole lesson. They can be used for part of the lesson and then closed and they don’t intrude on the rest of the lesson at all. When you go to a computer room the sheer fact of physically moving there and the layout of the room tend to force you to ‘do’ a computer lesson (which is always a terrible idea!).
Obviously there are limitations to these devices. They only really work on wifi, so if your school has little or no connectivity, these aren’t for you. Software such as PowerPoint or Word aren’t available on them, so you’d have to find a workaround such as Google Docs or Microsoft Office online. Printing is another issue, and while there are ways of doing it, it’s not for the faint hearted.
But why buy these over, say, sexy iPads or some other tablets? Aren’t they the future of computing?
Possibly, but also remember that tablets are really set up so that there is one device for one student and there isn’t much scope for buying a class set usable by any student. And with tablets, there are quite a lot of additional costs built in. For a start, you’ll certainly need to buy cases to protect them and if you want the students to type on them, you may also need to buy external keyboards. Out of the box, tablets tend to be less functional than chromebooks and you’ll probably have to look into bulk buying of several different apps to make it worthwhile. At this point, the device has probably become two or three times more expensive than a chromebook.
With a bulk purchase, you could probably get a class set of chromebooks for around £2000. I know that sounds a lot but when you are basically getting a mobile computer lab, it really isn’t that much.
How can teachers actually use these in class? Well, based on our experience of using them, there’s s wide range of classroom uses, from essay research to web quests to creating shared presentations or written projects using cloud documents.
If you’re responsible for technology in your centre or have some influence over those who do, you might consider chromebooks as an option. Teachers and students take to them immediately and the ease of use and lack of maintenance make them perfect for teachers who might feel intimidated by technology. Several teachers at our centre have actually bought their own chromebooks off the back of using them, which is a pretty decent recommendation in itself.