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Schoolbooks to Chromebooks: One District’s Conversion

24 Jul 2014 by Insight Editor

When a UPS truck backed up to an Oregon High School and started handing out 700 brand new Chromebooks, it was like Christmas in February.

At the time, Astoria High was one of only a small number of American schools selected for Google’s Chromebooks for Education pilot program. Three years later, Chromebooks for Education is a huge success, having won favor with more than 5,000 school districts across the country.

“It has been quite a powerful tool,” Astoria High Principal Lynn Jackson said. “In fact, it’s one of my biggest budget proposals for the next fiscal year, to purchase the updated Chromebook to replace these prototypes that are starting to wear out because they are being used quite intensively,” he said.

So why are educators buzzing about the Google Chromebook? The answer ranges from profitability and ease of use, to centralized management and a more interactive classroom experience.

Part of the answer lies in what Chromebook is and does. Starting at $279, these relatively light-weight, super-fast laptops (they boot in seconds) run on the Linux-based Google Chrome Operating System, and usher in a new era of computing. Data generation and storage is now Web-based, using cloud technology and apps like Google Docs, forever robbing tech-savvy students of their favorite excuse, “The computer ate my homework.”

All the notebooks inventoried and ready to hand out to students

For students, accessing and collaborating on projects is as simple as logging into their Google Apps for Education account. Teachers can track students’ progress and grade assignments by doing the same.

“The ‘In’ and ‘Out’ baskets [teachers] used to have when you were younger, our teachers have those electronically now,” Jackson said. “Students are submitting their compositions, lab reports, etcetera with shared documents, and teachers are uploading … due dates through their Google Calendars.”

Jackson said having the Chromebooks allows them to more fully access these resources.

Futuresource tells us that Chromebooks now account for 49% of the total device shipments to K-12 schools. So what do you need to know if you’re contemplating enrolling your school or district in the Chromebooks for Education program? In this economy, the most likely question will be, “How much does it cost?”

At $249 per device, (plus a one-time $30 management and support cost,) Chromebooks rank among the most affordable laptops on the market. Google also claims that deploying the Web-based laptops can save schools, on average, more than $5,200 per device over three years.

The manufacturer’s hardware warranty will certainly come in handy, particularly in cases where students take the laptops home. Laptops, in general, are not designed to withstand the physical abuse they are likely to receive from young owners. So with backpacks being tossed around, screens may be broken. Astoria High found the screens and hinges on the Cr48 prototype Chromebooks to be particularly fragile and are keen to try the sturdier first-generation commercial devices that went on sale in June 2011– which are designed for a school environment. While there have been some mishaps with the prototypes, they credit student education and training prior to laptop deployment with the longevity of their current supplies, many of which are still going strong several years later.

Chromebook Charging Device built by Astoria High English teacher Clint Hill at a cost of around $165. A store bought 30 laptop cart retails for around $2,500.

“There was a lot of overlooking on the students’ part as far as not taking care of them the way they needed to be,” the district’s Technology Coordinator Scott Holmstedt said. “So it was really a matter of trying to get them to understand … the proper care of any laptop, whether it’s a Chromebook or anything,” he said. “We went through some training with them so that they would be familiar with how to handle fragile parts, [and] things they need to be certain they take care of.”

Holmstedt said the starting point for any school district considering Google Chromebooks should be to ensure their wireless network is up to speed. The Astoria School District uses 100 mbps. The next step is to get all stakeholders on board with using the Google suite of apps for education.

“I think that’s the one that took us a little bit by surprise: the number of students who had never logged into Google and didn’t have accounts, even though we had been using Google for probably seven years now,” Holmstedt said.

There’s also a slight learning curve as students and teachers switch over from Office-based software like Word and PowerPoint, to Google’s Web-based apps like Google Docs and Slides.

Finally, to facilitate efficient operation throughout the entire school district, the IT team placed the Chromebooks on a management console that enables them to manage the laptops in groups, whether by grade or by building level.

Once you’ve successfully managed training and deployment, Holmstedt said the rest is a breeze.

“They are very simple to set up and … one of the strengths of the Chromebook that we’ve really enjoyed is that all of the system updates are done automatically because they are Web-based,” he said. “We don’t have to put our hands on each individual machine to do the updates that are necessary for our desktops that are running windows.”

In a district Astoria’s size — with 2,100 computers and just two IT staffers — Holmstedt said this makes the Google Chromebook a great choice. The district teachers agree.

“There is a much higher rate of student buy-in as they recognize that what they are doing in my class is a direct reflection of the way they are asked to process information in real life situations,” English Teacher Clint Hill said.

Parents and students go over the agreements for the notebooks

Using the Chromebooks has had an immeasurable impact on Hill’s teaching methods. “Prior to the Chromebooks, we had two computer labs to share in our school of 600 students. Needless to say, it was a challenge to gain access on a regular basis,” he said. “Once the Chromebooks were in play, I could assign more writing and research, and design my curriculum to revolve around the [students’] interests, skills … and needs for the future.”

Some of the assignments Hill’s students enjoy include Web design, creating presentations and collaborative writing, all done with instant access to the latest research. In short, Chromebooks place the Internet’s full potential at students’ fingertips.

“I’d recommend finding an effective method of storing and charging the laptops so they are always ready,” Hill advised teachers seeking to utilize Chromebooks in the classroom. “My first year with them I did not have a good method and I spent 1/2 an hour in the morning and 1/2 an hour at night just unplugging them and then charging them back up.”

He also stressed the importance of setting expectations and establishing monitoring methods for student Internet use.

The Astoria School District successfully guards against Internet abuse by working with the IT department to implement filters that govern which websites are accessible.

With all checkpoints ticked off for a smooth rollout, Principal Jackson sees no argument against using Chromebooks in schools, but he stressed the importance of balance.

“You need to make sure students are able to explore their education technologically with online resources … but at the same time, it should not come at the complete exclusion of social interaction,” he said. “We, as interpersonal beings, still need to have the skills to be able to communicate face-to-face … and be able to argue points and to defend stances. So it should not be exclusionary to other educational styles,” Jackson said.

Your school district can leverage Chromebooks to enhance students’ educational experiences, increase operational efficiencies and reduce expenditures. Talk to a specialist to learn more about using Chromebooks in the classroom.