December 30, 2013 was an interesting day for Chromebook news. The Google Chromebook has been rather quietly gaining market share, notably in Education. Some very compelling figures were reported today that indicates that the Chromebook is a device with a growing market share in Education and beyond. Forbes reported that Chromebooks accounted for 21% of notebooks and 10% of all computers and tablets sold this year. Looking at the broad adoption patterns, the Chromebook is something worth considering for many schools.
Despite the flurry of news hype, it pays to take a step back and look at the Chromebook for what it is, and is not. The Chromebook is really a web browser. The use of the device requires a persistent internet connection to access all information; software programs and user generated content. More aptly put, it is a cloud based solution. Although there is limited functionality available while offline, the bulk of use is supported using an internet connection. While internet connections in schools are common, a big consideration for schools must be available bandwidth. If many students are going to use Chromebooks simultaneously, a robust network infrastructure must be assured. The price of the Chromebook is very attractive, but the potential cost of extra bandwidth, including routers, switches, and servers might prove to be excessively expensive, thus cancelling out the low per device cost.
Given a sufficient network infrastructure, the cost of the Chromebook is a big driver. Starting at $199, it is a lot of bang for the buck. A full sized keyboard in a lightweight laptop package offers students the ability to create content more efficiently than with a tablet. Tablets are great consumption devices, but offer limitations when it comes to productivity and content creation. According to Tim Bajarin as quoted in Mashable.com, "Education is still very keyboard-centric. It's driven by the concept that you want students to create and not just consume. The iPad is great for consumption and areas where touch can be integrated, but when it comes to writing papers or making comments, there are challenges." For many students in the secondary grades, the ability to write papers and create other content is challenging using tablets because of the lack of efficient keyboard input. This is something that schools need to carefully consider. One recent example was in Los Angeles, where $1 billion dollars was appropriated for iPads. During implementation, it was discovered that a primary software application for planned use required keyboards. This will cost the district millions of dollars to purchase keyboards for the iPads. It is not clear if tablets were indeed the best solution for the intended purposes, and the story is still unfolding with great debate. The key point is that keyboard input continues to be a major need for many students and education technology uses.
The raging debate in LAUSD includes some notable academic experts who question the value and price of expensive devices such as the iPads.
Despite the debacle in Los Angeles there are some school districts, coincidentally one in nearby Torrance/Redondo Beach, CA that decided on Chromebooks, a decision that carefully balanced cost and value. Schools are becoming increasingly aware that that the sexiest technology is not necessarily appropriate. Because technology is a tool and not a solution, there are many technology devices that will deliver the desired learning benefits at much lower cost. Chromebooks appear to the filling an important void in education; delivering the right amount of technology/functionality at a price point that is reasonable and affordable.
It must be said that no device is a perfect solution. There are always compromises. Decisions involve many issues before arriving at a final conclusion. Most important is to identify the learning goals, and how a technology will support the goals. The device should be the final step in the decision process. No school should begin with a device in mind, akin to finding a solution and then looking for a problem.
Chromebooks are somewhat limited in offline use and because it uses the cloud to access programs and stored content. It cannot be loaded with traditional PC software such as Microsoft Office, and does not connect to all peripheral devices (i.e. printers) as would a traditional laptop. There are plenty of work-arounds, but these must be clearly identified first, and not after purchase. One work around for Microsoft Office is Google Docs, or Libre Office. Both are perfectly suitable for secondary level students. Libre Office just announced this month the availability of the Chromebook compatible suite of software that rivals Microsoft Office; Word, Excel, and PowerPoint.
Google has also created a site specifically for education, with many apps that are reviewed by teachers and academic experts. This is a great venue for teachers to select apps that are potentially valuable for the intended use, based on peer reviews. It is likely that Google Education will continue to address the unique needs of the education market, and offer many valuable tools for schools at prices that can fit limited budgets. While the Chromebook of today might not be perfect, it very well might deliver enough value for schools to seriously consider.