Choosing the Right Tool Part 3 – Chromebooks


I started this collection of posts not because I think there is one perfect tool as much as I believe many educators aren’t sure how different devices can be effectively used for instruction.  Only a few years ago schools really didn’t have any technology options under $1000 to consider.  However, with the proliferation of netbooks, iPads, and Chromebooks we suddenly have a variety of tools with entry points as low as a few hundred dollars.  Assuming your school has the budget to consider any of these devices, what would be the best choice for your instructional goals?

Let’s start with the obvious, but often overlooked fact.  None of these devices are laptops.  Nearly every week I hear of schools interested in buying iPads/Chromebooks/netbooks because their “laptops are getting old and these are cheaper replacements.”  If cost is the only thing you have in mind please don’t purchase any technology.  Go back, review your instructional goals and look for models where technology will help you reach those goals.  If after identifying your goals and examining models you feel that your students would benefit most from a Macbook or its Windows equivalent please purchase one of those tools.  Anything less will likely be a complete disappointment and unused by your teachers and students. But before you click away assuming laptops are the perfect tool, take moment to consider what these other tools allow you to do.

Earlier this week I described the idea of using iPads, iPod Touches, and their Android brethren (“iDevices”) as personal learning devices.  A personal learning device is an individual, customized learning tool that allows teachers to easily differentiate and personalize student learning through the use of selected apps and multimedia content including videos, audio files, and digital texts.  This possibility alone makes these tools very interesting to me.  Take a moment to read the post if you haven’t already.

iDevices also allows for some content production, but they may struggle interacting with online tools including Google Docs, Wikispaces, WordPress, etc. without the addition of third-party apps. Additionally, these apps often don’t provide as robust of an experience as using the traditional website. For example, I have yet to find an app that will allow me to access Google Docs and simultaneously collaborate with another author similar to the Google Docs website interface.  Also, if I want to post to my blog with the WordPress app I really need to know HTML coding – there isn’t a WSYIWYG editor.

So, when might you consider using Chromebooks instead of  iOS or similar devices?  To me, this really comes down to two essential questions:

  1. Do your students regularly publish online?
  2. Do your students need to share devices (ex: you have one set of hardware that is used by multiple groups of students throughout the day)?

Publishing Online

An answer to the first question might take the form of developing class wikis, creating multimedia “scrapbook pages” with tools like Glogster, or creating and sharing documents with Google Docs.  More than likely your instructional model is focused on content-area writing or perhaps Writing Workshop.  Your students are digital writers publishing for an authentic audience inside and potentially outside of the classroom as a regular component to your teaching.

Essentially, a Chromebook is just a web-browser (Chrome) with a keyboard.  Nothing more…nothing less.  Initially, this scares a lot of people.  But don’t I need a disk drive?  Won’t I need to install additional software?  Don’t I need lots of storage space?  From observing in many classrooms, I find the answers to all three of these questions is often “No.”  My answer is based upon what I actually see being done with our current classroom technology when students are creating content.  In many classrooms students are wordprocessing (Word, Pages, Google Docs), creating presentations (Powerpoint, Keynote, Google Presentation, Prezi, Sliderocket), developing websites (Wikispaces, PBWiki, Google Sites), and creating multimedia stories (Voicethread, Glogster, Kerpoof, Google Maps).  Because of our addiction to comfort with Microsoft Office products the first two activities often involve Word and PowerPoint, but there are web-based alternatives that might actually be better in the long run.

One of my colleagues described the fear over the Chromebooks not having traditional hardware as the “Nissan Leaf effect.”  Most of us drive far less each day than the 60-100 miles range of an electric car, but we fear buying one because we might want to drive further.  If you think your instructional model could not function without the use of Scratch, iMovie, or Photostory then a Chromebook may not be the best tool for you.  However, if you find  your students can effectively demonstrate their learning and publish with online tools then perhaps you don’t need all that software.  From my experience, sometimes it just gets in the way.  Alan Levine has a nice collection of these online “story telling” tools at 50+ Web 2.0 Ways to Tell a Digital Story.

Sharing Devices

I have to admit, while Chromebooks do work well will for online content production, they even shine a little brighter on the second question.  Our Chromebooks are set up to work direclty with our district Google Apps for Edu implementation.  This means students log on to their Chromebooks with the same account information they use to access Google Apps.  The process looks like this:

  1. Press the power button on the Chromebook (instantly turns on)
  2. Type in your username and password
  3. A second or two later each student has a Chrome web-browser they have uniquely configured
At the end of the period they just log out and the computer is ready for the next student.  As I described in an earlier post we’re having a very different experience with iPads and student sharing.  Additionally, we’re finding Chromebooks can be used for the entire school day without being plugged in for a charge.  At the end of a “hard day” they still might have 25% of their battery left.


A Word of Caution

Chromebooks support Flash and HTML5, but do have one snafu.  They don’t support Java or Silverlight and based upon what is currently posted in many online forums and Google’s Chromebook FAQ page that will likely not happen.  There are a few sites as result that will not play well with Chromebooks so its worth taking a look at the websites you normally use with your students and identifying what software components they will need.  Personally, I find Java and Silverlight not to be tools I need on a daily basis, but you might find something different.

A few years ago, your choices in student technology really came down to one question – Mac or Windows?  Today we have many different choices, which can be both a blessing and a headache.  However by focusing hardware purchases on their support of effective, research-based, rigorous instruction, schools and teachers can select the most appropriate tools.  So, if when you look at your instructional model you find that most of your technology work will be focused on students creating content that can be quickly produced, shared, and consumed online then you might consider checking out a Chromebook.


Photo: Chromebooks in MA Lynch Library by Rachel Wente-Chaney on Flickr


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