The Case For Chromebooks

I was asked via email recently about Chromebooks and whether I thought they were a good choice for schools. Here is my email response, posted here for anyone that might be interested in reading it…

I’ll start by suggesting that any resistance you get on Chromebooks from tech and IT staff will be made for reasons that have nothing to do with pedagogy. I think you could argue that by almost any relevant measure Chromebooks are CLEARLY a better choice for schools. (which is why they are now the number 1 device in US schools)

They are easier to deploy and manage, more secure, more robust, and less expensive. They do everything that a student would need them to do. They integrate directly with Google Apps for Education and are easily shared between students in ways that other devices are not.  They boot fast (under 7 seconds), save work automatically, are completely immune to viruses, and are fast to use. ChromeOS does not slow down over time like other operating systems, and to completely wipe and reset a Chromebook to a fresh configuration takes about 40 seconds. They can be easily managed via the GAFE console, where you can enforce policies and restrictions if needed, install apps, and monitor usage.It’s true that Chromebooks are less expensive, with quality machines available for only around $300 to $500. But price should NOT be the deciding factor here.  The fact that they are cheaper is a great benefit, but it’s not the reason you should consider them. You should consider them because they are arguably better for school use.

I am using my own Chromebook to respond to this email, and in fact my primary computer is now a Chromebook.  I think ChromeOS is the best option for my own use (and I have access to Macs and PCs if I want them).  ChromeOS is not a cheap compromise of an operating system…  it is an excellent, fast, stable operating system that rivals major OSes in terms of functionality and usability. Anyone who tells you otherwise simply has never spent any time with ChromeOS to make an informed decision.

If you are a Google Apps for Education school, Chromebooks make enormous sense.

Some people compare Chromebooks to Windows by listing their features and looking at what Chromebooks supposedly don’t have that Windows does. They are missing the point. The advantage of Chromebooks is that they are NOT Windows. Again, anyone who attempts to make a decision about Chromebooks by comparing them to Windows is completely missing the point of what Chromebooks are all about.

In terms of managing Chromebooks in a school domain they are TRIVIALLY easy to manage.  Because they are managed via a web interface and can be placed into OUs (organisational units) they can have different policies and settings easily applied remotely. Managing 5000 Chromebooks literally requires no more effort than managing 1 Chromebook.  That is NOT true of Windows or Mac. New Chromebooks are added to your domain with a simple keystroke, and then all settings, including wifi details and all apps, are automatically configured. I used to manage a large Windows network in a school and I speak from some experience.  Chromebooks are astonishingly simple to manage!

You will hear all sorts of conflicting opinions about Chromebooks, mostly from people who have never actually used them. Many IT people are not keen on them (why would they be? Chromebooks are so simple to deploy and manage they threaten their jobs!) Many school leaders are ignorant about them because they often simply don’t know any better (and have usually been taking their advice from the IT people; see previous point)  In short, when it comes to Chromebooks there are a lot of ill-informed people out there.

You’ll see from the responses you got in the original thread where you asked about Chromebooks that there is a great deal of enthusiasm and positive attitudes from many people who use them. Seriously, once you go to Chromebooks in a school you’d NEVER go back to the old ways of traditional PCs.

They do require rethinking the way you approach your computing tasks. Chromebooks are different. Not worse, not less capable, not more limited. Just different. And perfectly suited for schools.

I’ve Seen The Future

I just had a couple of thoughts on Chromebooks that I wanted to share. There has been a growing interest in Chromebooks over the past year or so. I ran a Chromebook session at the IT Managers Conference in Canberra earlier this year and there was quite a bit of interest there, and I hear of a growing number of schools here in Sydney that are starting to look at Chromebooks as a possible option for student devices.

At PLC Sydney we started with a small set of 10 Chromebooks about 2 years ago, and have been steadily adding more, mainly in our junior school. They have been a major success with students and teachers alike. Easy to deploy and manage. Robust and reliable. Simple to use, and they do most everything we need.

You might notice I didn’t tout price as the advantage… while Chromebooks are quite inexpensive (around $300 each) I think it would be a major mistake to view them as nothing more than “a cheap alternative” to a “proper computer”. Being inexpensive is a nice benefit, but it’s just that; a benefit, not a feature.

The real features of Chromebooks are all the other reasons I mentioned above. We are choosing to use Chromebooks, not in spite of the fact that they don’t have a full blown conventional operating system, but BECAUSE they don’t. The speed, security and simplicity of ChromeOS is the real attraction, not just the cheap price.

After dabbling with cheap Chromebooks over the past 2 years, I bought myself a Chromebook Pixel 2 when I was in the US a few weeks ago. The Pixel is often criticised as being far too expensive for a computer perceived as being “just a browser”. At $999 USD for the cheaper model (the one I got) it works out at over $1300 AUD, which many might say is stupid expensive for what it is.

That said, even after just a week of use I have to say the Pixel is the best computer I have ever owned. It has the best screen, the best build quality, is fast, responsive, and delightful to use. I love it, and although it seemed expensive at first, and a bit of a luxury purchase, I now think it was actually very reasonable for what it can do and how it does it. I can see it redefining the way I use a computer.

Which got me thinking about the place of Chromebooks in schools over the next few years. I think the Pixel is a glimpse into the future of computing. I predict that over the next few years, as the hardware on Chromebooks grows exponentially better and the cost of producing a quality Chromebook drops exponentially lower, and the capability of what you can do in a browser grows exponentially more amazing, that this will be the future of modern computing. The Pixel is a little glimpse into that future right now.

2 years ago, based on the Chromebooks I was seeing at the time, I would not have said this. The idea of working in nothing but a browser, and all the limitations that implied at the time, was simply not good enough to be my primary machine. Now, when you look at browser based applications like Wevideo, Soundtrap, LucidPress, Polarr, etc, as well as the increasingly powerful core applications in Google Apps for Education, and you see just how incredibly capable these apps are running in nothing but a browser… well, it’s kind of mind blowing.

Right now, the difference in “going Chromebook”, compared to what was possible even 6 to 12 months ago, is astounding. And I have no doubt that the difference between the Chromebook experience now and what it will be in 1, 2 or 5 years from now will be even moreso. Right now, ChromeOS on cheap commodity hardware is adequate. But the Pixel has shown me that running ChromeOS on great hardware can be simply amazing.

I feel like I’ve seen the future.