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.

Getting out of Password Hell

A while ago I realised that my online life was in password hell. I was using literally hundreds of sites and services that required passwords, but they were held together with a confusing mess of old passwords that I’d mostly forgotten, numerous passwords which were being used on more than one site,  passwords that didn’t meet the usual complexity rules usually required across the Internet, and so on. I often found myself having to do a password reset just to access a site, and of course that new password became yet another one I had to remember. Or forget.

I felt things were a little bit out of hand so I finally took a few steps to clean up my digital life.

First, using the same password for everything is an exceptionally stupid idea. Instead, I came up with my own system that helped me create hard-to-guess, but easy-to-remember passwords that I could apply to any site.  Having a clear system for this meant that when I signed up for some new online service I could quickly come up with a password that was memorable while also being unique to that site. It really helps to have a system. I made sure that my system always met the minimum complexity rules usually found online… that is, they contained uppercase, lowercase, numbers and symbols and were at least 8 characters long. If you do nothing else, come up with a system for your passwords! It’s so frustrating when you attempt to log in to a site that you’ve been to previously and can’t remember your password. So come up with a system for yourself, and please don’t just use the same password everywhere!

Secondly, I turned on multistep or 2-Factor authentication  for passwords on every site that offered this option (and there are a lot of them now). This is probably the single biggest thing you can do to improve the security of your online life. If you go online and don’t use 2 factor authentication, you’re not really serious about your online security. It’s that simple. I find it both amusing and frustrating when I hear people questioning the security of online services, and then find out they don’t use 2-Factor passwords. If you don’t use 2-Factor on every site that enables it,  please, don’t ever complain about the dangers of online security.  It just makes you sound silly. It’s not hard to set up, and if you use something like Google Authenticator to manage your second factors, it’s very simple to use.  The minor inconvenience of having to enter the second factor is far outweighed by the added security. Trust me on this. Turn it on. Now.

Finally, I set up a password manager. I chose LastPass,  but there are others. It took a while to get my head around how LastPass works but once I did, it made life so much easier. If you want to try LastPass for yourself you can get it on this link.
https://lastpass.com/f?7253846

If you are in password hell like I was,  take some of these positive steps to sort it out.

In Second Factor We Trust

You hear of so many security compromises and hacks these days. There are major security breaches happening, with millions of passwords being stolen and used to steal or damage your stuff. So what can you do about it?

With so much of our lives now being lived in online spaces, losing a password, losing an account, having someone get into your stuff online,  would be a nightmare. What would happen if someone got into your Google account? Your Facebook? Your bank account?

I lost my original Twitter account (betchaboy) last year after a password breach and have never been able to get it back. These security breaches DO happen.

The best thing you can do to protect yourself is to turn on Two Factor authentication. Sounds complicated? Its not. It basically means that there are two passwords required to get into your account instead of the usual one… there is the normal password that you usually use, plus a second one that changes every 30 seconds or so. Even if the bad guys were to get your password, without the second factor – which only you know because it’s generated on your phone, in your presence, on demand – the first password is useless.

It’s a bit like having a door with two locks on it. You’d need both keys to open the door, not just one. Either key on its own won’t open it.

But wait, what? A second password that changes every 30 seconds? That sounds like a lot of messing around! I know it sounds like a hassle, but it’s actually not. Most Two Factor systems form a trust relationship with the devices and computers you use often so most of the time you don’t need the second factor for the computers you use regularly. It’s just needed when you log into a different computer or phone that you don’t normally use. Just like the one that a hacker might be trying to use to log in as you. Even if they discover your password, unless they have YOUR device they only have half the password.

I’ve been using Two Factor authentication on my main Google account for a while now. I resisted turning it on for ages because it all sounded too hard. I eventually relented and decided to give it a go. It’s something I should have done a long time ago. And it’s something that you, if you haven’t already, should do too. Right now.

I spent some time tonight setting up Two Factor authentication on all my Google accounts (about 5 of them), plus my Facebook, Evernote, WordPress, PayPal, Dropbox, Lastpass and Apple ID.  Here’s a good article on how to do it.

For most of these, the second factor can be generated by an app on your phone called Google Authenticator, available for Android, iPhone, Blackberry and Windows Phone. It uses Google’s open source token generation algorithm, and it spits out a new code every 30 seconds, specific to each account. Just log in to these sites as usual, but have your phone handy to generate the second password. It’s very straightforward and easy to use, and well worth whatever minor inconvenience it might cause (which honestly isn’t much)

If you haven’t set up Two Factor yet, can I strongly encourage you to at least give it a try. You can always turn it off if you hate it, but really, you should be using this! There was a report of a password breach for Dropbox users yesterday and it was such a relief to think that it didn’t really bother me as even if they got my password it didn’t matter. It was useless to them anyway.

Do it. Do it now. Seriously.

The Cloud

He rolled his eyes and tried not to look distrustful. “I’m not sure about all this ‘cloud computing’ nonsense. It seems to me it’s just a passing fad and a huge security risk.  I’d never trust my important stuff there. I’d only put my files on my own computer. I like to know where they are so I can get to them when I need them.”

His friend responded with a wry grin. “Do you have a bank account?”, he asked.

The cloud sceptic replied, “Yes, of course I do.”

“Well… what do you think that is?   Do you think your pile of money is sitting in your very own little personal vault somewhere with your name on it?”, he smiled.

“No”, he continued, “your money is nothing more than a record in a computer database, a series of 0s and 1s kept on a server somewhere as a series of magnetic codes. You don’t know where your money is kept or what sort of machine it’s kept on, or who maintains it, or how often it’s backed up. You don’t know what operating system it uses or what type of database it is. You just know that when you go to the ATM, money comes out the slot. That’s all that matters. You don’t need to go to the same bank that you deposited at, and you don’t get back the exact same pieces of paper that you put into the account. All you know is that you put your stuff somewhere, and then you can access it from anywhere.”

That’s what the cloud is.

Taking control of your Calendars: Part 3

Thanks to everyone who came back to me with such positive responses to the last two posts… it’s great to hear that other people were also able to benefit from some of the things I learned about Google Calendars recently.

This final post will just tidy up a few loose ends and give you an idea of some of the extra things I’m doing with my calendars now they are set up the way I wanted them.  It’s working far better than I anticipated, and certainly far better than Apple’s MobileMe service ever worked.  And did I mention that Google Calendars are free? (I’m pretty sure I did!)

Add to TasksWe’ve touched on Gmail, Contacts and Calendars, and looked at how these can be synced to your iPhone and iPad. Naturally, they can also all be synced to your Android phone and tablet if you have one of those. But what about Tasks? In the spirit of GTD, it would really help to be able to have a decent task (ToDo) list that also worked with the rest of my digital (Google) lifestyle.

Gmail does have a Tasks list, although it’s pretty anemic. It appears as a tiny little popup at the base of the Gmail screen and it looks very basic, even nondescript. No wonder people miss it. And it is basic and nondescript too, at least until you start doing something more interesting with it. The goal is to use the Tasks list to become a storing place for emails that you need to act upon in the future.

It’s easy enough to do. When you get an email that requires you to take some action, either in general or by a certain date, just click the More Actions button and choose the Add To Tasks option. (If it’s more of an event than a to-do, you can also choose the Create Event option to add it to your calendar… you decide)

Once you add the email as a Task, you’ll then find it in your task list in the lower right of your screen. Click the small right-pointing arrow to dig into the new task and you’ll find you can set a few other parameters for the task, such as editing its name if necessary, setting a due date and leaving some additional notes.  For this exercise, just set a due date. Once you’ve done this, click the Back To List button to go back to the list view.

Where it gets interesting is when you look at your calendar now you’ll see the Task showing up on your calendar on the due date, complete with a little checkbox to tick once you’ve completed the task.  I really like the workflow here – taking an email and turning it into a task which them appears on my calendar. Yes I know that other systems can do this sort of thing, but I like the simple way that Google makes it happen.  I also need to thank Roland Gesthuizen for showing me this stuff… I never realised you could integrate tasks into your calendar in this way.

Of course, it would be really useful to have these tasks also appear on your phone so you could access them (and tick them off) anywhere and anytime you wanted. There’s no built in app on the iPhone to do this, but there is a third party app called GoTasks that does it very well. Install GoTasks (a free app!) from the App Store and your tasks will appear on your phone in a nicely readable list that syncs directly from your Google account. Nice one!

If you’ve managed to follow along and get all this working for you, here’s one more handy tip. The standard Calendar app on the iPhone is pretty basic, and although it still works ok, it’s limited in its features.  No week view or year view, no custom colour coding on calendars, no landscape mode, etc.  If your iPhone calendar app is leaving you feeling a little unimpressed you should try Week Calendar from the App Store. At AUD$2.49 it’s a bargain and well worth the cost. It’s superior to the standard calendar app in every way and is more like what the standard app should have been. A special hat-tip to Brent Walters from Ontario for putting me onto this app.

So there you have it… some hopefully useful suggestions for helping you migrate your key applications – mail, calendar, contacts, tasks – to the Google cloud and to have them accessible from anywhere. No more getting out of sync, of having important information stored on different computers, of worrying about it whether the dog ate it, or even just getting muddled and confused and losing stuff.

Put it in the cloud! Sync it. Access it from anywhere, on any device. That’s what I’m talkin’ ’bout!