At the beginning of Term 1 2014, McKinnon Secondary College was involved in the first large scale roll out of Chromebooks in Australia.
The role of technology in education is tough. It’s widely accepted that measuring the impact of technology on learning is difficult. So how are we to make informed decisions around technology in our schools? Because of this and the pressures to incorporate technology into the curriculum, many schools take the approach that “any decision will do and we’ll steer the ship later”. The problems with this approach:
- School leaders have no data or measurement tool that describes where their ‘ship’ is going, making it difficult to steer it in the direction of enhanced learning
- Decisions about technology become divorced from teaching practice.
Instead, our approach is to look at where the benefits of digital learning technologies can be measured, improved and the ship therefore ‘steered’ appropriately. We have focused heavily on productivity gains. If students can save wasted time by getting on with work more quickly, collaborating more efficiently and not be burdened by device failure, it stands to reason that they’ll be better off and more productive as a student. We have also looked to employ digital learning tools that boost teachers’ productivity too — reliable tools that do not require extensive training and constant software installations and upgrades.
Furthermore, we can measure these gains and make adjustments that add more value to the teaching and learning process.
The first task was to get a picture of what staff and students were doing with technology and where technology was failing them. We collected their perceptions in surveys and more qualitative data through conversations with staff and students in the school.
We quickly identified common themes:
- Google Apps was offering great ways for teacher’s and student’s to be more productive — powerful creation, collaboration and sharing of resources and tasks is achieved with tools that are really simple to use.
- Teachers and students were preferring online resources (accessible anywhere, anytime, on any device) in place of local tools and platform-specific materials.
- Users were frustrated with device logon time and managing class time with technology — teachers and students alike did not want to waste a minute.
- Confidence was low, as teachers often had to abandon their lesson plans due to failures of technology.
In order to address teacher and student needs the technology must: 1. build confidence through speed and reliability of technology, and 2. be as accessible and ubiquitous as pen and paper — meaning every student has a working laptop in every class.
These are no easy feat!
Our PC and Apple fleet was often failing our teachers and students against the above criteria. Slow logon times were wasting precious class time. Breakages were common, and repairs to our Macs and PCs always took longer than expected (even when the work was completed under the devices’ warranty). Student learning was undermined and teachers’ confidence in using digital learning tools eroded. We asked ourselves: How many times will teachers suffer through device failure before giving up on using technology?
Enter the Chromebook
Deploying 1-to-1 personal learning devices are the future for schools, due largely to the push for ICT access anywhere, anytime. Chromebooks fit perfectly with this direction and our above priorities. They can’t do everything and that’s a good thing. Our aim is not to buy an expensive super-computer that most students will never fully take advantage of; rather, we strive to provide a device and the digital tools that do what most students need most of the time, extremely well. This key trade-off opens the door to a faster, simpler platform for staff and students to utilise. Chromebooks are designed for the web and that’s where we see resources, books and tools heading (if not already there). Add all of this to our longstanding success with Google Apps, these devices made for the perfect extension of what we were already doing.
Chromebooks are the only device that offers a way to have zero downtime for students. When a Chromebook breaks the IT team aren’t put under pressure to resolve the device’s issues instantly, often requiring a backup and transfer of gigs of data and a lengthy re-imaging process.
Chromebooks keep everything in the cloud, meaning the device can be swapped out for a spare and any warrantable repairs can be batched a few times a week. The productivity gains have been noticeable and Chromebooks are always up-to-date and never require “imaging”.
To be honest, we’d be unable to maintain our level of service had we rolled out a further 700 PCs or Macs — the manual handling is just too intensive (and expensive).
The devices all but manage themselves: technicians can set the homepage, push apps and lock the devices down in almost any conceivable way. The policies and settings are more robust than any platform we’ve ever seen — but the reality is we don’t have much need to enforce policies, the devices are just that simple. The logon time is incredibly fast, meaning students use more class time completing productive tasks.
When a student has any issue, they’re immediately loaned a spare. This lets the student pick up right where they left off. No waiting, no re-imaging, no copying data, no impact to teaching and learning. This certainly builds confidence around technology and makes technology more transparent to the business of education.
Unfortunately, as with anything new, Chromebooks suffer from their fair share of misinformation and spin.
“They’re useless offline”
Google provide apps specifically to use offline and the majority of Google Apps can be used in some offline capacity. In fact the Chrome Web Store has a specific section for offline apps.
“We can’t use Photoshop and the apps we need”
The reality is most of the functions that students and staff need from Photoshop and other media-rich applications, the Chrome web store caters for with apps like: Pixlr (Image crop, layers, filters etc), Wevideo Next (Video editing w/offline support) and the list goes on. We see these type of applications as outliers. The majority of teachers and students want access to the web and a suite of apps to create documents, presentations and to manage data with spreadsheets — which Google Apps for Education deliver. Our aim is not to provide a device to meet every requirement of every IT-based task a student might undertake. A Chromebook does most of what most students need, from a very fast and reliable platform.
“It’s just a web browser…”
True — which is fine, given the majority of what we do on a computer is using a web browser. Having said that, many Chrome apps are blurring the lines by running in separate windows and feel more like “native apps”.
“Normal laptops are just as cheap”
A lot of people miss the point. The speed, simplicity and ease of administration makes Chromebooks the superior offering. A traditional Windows-based laptop cannot provide a school with the same basis for success when teachers aren’t confident in using technology in the first place.
As a Systems Administrator, I’ve been waiting a long time for a device that’s simple to use and laser-focused on what’s important to modern teaching. Chromebooks offer us that package, with great choices of hardware and dead-simple administration, all in a package that seamlessly integrates with Google Apps and the sort of web applications we’re already using. Most importantly they’re engineered to continually evolve as the internet does, and as we do as an educational institution.