January 1, 2015
Teachers Talk - ChromeBooks: Are They the 1:1 Device for Your School?
Colin Hill, Director of Computer Services, Canadian University College, Lacombe, AB

In my May 2014 CAT~net article,1 I wrote about planning for success in a 1:1 program.  For this article, I am focusing on one of the devices that could be considered as part of the planning process. The Chromebook is the fastest growing part of the PC industry.2 It has taken a while for the sales numbers to rise, but Chromebooks are well poised to be a solution for those schools looking for a low-cost device which could revolutionize the classroom, but there are some situations where they may not be the first choice. 
While the Chromebooks are inexpensive, quite easy to manage, and proving reliable, schools must have a robust wireless infrastructure and willingness to live within the Chromebook limitations (or new way of doing things) to make a deployment successful.  They are true Cloud Computing devices, and, as such, they rely heavily on an internet connection.  Several deployments have failed because of a failure to realize this necessity. However, significant improvement is being made in the offline capability of many apps and even with Google Drive.  What follows is a summary of the pros and cons to consider if you believe Chromebooks may be in your future.
 
Pros:
 
Low cost: Ranging from below $200 to around $400, Chromebooks are truly a low cost solution to providing computing resources for a classroom.
 
Light & thin:  While Chromebooks started out looking very similar to the Notebook class of machines, they are getting closer in styling and screen sizes to the more modern Ultrabook style of laptops. 
 
Fast:  Since all Chromebooks have internal flash based memory, start-up time is measured in seconds (about 10), as opposed to minutes with many windows-based laptops with spinning hard drives.  The flash RAM also allows most operations to fly along at higher speed.
 
Free Storage:  Included with all Chromebooks is access to 100 GB of storage in the Google Drive.  If your school is using Google Apps for Education, then you now have unlimited storage available.
 
Free Software:  Each Chromebook includes the Google suite of apps (Docs, Sheets, Presentations, Drawing, and others). Some of these also work in offline mode when an Internet connection is not available. Additional apps can be downloaded from the Chrome web store.
 
Battery life:  Flash based RAM and other power saving features mean that most Chromebooks can run for over 6 hours on a battery charge, many may run longer.
 
Security: Built-in antivirus and malware protection ensure that Chromebooks are one of the most secure platforms, and the tight software control helps to ensure this.
 
Full Sized Keyboards:  Unlike many mobile devices, Chromebook do have full-size and very functional keyboards.
 
Management:  While it used to be that there was a monthly fee for the management console that brought the overall cost of ownership of a Chromebook closer to the traditional laptop level, now, there is only a $30 one-time fee for this feature.  The management console allows you to track location and usage, assign the device to an individual in a group, push out restrictions and customizations based on the group, configure network access, and pre-install, whitelist or blacklist applications.
 
Updates: Chromebooks update themselves silently and automatically in the background. This means that keeping the devices current is not something that will take up your time.
 
HDMI Output:  Most models have HDMI output ports allowing them to connect to a projector or large screen TV for displaying a YouTube video or displaying a presentation.
 
Cons:
 
Limited to compatible software:  Chromebooks can only run the built-in applications, or others downloaded from the Chrome web store.  No Windows or Mac software will run on this platform. While this may be adequate for many classrooms, others may have legacy systems or other requirements that will knock Chromebooks out of the running.  While MS Office programs will not run, the files they produce can be read and written with the included Google apps.

Limited models available:  There are not as many vendors or models of Chromebooks as there are of the traditional PC laptop market.  Selection is increasing.
 
Printing:  Chromebooks do not connect directly to a printer.  Printing is accomplished through the Google Cloud service.  Printers can be purchased with this feature built-in, which allows direct wireless printing, or a computer can be set up as a print server.
Not all include optical drive or USB ports: Lack of a DVD or CD player or burner may limit their usefulness in some situations, but most laptops are going that way now as well.  Also, the cloud-based storage model really makes USB thumb drives obsolete.
 
No Skype:  Although Skype calls are not supported (workarounds do exist, but are unsupported), but Google Hangouts can accomplish the same goal.
 
Limited Video or Photo editing:  While Photoshop or comprehensive video editing programs are not available, there are web-based and Chrome Apps available to do what most classrooms will require.
 
Management:  While the Management Console does provide for comprehensive management of the Chromebooks in your environment, it is another system that you will have to learn and manage.
 
Needs a Robust Wireless Environment:  Every function of a Chromebook relies on having an internet connection.  Some features are getting better with offline modes, but if you do not have a robust and secure wireless infrastructure, you are best to stay away from Chromebooks for a while.
 
At CUC/PAA, by the time this is published, we should be just beginning Chromebook deployments for the Education department and the High School.  So our experience with these devices should be increasing rapidly.  Please reach out and contact me if you would like to know our experiences with them, or have further questions. 
 
Colin Hill  (chill@cauc.ca)
 
Footnotes:
 
1 http://catnet.adventist.ca/articles/article.php?id=665
2 http://www.omgchrome.com/chromebooks-fastest-growing-part-of-the-pc-industry/
 
Other resources:
 
https://chrome.google.com/webstore/category/apps
https://www.google.com/chrome/business/devices/features-management-console.html
http://jonathanwylie.hubpages.com/hub/Are-Chromebooks-Good-Enough-to-Replace-My-PC