Chromebooks Gaining Popularity in School Districts
Educators tout low cost, ease of use with Google's digital devices
Suddenly, Chromebooks are surging.
Barely a blip on educators' radar screens as recently as 2012, the inexpensive, Web-based laptop computers accounted for nearly one-third of all mobile-digital-device sales to schools in the United States in the first half of this year. Over the past two years, large school districts from California to South Carolina have made significant Chromebook purchases, and the Montgomery County, Md., system recently embarked on the country's largest confirmed K-12 Chromebook deployment to date.
The share of the U.S. education market held by digital tablets such as the iPad, meanwhile, has declined 7 percent during that span, according to Futuresource Consulting Ltd., a research and forecasting company based in the United Kingdom.
Even some experts who were initially skeptical have begun touting the Chromebook's benefits, including the ease of managing large deployments, the ways in which the computers can support student and teacher collaboration, and, especially, their cost: Most versions of the device sell for under $300.
"The Chromebook is the next iteration of where we're going with personal, portable technologies for education," said Leslie Wilson, the chief executive officer of the One-to-One Institute, a nonprofit based in Mason, Mich., that provides assistance to districts implementing student-computing initiatives.
"I don't think it's the endgame, but it really is the next big thing," Ms. Wilson said.
Of course, not everyone is convinced.
Chromebooks run exclusively on Google's Chrome operating system, requiring a significant switch for many schools and districts that have long depended on Microsoft products.
Concerns about the devices' durability, limited processing power relative to traditional laptops, and reliance on Google's Apps for Education tool suite, which has come under fire for its handling of student data, have also given some districts pause.
And perhaps most significantly, Chromebooks offer little internal storage, instead hosting applications and data on external cloud servers. That means that robust Internet access, still lacking in many schools and communities, is essential to successfully deploying the devices.
"The challenge with a Chromebook is you really need that wireless infrastructure in place at the very beginning, or the device has some challenges," said Ryan J. Imbriale, the executive director of innovative learning for the Baltimore County, Md., schools, which recently committed to spending more than $200 million on hybrid laptop-tablet devices the district believes will better suit its teachers and students.
In the Classroom
Sherwin A. Collette, the chief technology officer of Maryland's 151,000-student Montgomery County school system, said that for years he's been "the guy in the middle of the intersection saying 'Hold up!' while everybody else was pushing iPads."
In July, the school district announced that it would spend $15 million on nearly 40,000 Chromebooks for students and staff this school year, with plans to expand throughout grades 3-12 in the near future.
Maryland's decision to administer online common-core assessments this year was a major impetus.
But Mr. Collette said the decision to go with Chromebooks was driven primarily by the type of instruction his district wants to see in its classrooms.
"We value community, collaboration, and partnership," he said. "So the question became, 'What best helps us to do that?' "
The initial answer, Mr. Collette said, was not a device, but a digital platform: Google's Apps for Education, a collection of word-processing, spreadsheet, email, storage, and other Web-based applications predicated on making it easier for students and teachers to work together. The suite is made available for free to schools by the Mountain View, Calif.-based online services giant.
At between $229 and $259 apiece for the school system, Chromebooks were the most cost-effective way of giving every student access to those tools.
"The device gets all the attention," Mr. Collette said. "But we wanted to select a technology stack consistent with our theories of learning."
On a crisp fall morning before Halloween, Jill A. Raspen's 6th grade English class at Ridgeview Middle School here, offered a glimpse of those theories—and that technology—in action.
Students huddled in groups of three or four, discussing "Maniac Magee," a popular middle-grades novel. While one group typed notes about author Jerry Spinelli's use of metaphors, others detailed his use of personification, characterization, and other literary devices.
The whole class was simultaneously editing the same Google Slides presentation, with each group responsible for creating one page of a common document.
"I think it's better than writing on paper," said 11-year-old Paul Beltran. "You can see each other's work, you can give suggestions, and if something is wrong, you can help each other."
Midway through the period, Ms. Raspen called upon the groups to present their slides.
"You have access to all this information," the eight-year veteran of the district told her class when the presentation was complete. "Now, I want you to use each other's thinking. What two pieces of evidence from someone else's slide can you use to explain what makes this book awesome?"
Students typed for 10 minutes, then submitted their work via a Google Form (a basic online survey) that Ms. Raspen created. Their responses automatically populated a spreadsheet, which the teacher was already reviewing as her charges filed out the door.
In years past, Ms. Raspen said, she taught an analog version of the same lesson. Students worked in groups to create posters, took part in a "gallery walk" around the room, and wrote their book reviews by hand. Editing involved an exchange of paper drafts that could take days.
Chromebooks haven't totally changed the way she teaches, Ms. Raspen said.
But they have made her classroom more efficient, offering more time to get students working together and providing tools that allow her to give more timely and detailed attention to her students' work.
"They get so much more feedback, and they use it so much more than when writing by hand," she said. "It's pretty huge."
Some Districts Skeptical
The device's power to support collaboration has also extended to Ridgeview Middle's staff, many of whom now use Chromebooks and Apps for Education to do joint planning—often in real time, sometimes from the comfort of their own homes.
Some district technology leaders also point to the administrative benefits of going Chromebook. The devices boot up quickly, have a long battery life, are easy to update, and are not prone to malware and viruses.
Because they provide storage on the cloud, there is less file-management and other back-end administrative work for district technology staff.
"It makes a huge difference," said Donna G. Teuber, the team leader for technology integration in the 27,300-student Richland 2 school district in South Carolina, which has been fully 1-to-1 with Chromebooks in grades 3-12 since 2013.
"When you go in for classroom observations, learning is happening because people aren't worrying about technology," she said.
Despite such rave reviews, though, some districts, including Montgomery County's neighbor to the north, remain hesitant.
Earlier this year, the Baltimore County school system contracted to lease 150,000 new digital devices for students and staff over the next seven years, at a total cost of $205 million.
After a series of conversations with students, teachers, and others, the 110,000-student system wrote its request for proposals in such a way that essentially excluded Chromebooks from consideration.
"One thing came out loud and clear," said Mr. Imbriale, the Baltimore County administrator. "They wanted a device that could both function as a full laptop and act as a tablet."
Furthermore, Mr. Imbriale said, the Baltimore County district wanted to "ensure there was not a massive chasm between the new technology we are bringing in and the thousands and thousands of machines already in the system." That meant limiting bidders to those using the more-established Windows or iOS operating systems.
Student Privacy Concerns
Infrastructure was also a concern.
"We needed a machine that is still a viable device," even when not connected to the Internet, he said.
The district ultimately selected the HP Revolve, a new hybrid laptop-tablet.
Those devices will cost the district about $1,100 apiece.
Mr. Collette, the chief technology officer in Montgomery County, acknowledged the concerns about infrastructure, saying that a Chromebook deployment and wireless upgrades are "necessarily intertwined." The district has already spent $7.5 million on wireless upgrades for its buildings, with plans to spend as much as $14 million more on related modernization efforts. But Mr. Collette was largely dismissive of concerns about shifting to the Chrome operating system, as well as worries about student-data privacy in Apps for Education.
Earlier this year, Google acknowledged it had been scanning and indexing for advertising purposes the contents of student emails sent using the application, a practice the company says it has since stopped. But it remains unclear whether Google is continuing to data-mine student emails for other commercial purposes.
"It's the bogeyman of the moment," Mr. Collette said.
The numbers suggest that many in K-12 education are similarly nonplussed by such concerns.
More than 729,000 Chromebooks were sold to K-12 schools in the United States in the second quarter of this year, according to Futuresource Consulting.
With common core and other online assessments becoming a permanent part of the landscape and district budgets remaining tight, that number is likely to continue growing, the analysts predicted.
Ms. Wilson of the One-to-One Institute agreed.
"The Chromebook is cost-effective, it allows for a lot of multi-tasking, and it can be a creation and content-production device," she said. "A lot of districts are moving in that direction."
Vol. 34, Issue 12, Pages 1, 10-12Published in Print: November 12, 2014, as Chromebooks Gaining Popularity in Districts