Switch from Mac to Chromebook Puts Acclaimed Philly High School at Center of Ed-Tech Debates

By Benjamin Herold — December 11, 2013 4 min read
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Philadelphia’s Science Leadership Academy, one of the country’s most prominent technology-infused high schools and the subject of our year-long “Innovation Gamble” series, will be the first school in the nation to roll out Dell’s newly unveiled Chromebook 11.

The switch—SLA has used Mac laptops for the past seven years, winning awards and national recognition along the way—sends interesting signals about both the business and pedagogical battles taking place in the world of educational technology.

My colleague Michele Molnar over at Marketplace K-12 has the skinny on Dell’s leap into manufacturing Chromebooks, inexpensive laptop computers that run Google’s Chrome operating system, support web-based applications, and store users’ information on the cloud. She reports that Dell is joining Samsung and Acer in producing Chromebooks for the education market, which still heavily favors Apple’s iPad as the digital learning device of choice.

Meanwhile, Christopher Lehmann, SLA’s principal and the recipient of a new grant from Dell to fund the adoption of Chromebooks, argues that the $300-dollar devices are a potential game-changer for schools, providing 90 percent of the functionality of traditional laptops at one-fourth the price.

“I really think Chromebooks have the potential to revolutionize the way schools are thinking about technology,” Lehmann said. “There is no more financial argument to be made about why a district can’t go 1-to-1.”

Similarly heady projections have accompanied any number of other ed-tech product releases in recent years—many of which have been accompanied by troubled rollouts. But people in the ed-tech world are likely to pay close attention to such proclamations from Lehmann, who was recently named the nation’s “outstanding leader” by the International Society for Technology in Education,

SLA, which now operates in two separate campuses, is receiving an as-yet undisclosed amount that will cover Chromebook 11’s for each of the 250 students in its two freshman classes, as well as support staff and some desktop hardware. The school will also partner with Dell to create a “center of excellence.”

Lehmann said he hopes that partnership will result in a national platform to tout SLA’s “inquiry-driven, project-based” approach to learning, which he described as an important counterexample to the “tutorial” model of personalized learning (in which technology is used to deliver tailored content to students) gaining traction around the country.

“People can come to SLA and see personalized learning that doesn’t just mean the same content at a slightly different pace, but actually kids with their own skin in the game and designing projects and doing work that represents their own best ideas, that represent their interests, that represent their own passions,” Lehmann said in a recent recorded interview with Education Week for the Innovation Gamble series (see video clip above.)

Chromebooks are designed to support use of Google Apps for Education, a suite of cloud-based tools for word-processing and other computing functions that encourage collaboration among multiple users.

The devices don’t support traditional software programs, but do support a variety of educational apps, which can be centrally downloaded and managed. (Lehmann discussed the pros and cons of laptops vs. Chromebooks in the clip below.)

Dell officials said they want to promote SLA’s instructional approach, but stressed they also recognize the wide variety of practices in schools.

“One-to-one initiatives are not one size fits all,” said Jon Phillips, the company’s managing director for worldwide education strategy. “We are very aware that visions for instruction need to be built by schools, for schools.”

That emphasis on flexibility also extends to the various devices and platforms in use by districts, he said. In SLA’s case, students are expected to do video production and other high-powered content creation that is not supported on the Chromebook; through its grant, Dell is paying for desktop and all-in-one stations to be used as supplements.

Phillips said Dell recognizes the growing expectation that students will use different devices for different learning tasks, as well as the growing reality that in many districts, multiple operating systems may be in play.

“You will see more hybrid environments, we believe,” he said.

Science Leadership Academy won’t receive its new devices until sometime next year—one of many hurdles that SLA has experienced as it navigates the School District of Philadelphia’s ongoing financial crisis while attempting to replicate the flagship school at a second campus.

(Throughout this school year, Education Week is profiling that replication effort, part of Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite’s huge gamble to invest in innovative schools despite the cash-strapped district’s massive budget shortfall. The next full installment should be ready in February.)

Lehmann said the difficult realities on the ground in Philadelphia should give people even more reason to pay attention to SLA’s shift to Chromebooks.

“The idea that 1-to-1 is possible even in this climate, and that there is now a device that can robustly change learning at a cost that is affordable, I just think that’s a game-changer,” he said.

Videos by Jessica Kourkounis for Education Week.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.