IT Infrastructure & Management

Schools Get Relief on Chromebook Replacements. Google Extends Device Support to 10 Years

By Alyson Klein — September 21, 2023 4 min read
Photo of teacher working with student on laptop computer.
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Google is extending software support for its popular Chromebooks, in an effort to keep aging—but still operational—devices out of landfills, sparing both the environment and school district bank accounts.

Starting next year, Google will support Chromebooks released in 2021 and after with 10 years of software updates, up from about five for some older devices, the company recently announced. Educators and district staff using Chromebooks out before 2021 can opt-in to extended updates. The company also announced plans to make the devices more energy efficient and easier to repair.

The move is a step toward making Chromebooks more sustainable and lengthening the life of the investments school districts have made in providing the devices to students and teachers, said Jeannie Crowley, the director of technology and innovation for the Scarsdale school district in suburban New York.

“People should be happy that the expectation is that the device should be still in service in 10 years,” she said.

In the past, Chromebooks were seen as “very disposable devices” that only a lasted a few years, but were relatively inexpensive to purchase, she said. But now the price has risen to a few hundred dollars. “Google, saying ‘we’ll keep continuing to support this device for a full 10 years,’ I think, really sets a strong expectation for how long we should be able to hold on to our devices,’” Crowley said.

Most school districts didn’t have 1-to-1 computing environments at all grade levels until the pandemic led to emergency remote and hybrid learning, supported by billions in federal relief aid. As districts scrambled to purchase low-cost devices, most flocked to Chromebooks. Others purchased iPads or other brands of laptops.

The problem was that once Google stopped developing software updates for a particular Chromebook model, the devices could no longer get security upgrades. What’s more, browsers eventually stop working without updates, making it difficult or impossible for students and teachers to log on to websites or online programs, including those used for state assessments.

Organizations like the Consortium for School Networking and the State Educational Technology Directors Association have recently begun a push to encourage companies to create devices for schools that are more cost efficient and environmentally friendly, said Carla Wade, a CoSN spokeswoman.

CoSN is “celebrating [Google’s extension] because it’s a meaningful change in the tech industry to prioritize the sustainability of devices for schools,” said Wade.

Google’s policy shift comes just months after U.S. PIRG, a consumer watchdog organization, released an analysis claiming that if the company committed to supporting software for its Chromebook models for 10 years, up from as little as five years for some older models, as well as make the devices more durable and cheaper to repair, school districts could save as much as $1.8 billion annually. (That’s more than the $1.4 billion the federal government spends on career and technical education programs each year.)

Devices are ‘beat to heck’ after three to four years

Crowley, for one, doesn’t expect the savings to districts from extended software support alone will be especially dramatic, in part because Chromebooks simply aren’t durable enough to last a full decade. They are typically “beat to heck” after just three or four years, she said.

But replacing devices less often would have a material benefit for districts, Crowley added. Her district replaces its devices every three to four years, at a cost of about a $1 million a year. Extending that to every six years would cut that in half, to $500,000.

Lengthening the software support time for Chromebooks is a good first step, agreed Sarah Radcliffe, the director of future ready learning for the Altoona school district in Wisconsin. But she’s also hoping that Google and other companies that make digital devices for schools will develop models whose parts are more interchangeable, making repairs easier and less expensive, a recommendation also included in PIRG’s report.

And, like Crowley, Radcliffe would love for the devices to be more “rugged,” able to withstand the wear and tear from students’ use. “The software lasts 10 years” under the policy change, Radcliffe said. “But the hardware doesn’t always when middle schoolers are carrying these devices around.”

The company is addressing those concerns, a spokesman said.

“We are always working with our device manufacturing partners to increasingly build durable devices across segments with post-consumer recycled and certified materials that are more repairable, and over time use manufacturing processes that reduce emissions,” the spokesman said in an email.

‘You could get another year out of them’

Altoona projects it will save about $2,000 a year from the software support extension, or roughly 1 percent of the $200,000 it spends annually on Chromebooks, Radcliffe said.

And the move will offer her district much-needed breathing room when it comes to replacing devices.

“What this really does is provide you some flexibility,” Radcliffe said. “Let’s say your replacement cycle for Chromebooks in 2nd grade was five years. And then you had some kind of budget crunch. You could get another year out of them.”

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