Chromebooks for a 1:1 Paperless Classroom?

As many schools and districts are proving with their wallets, Chromebooks can be an enticing device for the classroom. And why not? They offer the promise of easy management and cloud-based learning in a cost-effective, affordable device. What’s not to love?!

But before you succumb to the siren’s song of these promises, you have to keep in mind that there are also some limitations and caveats:

In short, there are three major reasons Chromebooks could be good 1:1 devices in the classroom:

  1. Affordability. Chromebooks are some of the most affordable devices out there (tied for affordability with some Android tablets)
  2. Manageability. Since everything is done online (instead of using apps installed on the computer), it is easier for IT staff and teachers to maintain Chromebooks because: (a) you don’t have to deal with the sometimes-tricky management of purchasing and installing apps and software (which can be a challenge on Windows, Mac, iOS, or Android devices); (b) virus and malware worries are basically nonexistent; (c) Chromebooks automatically download and install any updates they need (OS, browser, etc.)
  3. Educational website accessibility. Since ChromeOS supports Flash websites (in addition to HTML, including HTML5), Chromebooks are able to access and use many more online educational sites and services than iPads or Android tablets can (technically, Flash still works on Android, but getting it installed is another story…)  For example, Chromebooks can access sites like History.org (Colonial Williamsburg), Pixton and GoAnimate animation and comic creation tools, and all of the resources at PBSKids.org (like Sesame Street, Curious George, Wild Kratts, Sid the Science Kid, Clifford, etc.), as well as games and activities like those found at Scholastic.  These educational resources can be accessed easily via Mac or Windows devices, but not via iPads.

However, there are also some major limitations of Chromebooks, which are not as well-publicized:

  1. Not all Chromebooks are created equal. There are a variety of manufacturers, brands, and models. The only thing you can be sure that one Chromebook has in common with another Chromebook is that they both run on Google’s operating system, Chrome OS.This is important to keep in mind, because some Chromebooks are more powerful than others. Some of them have longer battery life than others. Some are more expensive than others. For that reason, Chromebooks are not always cost-effective! Some are over $500 while other, nearly-identical ones, are $199!
  2. Chromebooks require a significant amount of bandwidth from your school’s internet service provider. Unlike other devices, Chromebooks essentially do everything online (“in the cloud”), so this means all files are being stored online, and anything on the computer gets transferred through the web. All of that — plus watching videos, creating artwork or documents, etc. — uses up a lot of bandwidth.  [To learn more, and to help determine how much bandwidth you'd need at your school, you can use the Bandwidth Calculator provided by the US Department of Education]
  3. It is illegal for children under 13 years of age to access many of the websites and services out there.  Since Chromebooks are cloud-based devices, you are dependent on having students use online sites and services. Many of these useful sites are accessible on Chromebooks — including websites that use Flash for content like games and interactivity (these are not available on iPads or most Android tablets.)However, in many cases, if a site requires a log-in account to use its services, these sites are off-limits according to their Terms of Use / Terms of Service contracts that we must abide by. Examples of sites that explicitly state that they are not to be used by children under 13 (even if those kids have parental consent — it doesn’t matter) include: Animoto, Audiotool, AudioBoo, WeVideo, and YouTube… to name just a few. (In fact, I still haven’t found any reasonable video production possibilities that can be used by students under 13 years old on Chromebooks…)

So, as you can see, under the right circumstances (long-life, low-cost Chromebooks; high-bandwidth infrastructure; and especially if being used for students over 13 years old), Chromebooks can make a great 1:1 device.  But will they allow you to truly go paperless??

My answer to that used to be a flat-out “NO!”, because the standard laptop/netbook format that most Chromebooks format doesn’t allow for the following useful abilities:

  • Handwriting / drawing
  • Built-in camera for photography / video production

As I discussed in my previous post about considerations when choosing a paperless device, the above features are very compelling (if not absolutely necessary.) Not if you simply want to supplement a traditional paper classroom with a 1:1 computing device… but if you want to completely replace the tasks done by paper? Will you want to have a touch-screen and, preferably, a good stylus pen for writing/drawing? Possibly. Probably.

Touch-Screen Chromebook C720p

Well, this is where things get interesting: Chromebook manufacturers are starting to offer hybrid devices that have touch-screen capability. Not only that, but it’s encouraging that devices such as Acer’s C720P boast all-day battery life and a pricetag under $300!  For a Chromebook that has a touch-screen!

Why this is good news:

  • The touch-screen allows ease of use for younger students
  • Touch-screen is a better interface than mouse/keyboard for certain applications: virtual music instruments, art applications, etc. (mouse/keyboard is still better for many things, like creating Google Docs)

Why it isn’t great news:

  • Touch-screen is still going to suffer from the same limitations as iPads when it comes to writing/drawing; lack of active digitizer means any stylus you get isn’t going to offer fine-tip precision. A touch-screen Chromebook, just like most other touch-screen tablets, isn’t going to be great for handwriting or precision drawing.
  • It costs $100 — or 33% more — just to get that touch screen.

Having said all that, it’s still only 1/2 the cost of an iPad, and less than 1/3 the price of a MacBook, so we’re headed in the right direction.  Now, if we we can just convince them to add in decent photo/video camera capability and an active digitizer for true writing/drawing abilities, and if we can get more online app accessibility to children under 13 years old (in a way that is still safe and protects their privacy)…

When that day comes, then we will truly have an ideal paperless classroom device.

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