Sometimes the only way to make progress is to leave something behind.
It took just three days for two Marshall Public Schools employees to get 500 mobile devices unpacked, barcoded and configured prior to launching a one-to-one computing initiative at the start of the current school year. That's because officials of the four-school district in Marshall, Wis., chose to invest in Samsung Series 5 Chromebooks.
Introduced in June 2011 and powered by the Google Chrome operating system, the Chromebook is a unique class of personal computer that combines the functionality of a traditional notebook computer with the convenience of a pure-cloud client in a device the size of a netbook.
According to Technology Director Shane Millin, the 1,260-student district faced multiple potential roadblocks in its pursuit of a one-to-one computing program, including performance and administration concerns associated with other types of mobile computing devices and, with tablets, the lack of a physical keyboard. Also influencing the decision-making, Millin adds, were concerns about the ongoing costs of device breakage and loss.
Then came Chromebooks.
"They're easy to set up: Just press 'control, alt, e,' and they're ready for a student," Millin says. "And they're easy to administer. There's no worry about students downloading viruses or unwanted software. Plus, the management console permits blacklisting sites or apps and enables pushing specific apps to specific devices."
The gear also is easy on Marshall's budget. "We're on a three-year lease, so the payments are a third the cost of paying the total up front," Millin says. "The few LCD screens that have broken thus far were easy — and inexpensive — to fix in-house."
Within weeks of distributing the Chromebooks to all middle school, 11th- and 12th-grade students, the teaching and learning effects were dramatic. "With our students learning to use tech tools integrated across subjects, they're more engaged," says Director of Instruction Mary Jo Ziegler. "They're not only doing more writing and completing more homework, the quality is higher. Even our teachers are collaborating more."
District administrators expect the benefits to compound as the one-to-one initiative continues to roll out, on a year-by-year basis, to all students in grades four through 12.
Marshall's experience with Chromebooks doesn't surprise Bob O'Donnell, who surveyed K–12 Chromebook early adopters for research firm IDC. "We found that the Chromebook's more reliable operation significantly reduced time lost in the classroom due to PC downtime, help desk calls and operating system maintenance," says O'Donnell, IDC's program vice president for clients and displays. "This translated to an average savings of $84 per device in productivity."
That proved to be the case for Iowa's Council Bluffs Community School District, which beta-tested 500 Chromebooks for its 9,000 students in early 2011, before they became commercially available to the masses.
According to Director of Information Systems David Fringer, CBCSD teachers "transition frequently from lids up to lids down and back." With Chromebooks, he says, "it takes only four to five seconds before the computers are up again."
Today, the district owns about 4,300 Chromebooks. All ninth- through 12th-grade students at CBCSD's two high schools received Chromebooks for the current school year. Students in the other 16 schools also have access to the devices, which are kept on mobile carts. Fringer says the district will expand the one-to-one program to students in grades six through eight during the 2013–2014 school year and to third- through fifth-grade students the following year.
$935 The average savings in per-device cost of ownership for Chromebook adopters over three years (compared with alternative devices)
SOURCE: Quantifying the Economic Value of Chromebooks for K–12 Education (IDC, August 2012)
Despite thousands of units traveling home each day, the district isn't terribly concerned about loss. If a Chromebook is stolen, for example, "we can quickly — and completely — disable the unit with the management console," Fringer explains.
To date, he continues, "only 65 units — mostly screens — have been damaged, which serves an educational purpose because student technicians are tasked with replacing damaged screens and keyboards."
To make one-to-one computing affordable for all families, CBCSD has instituted "an optional 70/30 cooperative loss plan, which means a $90 screen only costs parents about $30," Fringer explains. "The annual participation fee is $25 per year, per Chromebook."
Besides improving the quality and quantity of student work, Chromebooks have proved to be a win for a community in which more than 65 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. "Many families don't otherwise have a computer at home," Fringer says. "Now, if they have a student, everyone in the household has access."
It's a similar story in the Fairfield County School District, where more than 85 percent of all students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
"We were looking for a cost-effective, one-to-one option," says Dr. Claudia Edwards, deputy superintendent for academics for the rural district of approximately 3,000 students in Winnsboro, S.C. Cloud-based applications made the Chromebook particularly attractive. As long as students have Google accounts, she says, "they can use a Chromebook, a lab PC or even the smartphone in their pocket." Edwards says the device's eight-hour battery life also was appealing because it gives educators the flexibility to use them all day.
After a May 2012 classroom pilot, the district leveraged local, state and federal resources to purchase 280 Chromebooks for the current school year. (Another 150 units arrived in January.)
Initially, district officials rolled out Chromebooks in classroom sets of 30 in all nine buildings. They plan to expand the inventory to support a one-to-one take-home project for sixth- and ninth-grade students by the fall to facilitate the state's transition to online testing in the 2014–2015 school year. Then, over subsequent years, they will continue adding more classroom sets at specific grade levels.
"We're deploying the Chromebooks strategically over the coming years to ensure a level playing field for our students," Edwards explains.
Early adopters of the Chromebook offer these tips for a successful rollout:
Update Wi-Fi access. "Have sufficient bandwidth to keep your students from getting frustrated," says Shane Millin, technology director for Marshall Public Schools in Wisconsin. "When kids get frustrated, things start breaking."
Commit to Google Apps for Education. "Maximizing your investment requires a commitment to the cloud," says David Fringer, director of information systems for Iowa's Council Bluffs Community School District. "If your district isn't ready, consider selecting a different computing device."
Train teachers up front. "We recommend at least 24 hours of professional development," says Dr. Claudia Edwards, deputy superintendent for academics for the Fairfield County School District in Winnsboro, S.C. "We called our first group of teacher experts 'Chromies,' and they serve as the go-to resource in their buildings."