Sometimes the only way to make progress is to leave something behind.
It was time to try something new in the K–8 schools of Community Consolidated School District 59 in Arlington Heights, Ill. Ben Grey, assistant superintendent of innovative learning and communications, had been on the job for more than a year. The junior high schools were well into a one-to-one notebook initiative, and the lower grades were due for a technology refresh.
Rather than shop for technology and hand it out, Grey decided to do something, well, innovative. He formed a committee, opened it up to staff, and asked, "Where do we want to go?" That question generated much more than requests for tablets.
"There was a lot of discussion about the power of technology to amplify human potential," says Grey. "We made that our baseline."
The question also focused discussion on the skills this generation needs. "We established some drivers: literacy, numeracy, collaboration, communication, critical thinking, creativity, global awareness and citizenship," says Grey.
With that big picture in mind, the conversation covered more than just machine specifications. "We started looking through each device to the ecosystem the students would access from it," says Grey. "From there, we went naturally to Google Apps for Education. It encourages kids to co-author work, let their ideas collide, and take ownership of their learning."
That choice also freed up IT staff hours and budget dollars. Chromebooks appeal to school districts for several reasons, says Phil Maddocks, market analyst for Futuresource Consulting. "The Chromebook platform is ultimately cloud-based, and requires less manpower and fewer IT hours to provision, which can result in lower IT support costs in addition to the lower cost of the hardware itself," he says. With the cost of the machines and software so low, "the idea of a two-to-one solution became suddenly quite compelling," Grey says. Chromebooks have a low price point, so the district could get each student a tablet and a Chromebook for slightly more than half the cost of outfitting each student with a notebook.
"We decided that grades K–2 would get a tablet and grades 3–8 would get both a tablet and a Chromebook." The district purchased 4,500 Acer C720 Chromebooks and 6,800 Nexus 7 tablets for just over 6,700 students.
The tablets are mobile, take photos, simplify schedule management and are good e-readers. Meanwhile, the Chromebooks are light and portable with a keyboard, full access to Google Apps and long battery life. And with instant startup on both devices, students experience little technical downtime or delay. If one device has a dead battery, they move to the other. If a device breaks, IT swaps it out for another with no lost data.
"That combination is a powerful one for our kids," says Grey.
The tablet and Chromebook rollout went off without a hitch. "We didn't have to image every machine or do much at all," says Grey. "The Google Play for Education setup is simple. For the Chromebook, it's a matter of doing a quick online setup of the wireless credentials. With the tablets, we do an initial setup to create a master, then we bump the two devices together to transfer that master via NFC to the student device. Then the students simply log in to their accounts and are ready to go."
It's just as easy for the teachers. "Teachers go to the app store, find what they want, click the install button and pick which students get the app," says Grey. "The installation happens immediately. And the teacher can pull apps back from the play store as well."
The IT department also made it easier for teachers to troubleshoot common problems on the spot. Now, rather than waiting for an IT staff member to help with installations or password resets, teachers manage easily on their own. "We are no longer a bottleneck," says Grey of his IT department.
The Chrome ecosystem's complete dependence on the Internet explains the ease of District 59's deployment. Futuresource Consulting's Maddocks advises districts to ensure they have the broadband and Wi-Fi infrastructure capable of supporting a one-to-one Chromebook rollout. "Some districts have missed this vital piece of the puzzle, and it can cause problems when using technology within the classroom, disrupting lessons," he says.
Timothy Rice, director of technology at Kentucky Country Day School in Louisville, knows all about that. The school has had a one-to-one notebook program in its high school since 2005, and the faculty, who felt the implementation was top down, were not fully on board. Furthermore, Rice admits that he tried to do bandwidth on the cheap. "When 40 kids in adjacent classrooms jumped onto a single access point, it would fail. So the first two years were a nightmare," he says.
Rice wasn't about to make bandwidth a recurring nightmare, however. "When we decided to require Chromebooks in the middle school, I told the board, 'Give me $45,000, and let's do the bandwidth right.' "
The story of his middle school rollout is a happy one. "Moving to technology in the classroom is a huge cultural and teaching change," says Rice. But when the middle school teachers saw the way kids created and collaborated with the Chromebooks, Rice didn't have to convince them to embrace it. "It was the students who sold that idea."