Sunday, October 1, 2017

Chromebooks: A Cautious Response

Friday morning, our Head of School sent out an article to school leadership, which isn’t out of the ordinary. This article? This article sent my blood boiling. I own the author’s book, Invent to Learn and found it quite useful. But this? To me, it sounds like someone harboring intense frustration with the system. If you ask me, this is a rant about how schools jump on the latest bandwagon to save money, without providing any means to make the best of the tools they are shoving into the hands of teachers and students. And... well... I guess you could call this my rebuttal. 

Stager says that devices should be “portable, reliable, lightweight, affordable, and with good battery life,” while still providing a platform for students to do the unthinkable, unimaginable, and extraordinary things that younger brains are capable of dreaming. However, he then ascertains that Chromebooks are basically simplistic platforms that are far outperformed by cellphones.

This is simply not true. As a purveyor of the finest technologies myself (read: one of everything) Chromebooks are far more capable than many devices in higher price categories, with many benefits. Chromebooks are not “underpowered technology….scraps.” Schools are not settling for less when they purchase them.

(As an aside, I personally like the term device - in this day and age, when so many schools are BYOD, it’s more encompassing to address devices, rather than list “please get out your macbook, Chromebook, dell, iPad, tablet, or whatever tool you are using.”)

Chromebooks are not kazoos. They are not phone chargers. If they are being used as such, shame on the school and district for not providing teachers with sufficient training on how to make the most of an amazing device. Sure, you can purchase a laptop for the same price of a Chromebook. And then you add in the cost of the licensing, software, and the management piece, and you’ve now got a $550 laptop instead of a $300 Chromebook. One that’s much more fragile, at that, considering the Chromebooks my school uses are fairly indestructible. Oh, and with all the management, licensing, etc, our Chromebooks are still $300.

We have come so far from the Twenty Things to Do with a Computer from 1971. Sure, we can still do all of those things, and a heck of a lot more. Chromebooks are helping build skills for programming, robotics, software developing, and simulations - a far cry from secretarial tasks.

You want to use a Chromebook for S.T.E.M. experiences? Have you tried Tinkercad for 3D design? What about Design Something? Google’s SketchUp is now Chrome friendly with their new browser run product. Using, Autodesk even works on Chromebooks. Movie editing? I’m a big fan of WeVideo, and after using the free version of WeVideo last year, at $5.00 per user, we upgraded this year, and it doesn’t add much to the cost of the Chromebook (only noting because laptops often come with some sort of video editing software built in.)

We are a dual language school, which some might argue makes Chromebooks even less useful. They’d be wrong. Close to 85% of our curriculum tools are cloud based, and they run on any device. Our Hebrew curriculum? No problem. There are even dozens of apps and extensions focusing on TaNaCh, torah, and Jewish history that are incredibly useful for students and teachers, not to mention the ease of switching between using Hebrew and English with the Google productivity suite.

Robotics? There’s an extension for that. While Lego’s NXT may have been retired, it’s still in use by many schools and requires laptops for use. (I don’t necessarily consider that leftovers.) Using Lego’s EV3, Chromebooks are perfect partners in learning. Robotics may have only been laptop friendly in the past, but not so much lately. Why wait for the maybes of the future when the Chromebooks of today already address many of the questionables?

I’m not knocking laptops. One lives on my desk at school, along with a Chromebook, and an iPad (along with several robots) and I use them all, as well as my beloved MacBook at home.  In our MakerSpace, for example, we do still need laptops for the laser cutter and XCarver, for now. Artistically speaking, there are more apps than one can count on two hands that support different aspects of the art curriculum. I’m of the mindset that we not use technology for technology’s sake. Especially in areas like art, where direct, hands on experience with the medium is best, at least for the students we work with. If the technology isn’t enhancing, or better yet, transforming the learning experience, why are you using it in the first place?

I agree with Stager, many people justify the concept of “using technology” when really, the technology is present in the space, and likely used as a costly replacement for pencil and paper. This applies to all devices, though, not just Chromebooks. Dropping technology into a building, whatever it is, doesn’t automatically mean it’s being used to enhance learning experiences. And in all honesty, doing that so-called “technology drop” is often a source of intense frustration for educators and students alike. Sure, handing an iPad to a 3 year old doesn’t result in them asking for training on how to use it, they jump right in. When it comes to schools, though, where time is a fairly precious commodity, requiring teachers to figure it out on their own is less than effective.

Cost is always a factor in education, unfortunately. And there is always a shortage of funding. That doesn’t make a $35 Raspberry Pi, or a $350 laptop bad, as long as they are truly the most effective learning tools for that school, teacher, or student. There is no one size fits all. Ever. One school might be able to run on Raspberry Pis and second hand monitors, while another runs on Macbooks, and still another is a BYOD building.

All this talk brings me back to what I see as the root of all educational technology integration issues - training. It doesn’t matter the device. It doesn’t matter the software or the app or the extension. It doesn’t matter the operating system or the browser. It doesn’t matter the durability or flexibility of the device. What matters is what happens when the “tools” arrive.

Are schools and districts providing teachers with time to learn how to effectively use the tool? What do you do if you are at a Chromebook school and the internet goes down? Have the devices been set so that students can still work offline? All those software packages - for Chromebooks or laptops - do teachers know how and when to use them? Time to learn how to personalize learning with the tools that have been dropped in their laps? Do teachers know where to find resources to support their lessons?  Have teachers been given time to play with these technological toys so they can discover how to organically integrate them into their classroom experiences?

That’s the problem. Not the device. Any device can be an expensive paperweight or an infallible source for endless creation.

Get your head out of the cloud. Seriously. Not free? It sucks? Are we stuck in some alternate universe? We already know that nothing in life is free. Cliche, but true. The cloud is no different. Sure, I have a “free” Dropbox account. And a free gmail account. I also pay for a second Dropbox account. And have an unlimited storage plan through my school Google account. Nothing is free. The cloud, though, has features that far outweigh the costs. When kids can collaborate in real time, wherever they are, it’s a win. In today’s world, when parents are constantly juggling extracurriculars, homework, dinner, and bedtime, the fact that kids don’t need to always be together to complete projects is a bonus.

Does the internet always cooperate? Heck no! The first year at my school, the internet was down more than it was usable, and it was (kind of) infuriating. However, after the investment of time, and a dozen phone calls later, it’s rarely, if ever, down. The bigger problem is those rare moments when Google goes down, and all services are rendered useless. Talk about needing plans b through z!

But guess what? Considering the rarity of that occurrence, Chromebooks score another point. Why? Because prior to Chromebooks, student laptops spent more time at IT than they did in the hands of students. They took massive chunks of time out of class waiting for the computer to start up, a program to open, or a website to load. Despite anti-virus, iBoss, and other monitoring tools, things failed on a regular basis. Maybe we just had lousy laptops. But now? Chromebooks are hearty little devices, and are raring to go from the moment they are opened, maximizing learning time, and nearly eliminating their visits to IT.

Oh, Google. Not sure why everyone needs to pick on Google. They have their own way of doing things. Yet, somehow, they’ve always managed to cater to the education world. Microsoft is fantastic in it’s own right. Why compare the two? Pick the one that provides what you need and move on. I’m a fan of both, myself, though I use Google nearly exclusively these days. Why? Because having just purchased a new computer, and not having money for Microsoft, it was free, fast, flexible, and fun, and it only continues to get better.

I don’t understand the argument that Google, and the way they choose to run their organization, is a problem. Really, what does Google have to gain while “hooking kids and their teachers” onto the products? If they’re providing a tool that is user-friendly, while not limiting users to old school technological abilities, so what? Google provides, at no cost, to schools, countless tools for effective technology integration. Again, the problem lies not with “The Google” but with the time and training the schools provide to teachers to learn how to use “the device.”

In closing, I leave you with a story. A school in a neighboring district, one that unfortunately has seen better times and is suffering from a plethora of ailments, financials notwithstanding, was given a grant for anything but teacher salaries. The school decided then, that it was going to provide netbooks for every student to use. They purchased the devices, and passed them out to the students. All sounds gravy, right? The problem was, that as a precursor to the Chromebook, netbooks really needed the internet to function. And this school didn’t have a wireless network. So they were stuck with 500 costly paperweights. It’s not always about the cost at all. It’s about the planning, the intention, and the training, all of which can often save money and, the valuable resource of time.

As often heard, technology is a gateway into a future we haven’t imagined. Chromebooks provide the flexibility, durability, and affordability for schools to provide their students with a tool that allows for collaboration, critical thinking, communication, and creativity without sacrificing much, if anything. Some programs are not compatible with Chromebooks. Yet. And if those programs are needed now, chances are highly likely that a half dozen, fairly comparable options exist at little to no cost. We are not “turning back the clock on what we have learned children can do with computers” at all. In fact, we are providing children with greater opportunities to discover what they are capable of doing, when given the tools, the time, and the reinforcement that they are driving their learning journey by putting durable, affordable, and reliable devices into the hands of our most precious commodities.