Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Early Thoughts on the Chromebook

Like many other districts and schools across the nation, we live in a state (CO) that has chosen PARCC as an assessment tool for CCSS. As we've been exploring what kinds of hardware we need to have in place for PARCC, we decided to test drive a few Chromebooks to see if those would fit not only our assessment needs but our instructional needs as well.

Thanks to Promevo (they've been great to work with), we were able to get some loaner Samsung models for a couple of weeks, and we were able to purchase a couple of Acer models.  Here's some things we've found in the short time we've had them.  No surprise -- this one goes to 11.

  1. Great for web-based workflow.  It's amazing how much you can do on a Chromebook.  I've been using one exclusively since I got it, and I am impressed.  Disclosure:  I'm a heavy GoogleApps user, and I rely on web-based applications for almost everything (even movie editing with WeVideo). I was   emailed PowerPoints and Word documents from Office users, and the browser displayed them easily.  Obviously I couldn't edit them, but I could have converted them into GoogleApps versions, if needed.  I've been able use it for about 90% of my workload.
  2. Not great for Java-based or Shockwave content.  What about the other 10%?  Unfortunately for us, we still rely on Java for things like our gradebook and some of our educational content.  And, we use Everyday Math at our K-5 level, which relies upon Macromedia's Shockwave Player.  However, we use computer labs or laptop carts for students now, and there's no reason why we couldn't continue to use them for specialized things. Hopefully more and more vendors are looking at making the switch to HTML5, which would solve many problems for us.
  3. Display hinge seems a bit flimsy (Samsung).  I'm a little worried about how much wear and tear this part of the machine could take, especially when used by students.  I saw some blog posts from other schools using the Samsung, and they brought up the hinge as a problem they've experienced (even with careful students and cases).  However, the Acer seemed like it had a sturdier component for the hinge.
  4. It's easy to use.  The overall user experience is comfortable, very quick, and user-friendly.  It starts up and shuts down in seconds, which is pretty key if you're in a classroom with antsy students (or adults).  We constantly battle kids shutting lids before a machine completely shuts down, and the Chromebook would definitely cut down on that problem.
  5. Battery life is pretty decent.  Battery life on the Samsung was very good (on both models I tried).  The Acer rang in at about 4 hours for me, so the Samsung felt like it had more stamina (I got 6.25 hours out of the Samsung 330).  The power supply on the Acer is oddly shaped and is a problem when try to plug it into a power strip.  The Samsung didn't have that issue, though.
  6. Projector mirroring not available on Samsung 330 .  The Acer has a VGA port, and it worked as expected when connected to a projector.  The Samsung 330 has an HDMI port, but when I hooked it into our wall panel, it would not mirror.  Either the image was on the Chromebook display or it was on the projector -- not both.  I did some searching, and this seems to be a reported issue with the 330. Maybe not a deal killer for a kid machine, but it would be nice if mirroring was not dependent upon model.
  7. Wireless access isn't WPA2 Enterprise friendly.  We've had trouble with iOS devices on this front as well, but I had trouble with the Chromebook (at least the ones I've tried) with our WPA2 Enterprise wireless networks.  It connected very easily to our other networks and was a cinch to use in various locations.  
  8. Lightweight and easy to carry.  The Samsung in particular is a really nice looking machine and is surprisingly light.  It's easy to carry, but the Macbook Air-esque finish also makes it a bit slippery.  The Acer isn't that much heavier, but isn't as thin as the Samsung.  I haven't gotten to see the rugged Lenovo version, but that looks heavier (but tougher).  Either way, it was a nice change from the HP laptop I've been lugging around.
  9. Couldn't find a way to screencast.  This could be user error on my part, but I couldn't find an app for screencasting.  I had no problems taking stills or using the webcam for a Hangout, but I didn't see how to actually capture what I was doing on the device.  I suppose I could use Chrome's Remote Desktop from a machine with capturing capabilities, so there are workarounds; however, I hope that feature (or app) becomes available.
  10. USB devices seemed to work fine.  I didn't have a chance to do extensive testing here, but I tried thumb drives, mice, keyboards, and USB headsets.  Everything worked without a hitch.  I didn't have a USB document camera to test, but the usual USB suspects played nicely.
  11. Management through the GoogleApps control panel is great.  We got two licenses, just to test it out, and I was pretty impressed with what you can control, both at the user and at the device level.  They'll need to figure out a way to turn off the camera and Bluetooth for the Samsungs to be PARCC compliant, but it looked to me like you could set policy and have things running smoothly with little technical background (unlike AD, which does require a bit of expertise when it comes to policy).  The only snag I saw was that it could take 24 hours to propagate changes to managed devices.  You'd have to plan ahead. . . .
I think these have a lot of potential, especially at the price point.  I'm not sure we'll be able to adopt them widely at this point since our state's online tests for both science & social studies require Java, but if Java was removed from the equation, I'd have a hard time arguing against them.  They work well for the majority of things our students do on a daily basis for learning (web research, multimedia creation using web-based tools, GoogleApps for writing, web apps for math & science, etc.).  We won't be able to get away from computer labs for high end use (at least not in the near future), but Chromebooks would be a great way to increase access without seriously depleting a budget.