I recently posted a comparison of some of the most common devices seen in schools: PCs, laptops, Chromebooks and iPads. Today I'll focus in more detail on my favourite class of devices for schools, Chromebooks. These devices used to be rather niche, but are becoming very popular. In fact, the majority of devices bought by US schools are not Windows machines, not iPads, not iMacs, but Chromebooks.
If you've never come across a Chromebook, think of a laptop-style device that's built to get you online as quickly and as simply as possible. They're not built to install lots of programs on them, they're built to do everything you do online, without any hassle or time wasting. Consider this:
- Chromebooks always switch on and boot up in around 10 seconds. No waiting around for 5mins (or much more!) as they boot up and update.
- They have batteries that last for around 10-13 hours. Not likely to run out of power mid lesson, no need to charge at lunchtime.
- They pretty much run themselves. They update automatically in the background, so will always be up to date. Because you don't install software on them they are much less likely to crash, get viruses or slow down.
- Because all work is done online, pupils can use whatever Chromebook they first grab, no need to use the same one every lesson.
- Many Chromebooks are built ruggedly for education. In other words, they are very hard to break, even in a primary classroom!
- Since last year, most Chromebooks can now also download Android apps. This means that your Chromebook can run apps created for tablets or smartphones.
- Although you can buy big, expensive Chromebooks, most are small and lightweight. They are therefore perfect to carry from class to class, and you can easily fit a bunch on one table without moving pupils around.
- Pupils log in with their own username and password, so only have access to their own documents and files. Your school has total control over what apps each pupil can install, what content is blocked, what services they have access to.
- You can buy a basic Chromebook for less than £200, that's half the price of most laptops sold to schools.
For schools, there are three things to check before they invest in Chromebooks:
Is your school ready to work in the cloud? You're not going to install old fashioned Word and Powerpoint etc on a Chromebook (remember what we said about not installing traditional software?). So you must be ready to live in the cloud, using platforms such as Office 365 or, preferably, G Suite for Education. Let's make this simple however, you should be using one of these cloud platforms already, Chromebooks or not. Here in Wales, both platforms are, or will soon be, freely available through Hwb (G Suite from Easter 2018). In fact, one of the elements of our Digital Competence Framework (2.2 Collaboration) requires you to work in the cloud from Year 2 onwards. So the requirements to use a cloud platform should be no problem for schools.
Is your internet connection reliable enough to always work online? A couple of years ago, this may have bee a big concern. However, as someone who travels around schools across Wales every week, I've come across very few schools that have serious enough connection issues that they can't work in the cloud.
Do you need to install specific programs? This last question can still be important, especially for teacher devices or in Secondary Schools. In our school, the pupils all use Chromebooks, but the teachers are still using regular Windows PCs. The reason? SIMS. Like many schools, we use SIMS for register taking and to get information about our pupils. Our version of SIMS needs to be installed on a computer and therefore we're tied to our laptops. Having said that, there are ways around this, we could use SIMS on a tablet or use an online method of accessing SIMS. For Secondary Schools, whilst Chromebooks will do the job perfectly in the vast, vast majority of lessons, some lessons in some subjects may need specific powerful software and therefore it may be necessary to have a few laptops or PCs around for those occasions.
So you've decided to purchase Chromebooks for the school, but which one? There are tens of options, most made by well regarded computer companies such as Dell, Lenovo, HP, Acer, Asus. (This confuses some people, they assume all Chromebooks are made by Google. To help understand, think of Windows computer. You can buy them made by HP, Dell or loads of other companies, but they all run Windows. Chromebooks are the same.)
I'm not going to recommend one specific Chromebook, that's a matter of personal taste, but I will highlight a few important things to compare:
Budget - The cheapest Chromebooks start at around £160. These are the type of Chromebooks we bought for our school a couple of years ago. They do the job well, and you get a lot of devices for your money. You won't go far wrong with these devices, but you may miss out on some important recent developments.
Next Gen - The next generation Chromebooks are likely to cost around £350 each. When you buy such a device you get a touchscreen, the use of styluses and, often, the ability to fold the device over so it acts like a tablet. Since these Chromebooks can download Android apps, they really can act as both a laptop-style device and a tablet device (although they are clearly much heavier than a traditional tablet, perhaps not what you want the Reception class to be carrying around.)
High End - The top of the range Chromebook is Google's very own Pixelbook. This is a seriously impressive machine, but at around £1000 it is way too extravagant for use in most schools.
Whilst my school, and many others, have been perfectly happy with the cheapest Chromebooks, when it comes time to invest further in a year or two then I will be taking a serious look at the £350-ish next generation Chromebooks. I spent a few days using such devices whilst working at the BETT show in London last month, and the ease of switching between keyboard and touchscreen and between laptop-style and tablet-style was incredible. I'm always asked by schools "should we buy Chromebooks or iPads?" and I usually reply "You need both. Chromebooks for your everyday tasks, iPads for creativity and filming". These Next Gen Chromebooks are the first device that I can see taking the place of both devices (probably not in the Foundation Phase, too cumbersome and heavy as a tablet).
Right now, my perfect technology scenario would be the Next Gen Chromebooks through the school (1 to 1 would be incredible, but many schools can't afford that yet) with a reduced number of tablets available for Foundation Phase and certain jobs in KS2/KS3.