Feb 10, 2013

Thoughts on Chromebooks

Fans of Google’s Chromebooks are expert at making compelling arguments for their use in schools. Apologists regularly sacrifice reason for simplicity, focusing on how easy the devices are to manage for the adults in the organization, rather than on the capabilities of the software to meet more than just rudimentary needs or the device’s capacity to grow with students’ desires/passions/interests, both in and out of the classroom. While Chromebooks are certainly better than tablets (don’t get me started), the typical use case represents a rather shallow view of the power of computers and computing in the learning space.

In the past, the argument for Chromebooks was tempered by cost, as the devices typically ran between $400 and $600, making them a rather expensive proposition for what they could do. Google’s failure to compel corporate buyers, coupled with scathing review after scathing review led them to shift their gaze to the education sector, where they have been able to realize a modest hint of momentum and positive feedback. Still, as of last fall uptake had been light overall. So in a rather bold move, Google took to subsidizing the cost of Chromebooks, driving their prices down to extremely compelling $200-$250, in a significant effort to build market/mind share for their device. While the perils of relying on corporate subsidies to fund educational programs are obvious, the new pricing model can be extraordinarily compelling to those wishing to get technology into the hands of more students in schools.

As you probably already know, I am a huge supporter of getting technology into the hands of kids, having developed ubermix and the support systems around it. I’ve made a significant effort to bring powerful, flexible, easy-to-use technology into reach of those who might not otherwise be able to afford it, as well as to free schools from the shackles of vendor lock-in, often referred to as “secure computing” or “proprietary ecosystems”. I want people to own the hardware they buy, to be able to use it as they see fit, without having to ask permission from the device’s maker. I want them to be able to make the best use of the hardware they have, without having to worry about who made it, what it’s made of, or how old it is. And I want them to be able to peel back the surface, discover what makes the technology tick, and learn to build, rework, and make it their own. For me, computing is about empowerment.

So when I look at the enthusiasm surrounding Chromebooks, their non-standard boot mechanisms, and their extraordinary, artificial limitations, I can’t help but feel a little bit sad. Sure, kids are gaining access to technology they might not otherwise have received, and sure, any technology is better than no technology at all. But might we be making a mistake here? Might we, in the name of low cost and simple management, be making unnecessary sacrifices that will hinder our students’ ability to get underneath the surface and learn how their technology works? Are we, in an effort to avoid too much disruption, limiting our students ability to build, make, create by over-emphasizing artificial time constraints and simplistic activities, exacerbated by software limitations, unnecessary bandwidth requirements, poor interoperability, and a general lack of capability? It seems to me that we are.

Don’t get me wrong - I’m not talking about the hardware itself. The latest batch of Chromebooks are powerful computers. But they are being driven by software built on the delusion that the web is full of rich, complex applications, with a level of capability and interoperability that simply doesn’t exist. Will it? Maybe one day, but the standards really aren’t in place to make it happen in the near term. With Chromebooks, Google is asking you to buy-in to their vision of the future of computing - be it utopian or dystopian. The problem is that it is just that - a vision - which in reality is far too limited and limiting for all but the lightest, most simplistic examples of computing.

So, as with tablets, we offer our kids Chromebooks as a sole piece of technology - one that we wouldn’t want to be our sole piece of technology (see photo above) - and pat ourselves on the back for a job well done. We sacrifice their ability to design using a diverse range of rich resources and tools for our ability to “manage” their technology use and “fit it in” to what we are already doing, in the least disruptive fashion possible. And in the end, computing and computer science suffers yet another blow, as we create an environment of dependency on our computing overlords in the hope that they will continue to provide for us.

For all of these reasons, I hope you will consider alternative platforms built on free software (like ubermix) and industry-standard hardware. Even if you already have Chromebooks, there may still be an out for you in Linux or ubermix on Chromebooks. And if you are yet committed to purchase Chromebooks, I implore you to purchase devices that are based on industry-standard, Intel-based hardware (like the Acer C7). Then, at the very least, when the disappointment hits you will have the option to take ownership of your device. Only then will you truly be able to call a Chromebook your own.


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  1. I couldn't disagree more. But foe the sake of argument, what are these rich applications you refer to that are available on Linux but not the web? Certainly not iMovie or garage band. Let alone pro tools or final cut pro. Photoshop? Publisher? MS Office? Are you referring to inkscape and gimp? If so, the benefits of user management that come with web accounts and sumo paint outweigh the added complexities that come with a custom Linux distro and semi relevant application.

  2. I'm not sure I follow how user management with web accounts and sumo paint equal what's best for kids, but I do agree with your (probably unintentional) suggestion that a Macbook with Pro tools, Photoshop, and the like would certainly be better than a Chromebook - I just can't afford them. Alternatives to your suggestions like GIMP, Inkscape, Scribus, Openshot, and Audacity - all of which are free - do in fact bring the capacities and interoperability to enable the creation of far more interesting, multi-media, multi-disciplinary, complex, design-centric outcomes, most of which would simply be impossible and/or bandwidth impractical for a web-only device, even if similarly capable applications were available.

    But even more importantly than the obvious applications above, when students are ready for more they can explore programming in Scratch, build games with Alice, use Blender 3D to engineer complex creations, Pixar-quality animated videos, and Xbox worthy games. If a student is interested in math and science, they can explore Geogebra, SciLab, and Physion, to name a few. And if they really want to get into programming, they have access to every language and powerful IDEs like Eclipse, with a test device in their hands to build against. Perhaps most importantly, they can record and share how-to screencasts, demonstrating to the world not just what they created, but how it was built, without limitations. I could go on and on.

    None of these are unrealistic - even for younger, elementary school students - unless, of course, they are denied the opportunity through the limitations of technology choices made by the adults in their schools. I am consistently amazed by the ingenuity of our kids in our 1:1 program and their passion to create and share using any one of the 3000 Linux netbooks/laptops/desktops we have in daily use. They don't need teachers to show them how, they need leaders with the confidence to get out of the way and the wisdom to guide them down the right paths.

    Incidentally, I have, in fact, used both Sumo Paint and Pixlr (and others) and found them to be rather glitchy and unreliable, as well as extraordinarily slow, especially when you add in all the time required to upload and download images, just so that you can upload them again to some other trivial application. I'm also from a GAFE district, so I fully understand the benefits of Google Apps, their capabilities, and limits.

  3. "So, as with tablets, we offer our kids Chromebooks as a sole piece of technology - one that we wouldn’t want to be our sole piece of technology (see photo above) - and pat ourselves on the back for a job well done. We sacrifice their ability to design using a diverse range of rich resources and tools for our ability to “manage” their technology use and “fit it in” to what we are already doing, in the least disruptive fashion possible. And in the end, computing and computer science suffers yet another blow, as we create an environment of dependency on our computing overlords in the hope that they will continue to provide for us."

    But this is not the only option, nor the most probable. As Chromebooks fall in price, they become attractive as a minimum (not as an exclusive) option to provide to all students to serve as a tool for a large percentage of their school computing needs and by extension data storage. Should students be encouraged to take on computing tasks that do not necessarily lend themselves to Chromebooks? Of course. But why not provide a limited number of terminals/laptops/etc for these heavier computing tasks... or encourage students to install ubuntu on their Chromebook (a great exercise in and of itself!) once they're up to this level? That being said, you could argue that programming could start with javascript (no longer a baby and more and more powerful each iteration), and who's to stop classes from accessing command lines or vim on a server through the ssh client in Chrome... or from accessing Web-based ide's like Cloud9? I'm continually amazed at how MUCH can be done on a Chromebook. I initially scoffed at them, but more and more I find myself saying, "I wonder what else can be done with these things with a little thinking and a little tinkering... and shouldn't we encourage our kids to tinker?" I also think you gloss over some of the benefits to students that the Chrome (and not even ChromeOS necessarily) ecosystem provides. The ability to easily access drive materials through a browser on ANY platform is very powerful, and it is especially important in school districts like mine where student mobility is extremely high. "You're leaving our school in December? No problem... you have your Google drive (it's your drive!), just log in at your new school... and move your files if you want. Oh hey... you're coming back to us in March? Great! Log in and pick up where you left off!" Can this be accomplished in other ways? Yep. Can it be accomplished in such a way as easy for both the school and the student? If so, I haven't seen it. Is a Chromebook the be all and end all? Nope. Does it deserve a hard look for many school districts? I would say, "absolutely." I just don't see the platform as a necessarily limiting environment NOW, and that's before the forward-looking potential comes into focus. A marriage of ChromeOS and Android? Yes please!

  4. "None of these are unrealistic". We'll just have to agree to disagree on this point. Expecting "younger, elementary school students" to create "Xbox worthy games" and "Pixar-quality animated videos", especially without "teachers to show them how" does seem to be the definition of unrealistic to me.

    However, if students are inclined towards such endeavors, then surely a dedicated media lab will serve their purposes fine. Why every student needs these abilities (and the manpower required to support them) is something you haven't explained except under the guise of not "limiting" students. But this argument goes as far as you like. Why not provide students with SPSS so they can crunch statistics? For that matter, why not provide them with Windows so they can run the tools that actual professionals use like Photoshop and AutoCAD? Why is it limiting students to give them chromebooks instead of linux, but not limiting them to give them GIMP instead of Photoshop, or Google Docs instead of Word? I imagine the answer pertains to cost, which leads to my point about user management.

    How are you managing users on your 3000 netbooks/laptops/desktops? Do students authenticate against a directory? Do they log in with a generic account? How do they store all the work they create in these various programs and who shows them how to do this? How do they access these programs from their home computer so they can work after school or on the weekends? Who installs and updates all these programs at school and at their house? Who installs and updates the OS?

    Your argument seems to hinge on the idea that running linux-based laptops costs about the same as chromebooks, which both cost less than a Windows or Mac device. But I contend that chromebooks are actually far cheaper than even linux-based devices because their real cost savings comes from the fact that they solve nearly all of these management issues for far cheaper than comparable solutions on any other platform. That students using chromebooks are bound to web-based solutions is just added benefit, because it means that students can always access all of their tools on any Internet connected computer, and their tools are always up to date.

    I'll grant you that a school with poor network infrastructure would be foolish to look at chromebooks. Barring that situation though, the only scenario I can see in which chromebooks aren't superior to linux/mac/windows laptops is if a school has a true one-to-one setup in which the students are permitted to take the devices home with them year round, and the school has site techs on hand with the time and expertise to support the environment and applications. There may be some schools in such an enviable position, but not the majority by a long shot.

    I've used dozens of linux distros over the years, from Debian to DSL to the CentOS we use now for FOG servers. At my last school we deployed Ubuntu on refurbished machines across the campus in the lab and classrooms and they ran like champs for years. I've tinkered with management solutions like Puppet and Spacewalk, but chromebooks do it all out of the box, automatically, and (like the commenter below) I disagree that web apps like Cloud9 and sumo paint are a huge dropoff from GIMP and Eclipse. Let the students use Sumo Paint I say; if they want to go deeper, send them to the media lab or point them to GIMP.

    Finally, I want to apologize for the tone of my last comment. I typed it in the parking lot at Vons waiting for my wife and didn't realize how combative it sounded. I hope you know how much respect I have for anyone who is able to speak to things as well as you, and I appreciate your taking the time to share your thoughts (and reply to mine). Cheers, -Joe

  5. @Moorezilla If you would have asked me four years ago I would have completely agreed with your suggestion regarding extra terminals, labs, media centers, remote access, etc. to work around the limitations of individual devices - I was suggesting the very same thing. In theory it makes perfect sense, but in practice, unfortunately, the idea fails to materialize. Due to both human nature and as a matter of convenience, what actually ends up happening is the path of least resistance prevails and labs and media centers go unused because, after all, "every student already has a computer, right?" The more powerful devices that were pushed to the margins age out and dwindle away as they cease to be funded, due to disuse and/or financial practicalities. Go seek out some schools that have gone 1:1 or are have utilized a reasonable quantity of shared device carts for a few years, and you'll be hard pressed to find a high-powered student accessible computer that's been purchased since the devices were put in place. There's nothing more depressing than a lonely, expensive iMac sitting unused or rarely used in a corner.

    I'm right there with you with regard to Chrome - I continue to be impressed with the things we can do with just JavaScript, a web browser, and creative use of Google APIs. But as you suggested, these benefits are available to anyone with Chrome on any platform, so why the limitations when you can have Chrome *and* access to more powerful, flexible, and interoperable apps and programming at a similar price point? Especially when, as recent history clearly bears out, minimums tend to become maximums, re NCLB and the destruction of education in the modern era. Floors become ceilings. I'd rather give kids a ton of headroom and marvel at their ingenuity. And if I can do it nearly as easily and inexpensively by utilizing alternative platforms, why wouldn't I?

    Making all of this work, of course, requires a different approach and understanding of technology in the learning environment, which I hinted at in the post and plan to elaborate on in another blog post I have bouncing around in my head. Stay tuned...

  6. @Joseph It seems we have fundamentally opposing opinions on where the expertise lies in the classroom - I am contending that it lies with the students and that they do not require teachers to "show them how" if offered the right environment and opportunities to tinker/play/experiment. I believe it is *extremely important* that we not limit their opportunities to what we believe the teacher's capacities are. I don't mean we should "expect" that they produce professional quality results, but I also don't believe we should therefore *assume* that they don't/won't have the passion/drive/ingenuity/determination to attempt them. And I speak from experience when I say they will, even at the elementary school level. We have 4th-6th graders making videos and writing code, writing scripts for daily video broadcasts, conducting interviews, and editing video. They are even writing iPad apps, building simulations, and creating special effects laden light saber duels. And *none* of our teachers are teaching them how to do it - they simply have an idea of what the applications can do and point students in the right direction, extolling them to "ask three before me." They are discovering it together and teaching each other, in the same fashion as you and I do, thriving on their passions and interest.

    As for "professional" vs. free applications, I'll say the same thing I always do: it's about skills, not software. A student can use LibreOffice, GIMP, Inkscape, and Blender will have no problem transferring those skills to Microsoft Office, Photoshop, Illustrator, and AutoCAD. It's what we do every time one of these vendors releases an updated version. We don't start over from scratch, we adapt by drawing on our existing skills and understanding.

    From a management perspective, our philosophy has been similar to that of Google's: be as management free as possible. Our model from the beginning was to replicate the sensibilities of the cell phone: inexpensive, reliable, easy to use, requires minimal support, and has always on connectivity. To accomplish this, we do zero account management, opting for auto-login to a generic account. We use a custom interface that has been described as a "blend of iOS and Android", keep it light and fast so that we can install it from a USB key on *any* hardware (now even a Chromebook) in about 5 minutes, and we built a "quick reset" in that enables a 20 second reset to defaults, *without* the loss of any student data. In other words, we're a lot like ChromeOS, only we can do more than just run a web browser and don't *require* continuous connectivity.

    As you have suggested, the majority of my thoughts here are built on the assumption that every student will have their own device - the same device with them throughout the day. In a shared environment where students have limited access, I completely agree that the argument for more flexible devices is weaker. Just the same, I could auto-reset each device on startup, and students could gain experience with the device in the hope that one day they might have their very own. If a teacher wanted to lead them down a more sophisticated path, they could. But then a shared device environment, by necessity, is far more likely to be about a series of activities.

    No worries on the tone - I truly appreciate your thoughts and feedback. I'm thrilled that you are into Linux and free software, and would be happy to chat with you further about it any time.

  7. I hear you. Looking forward to your next post. I run Ubuntu at home, but I've had no luck getting Ubuntu/Linux into my school district in any real capacity. Perhaps the couple of demo Chromebooks (due to their "otherness") will become my beachhead at the school district for trying out other Linux dists and Ubermix for students and faculty. My school will buy iPads like there's no tomorrow for dubious use cases, but they drag their feet on so many technological options that make a whole hell of a lot more sense to me for use in a school setting. Apple has some serious marketing talent.

  8. Two years ago I moved from Windows to Ubuntu Linux for student computers and it was received with reservations. This year it was Ubermix on all student machines (K-12) and the students and teachers accepted it easily. I have been requested my the school board to look at 1:1 or BYOD options. I am looking at Chromebooks, Andriod tablets, Ipads, even laptops. I would really love to have an Ubuntu tablet to test with but they are not available yet.

  9. Jim, you are so spot on with this... I am so relieved to finally find someone on the internet who knows what they are talking about.

    And, for the record, I'm not entirely anti-Chromebook. I made a video showing how they save a ton of money compared to using iPads ("Just Say NO to iPads for Education, Part 5: Apple Products Break Budgets")

    However, I also point out in that video that netbooks provide the same cost benefit (about $250)... so all this talk about "saving money" with the Chromebooks is actually a moot point. For the exact same cost, you can have a windows-based netbook which is capable of doing EVERYTHING a Chromebook does (all Google Apps, etc.), plus:

    1) Has better battery life

    2) Runs all Windows software. This allows me to do things like: Use Lego MindStorms robotics kits, or teach them introductory programming through MIT's Scratch system. I also use Scholastic Reading Inventory (no web-based version) to assess Lexile levels of students. These are some examples of what can't be done on Chromebooks, but can be done on same-priced netbook.

    3) Allows you to work offline, which is a major need sometimes. Consider, for example, the problem with elementary school students: many of the cloud-based apps specifically state in their terms of Service that they CANNOT be used by anyone under 13 years old. (sometimes they can, with signed parental permission. Sometimes not at all.) Some examples: YouTube, WeVideo, Pixorial, Animoto, VoiceThread, Prezi. In fact, I can't find a single web-based video editing app that says it can be used by elementary students. This is a problem. And something that would be very easy to do in any other device (iMovie, MovieMaker, Android's Video Editor, etc.)

    4) Allows you to plug in and use peripheral devices, such as digital USB microscopes...

    Personally, I currently feel the best choice for schools would be Windows 8 hybrids/convertibles. You get all the functionality of a computer, plus benefits of tablets (and I would specifically advocate for the active digitizer ones where you also get good drawing and handwriting capabilities)... I'm in the process of making a video review of the ThinkPad Tablet 2 convertible tablet (about $500), but if price is prohibitive... why not netbooks? (A device I've been advocating for 5 years now...)

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