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Chromebooks and Google Apps for Education: Time to do your best on the web?

About six months ago, Google gave me a prototype version of a netbook computer with their new (at the time) Chrome operating system to evaluate. It’s called a Chromebook (1). It is basically a laptop running an installed application, the Chrome web browser. It starts out incredibly fast; from zero to navigate in about 8 seconds. It has a solid state drive, so it is very light and the battery lasts all day (actually, it lasts for several days). Once you’re running, the idea is to use web applications, such as Google Apps, to get your work done, rather than installing desktop applications, such as Microsoft Office. To help users find web applications (and help web developers find users), Google created the Chrome web store (2). Facilitates the search and installation of web applications.

For the past six months, while using the Chromebook, I kept coming back to the question “why do I need this?” Now, I’m not saying I didn’t like the Chromebook. It’s really nice to have a lightweight netbook that starts up so fast. Plus, it comes with a 3G cellular modem that includes 100MB of free data per month, so if I know I’ll be somewhere where I won’t have WiFi, then I’m bringing the Chromebook. But in terms of basic functionality, I can do everything I do with the Chromebook on a standard netbook.

So as a consumer, do I need a Chromebook? On Wednesday, at its annual developer conference, Google IO, Google gave me the answer; I don’t need it (although it’s good), but schools do. Google announced the first two commercially available Chromebooks, one from Samsung and one from Acer. More importantly, they announced a hardware ‘subscription’ model that allows a large customer to pay a monthly fee for the Chromebook, warranty, and support. This includes the ability to centrally manage all of these Chromebooks and their software. Google is clearly positioning the Chromebook as a portable, manageable and secure productivity tool for large organizations that are interested in a low cost of ownership. While that is not so good for typical consumers, it is very good for schools.

Schools face challenges on many, many fronts, and many people seek technology to solve school problems and increase student achievement. However, implementing and maintaining the technology is complex and very expensive. Managing and protecting large groups of computers and keeping your software up-to-date requires highly skilled IT staff. These people are not cheap. Google cited a number suggesting that it costs large companies about $ 3,000 per year per user to maintain each traditional computer and its applications. ZDNet estimates it closer to $ 1,900 per year per user. Schools try to make it even cheaper. For example, schools often extend upgrade cycles to 5 years, but that leaves them with many older, slower machines that tend to fail more frequently. Schools also try to share some computers among many students, but that only limits student access to the benefits of educational technology. Even with these commitments, it is still expensive and challenging to maintain educational technology. This is where Chromebook and Google Apps for Education come in; Google announced at Google IO that it will provide Chromebooks to schools for $ 20 a month, per computer. Google Apps for Education is free. Google expects schools to enroll for 3 years, but that $ 240 per year per computer includes a warranty on the hardware, which is critical in a school setting.

Importantly, all of this is designed to be centrally managed. The web-based administration interface allows an IT administrator to create and manage groups, customize spam filtering rules, and grant access to applications and documents. This is a clear distinction between Chromebooks and iPads (or even Android tablets).

How can this be so cheap? Well, for one thing, you don’t need antivirus software. The Chromebook is built from the ground up for added security. All data on the solid state drive is encrypted, so if a Chromebook is lost, the data is still safe. Additionally, the hardware and BIOS contain routines that detect tampering each time the Chromebook starts up. You don’t need Microsoft Office. Google Apps for Education contains word processor, spreadsheet, presentation software, drawing software, and website creation software. You don’t need Microsoft Exchange Server (or the server computers it requires). Google Apps for Education includes email accounts and a web-based GMail interface for all of its users. You can also save the time and money associated with creating and deploying new disk images each year; the administration console allows IT administrators to determine which users get which applications and all applications, since they are web applications, are automatically updated.

For those users who must have access to desktop applications, you can use your Citrix and VMWare to provide virtualized desktops on the Chromebook (or just provide a subset of users with more traditional laptops). Assessment tools, curriculum, and software are important to schools. Therefore, you will need to evaluate your current software and look for versions or alternatives available on the web. This is a lot easier than it used to be. Many K-12 educational technology companies are offering web versions of their products. For example, if your school or district uses Kidspiration or Inspiration, you can use Webspiration with your Chromebook. Talking Fingers, Inc has created a web version of their excellent phonetics product, Read, Write and Type!

All of your older computers, whether it’s Mac or Windows (or even the occasional Linux machine), can run the Chrome web browser and Google apps, so you can roll out Google Apps for Education to everyone and start saving money right away. . You don’t have to commit to Chromebooks for all users at once. You can introduce Chromebooks as part of your upgrade cycle.

So is it time to go all-inclusive on the web? Each district must answer that question for itself, based on its own requirements. But now it is clearly possible to say yes.

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