Let me preface this post with the following statement- I am a technologist, and I have always lived under the motto that any technology is better than no technology. I also strongly feel that in education, adding technology should never be the end-game, learning is. Technology is just a very efficient tool for teaching and learning when placed in the right hands with the right resources.
With that said, I have some great news! Monday night, our School Board approved our district wide 1:1 initiative starting in 2015-2016. This program will put a Chromebook in the hands of every student in grades 5-12 and move current Macbook carts down to cover grades K-4. If you would like more information on all the specifics, here is our press release on the topic. Right now, I really want to discuss why we decided to go with Chromebooks for our 1:1.
The journey to now has been an interesting one. When I started at my district 4 years ago, there were a handful of iPads, tons of 5-10 year old computers, and almost no WiFi (I won’t go into depth on the rest of our infrastructure. Just know, it wasn’t pretty). We have since fixed (most of) our infrastructure issues, including WiFi, which we will be building out to one 802.11AC access point per classroom this summer. With a limited budget, we struggled with how to both modernize our infrastructure and get modern tools in the hands of teachers and students.
In 2012, Google Apps for Education came along and saved us. Email, collaboration tools and storage were just what we where looking for. All of this for the incredibly low price of free! It was around this same time period that Chromebooks became a thing. Through a grant, we were able to purchase several carts of Chromebooks for our district that helped us fill a void of in-class technology that, until that point, we could not afford to fill. It was great! A connected device that cost a fraction of what a full function laptop cost. I remember getting some pushback from others in education for jumping on the Chromebook train. At that time, districts were buying iPads like they were going out of style. I have no problems with iPads, we even have quite a few in our district, but I have just always felt that tablets should be a secondary device (unless it is for a specific use-case, such as special need or very young students). I vividly remember saying that Chromebooks could never work for a take home 1:1 program at the middle/high school level- They don’t have the functionality, and we have too many kids without internet access at home. Don’t get me wrong, I have always loved Chromebooks, but I have always somewhat questioned their lack of offline functionality.
In the last year, I have changed my stance on this. We started a 1:1 pilot this year in our 5th and 6th grade classrooms with Macbook Airs. Everyone was on board with this large investment, and I was excited, because I thought we were picking the best device for the problem we faced. We were giving the kids a fully functioning device, that would allow the students without WiFi access at home the same advantages as those with access. Don’t get me wrong, the pilot was a huge success. Teachers and students have done a great job with it. However, the number one complaint I received was still regarding students with no internet access at home. The teachers reminded me that many of the most powerful edtech tools that they are using in the classroom are free web-based applications, especially our Google Apps for Education Suite. Here I was trying to solve the problem of no WiFi with a device that still isn’t fully functional without WiFi.
Then it hit me. The solution isn’t the device. Instead, we need to change our approach. We need to focus on making internet access ubiquitous. Here are some of our ideas for making access a priority moving forward. If you want to add any ideas to the list, leave a comment and I will happily add it. Pair that change in thought with the fact that Chromebook offline support has been greatly improved in the last year, and Chromebooks now seem like a no-brainer for us (right now). The tool you choose is up to you, but my advice- the tool is less important than the environment it will be used in. Focus on fixing the underlying problems first.