My quest to discover more about Google Apps and Chromebooks led me to Google’s Sydney offices today, where a session hosted by Suan Yeo (Head of Education at Google Australia/Asia) was being held for schools interested in pursuing this line. It was great walking into a room with some familiar faces, and it ticked off one of those bucket list items for me – getting to see what Google looks like as a working environment. More on that later.
First up. I’ve had a Chromebook for near on a month now. Mine is the Acer model, purchased in large part because of the extra ports, especially the VGA connection that would allow it to hook up easily to projectors and whiteboards at my school. I love it. Honestly, I do. Most of my life is spent in connected environments - I move from home that has constant wifi access, to school that has constant wifi access, and if I can’t find wifi access, I can tether the Chromebook to my iPhone and I’ve once again got the access I need. Earlier this month I attended a day at ISV learning about policy formation. I took the Chromebook with me and used an app called Scratchpad to take notes offline, then moved to tethering the phone when I wanted to check up on websites they’d mentioned, then untethered and headed back to Scratchpad when I’d no need for Internet connection. Right now, I’m on the plane back to Melbourne, using Scratchpad on the Chromebook once again to write this up. Easy.
Before I left for Sydney yesterday, I uploaded word docs from my hard-drive on my Macbook Pro to Google Docs, so I could access them last night when I needed them. I can look at them on the Chromebook, but can’t edit them – this will come soon enough (end of the year maybe?) when Google releases its Quickoffice app to the general populace that will enable editing of Microsoft software within Chrome and Google Drive. There are USB ports on the Chromebook, and I could have brought one of those with me with the Word docs loaded on that as it’s easy to open the contents of a USB on a Chromebook. My son describes the Chromebook as an ‘on the fly’ computer, and I have to agree. It’s light, smaller than my Macbook and easy to put in my handbag, and it’s become my preferred hardware for using as I sit in a recliner at home and catch up on email and what’s happening in the world of Twitter.
I do have to access the Web version of Outlook to check the school email at the moment, but that’s not really a big deal. Over the past couple of months I’ve become a seriously heavy Google Drive user, preferring to create most documents there rather than using what I now view as the clunky Word options on my computer that don’t offer me the sharing and easy editing options Google Docs do. I’ve been using Google Docs to share meeting agendas and notes with staff, hoping that their ability to easily edit will rub off and they will see the benefits of working this way too. My students certainly can see the benefits. In our latest PBL venture, groups are already creating Google Docs to collaborate on idea formation. They’ve seen the benefit of the comments feature in Google Docs, and I’ve been providing feedback to them when they were creating an extended writing piece. There were times over the recent school holiday period when students and I were online commenting synchronously – a seriously good opportunity for personalising the learning experience.
I haven’t been easy on it either. I’m a 20 tab girl most days – I’ve got 18 tabs open right now and that’s my usual modus operandi. When I was editing student docs, I was flicking between tabs, watching YouTube vids, looking at a constantly refreshing Tweetdeck – you get the picture. One night I did find that Docs were dropping out and I had to kill pages, but they were easily restored by just heading back into Drive and accessing the page again. I haven’t seen that happen again over the last couple of weeks. I’m not bothered by the smaller screen, and the keyboard is responsive, if a bit plasticy feeling. But let’s face it – this is a $295 machine, not a $1200 Macbook. I’m not expecting miracles. The trackpad is nowhere near as good as my Macbook Pro, and I notice that most when I’ve been using the Macbook all day at school and revert to the Chromebook at night. I’ve been solely using this Chromebook for the last 24 hours, and I’ve got to that stage where it’s feeling pretty normal. I know I’ll notice the difference again when I fire up the Macbook again. But. like I say, this is not high end hardware – it’s the on the fly computer and for that purpose, it’s doing me just fine.
Battery life on this Acer model Chromebook sits around 4 hrs depending on what you’re doing with it. If you’re accessing a lot of YouTube vids and streaming content, you’ll see it suck up battery life. The Samsung model has longer battery life (and looks cooler – very Macbook Air looking) but it has only 16 G of hard drive storage. This Acer model has 320 G of storage capacity. That’s pretty remarkable given its size and weight.
I’ve had a lot of fun exploring the Chrome Web Store and downloading apps that I could see used in a school setting. I did sit there the other night trying to figure out what I’d be stymied doing if this was my sole device. I figured video editing would be the biggest problem, but then I discovered WeVideo in the Chrome Web Store and spent the night creating a simple video using it. It was very intuitive and shares the same editing principles of MovieMaker and iMovie.
What appeals to me about Chromebooks in a school setting is the management console that is available if you buy Chromebooks for your students and pay an extra $30 a device to hook them up to this console. It’s there where you can deploy apps and arrange to time the frequent (around every 6 weeks) Chrome OS updates. This way you’d have an always updated computer and could respond to classroom needs if a teacher discovers a new app and wants it available to the students quickly.
I also like the idea of offering the Chromebook as an option for older students who aren’t pursuing subjects requiring access to high end video editing software or tools like Photoshop. It’s an option where they could use Google Apps for word processing and could take full advantage of the sharing and editing options at that critical time of their education. It’s also providing them with an excellent entry point if they are about to move to university environments that are using Google Apps across their campuses.
Now, to the Google session today. What was great about this was the opportunity to hear from real life teachers and technology directors who have deployed Google Apps across their school. I wanted to hear about the migration of staff mail over to Gmail and how that had been managed in terms of people’s level of comfort with security and our duty of care. A representative from the Catholic Education Office spoke how the move to Google Apps was precipitated by the need for the renewal of Microsoft licensing for Exchange. Moving to Gmail saved them money and allowed them to utilise savings for professional development training. They had their lawyers look at the documentation from Google and were satisfied that their security concerns were covered. They now have a vast number of people within their diocese using Google Apps and have been overwhelmed with the buy in from schools wanting to step up and use the system. The point was made by the panel that the tools within the Google Apps management console were sufficiently granular to manage retrieval of data should you need it and disable access if that was required.
Seeing Google in action was very exciting for a geeky person like me. (I never thought I’d ever describe myself as geeky, but I’ve come to terms with the fact that’s probably the best way to describe me now!) I didn’t go into their staff working spaces, but we did get to have lunch there. With a view of the Harbour Bridge and a wide array of food choices at your disposal at no charge, it’s a nice way to support your workers while they have a break.
I do think that Google are offering something pretty impressive for education, and it’s free. From my perspective as someone responsible for eLearning, I want my students and staff to understand the potential of collaborative cloud based software. Like I’ve said here before, using systems like these require an informed populace, people who understand how things work and what you’re doing when you use them. One thing I’m very interested in exploring further is the Hapara Teacher Dashboard, a third party service ($4.00 a student I think) that allows you to oversee what is happening across your school with the creation of docs, blog posts etc. As I explore things further, I’ll try and find the time to share my learning here.
Signing out – Jenny
*fully composed on an Acer Chromebook.
** Forgot to mention – a Chromebook boots up in around 8 seconds.