Gearing up: Chromebook Classroom – GAFE Summit presentation

Today I’m presenting about Chromebooks at the Google Apps for Education Conference here in Melbourne. Of course, the presentation is about more than just Chromebooks. It’s also about Google’s approach with Chrome and why you might be thinking about taking this direction in your school. Not all of that is evident from the slides above, but hopefully those who come along will take something from what I have to say and be able to leave with some knowledge that helps them understand Chrome and how Chromebooks work.

Time permitting (seem to be finding less and less of that!) I’ll write a follow up post about the conference and how the session went. Stay posted!

Chromebooks, Google Apps…and all that Jazz

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.

English: An Acer Chromebook showing the introd...
English: An Acer Chromebook showing the introductory screen walking news users through the touchpad’s features. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

Google Apps and Chromebooks – lots to think about when it comes to schools

Well, I have to say the Google Apps Summit in Brisbane (actually, Buderim to be more precise) was well worth attending. I admit I was sceptical – I love Google Docs and the associated suite of tools and wondered if there was much more I could learn. But, with Google, there’s always more to learn, because it’s a company that is always pushing the barriers, always innovating.

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I did have a distinct purpose in attending. I wrote earlier in the year about the demise of netbooks, and mentioned how our school was going to have to find an alternative as we provide netbooks on a 2:1 ratio in our Prep through to Year 4 classrooms.  Although many would see iPads as the natural alternative, I hold deep reservations about the management of devices that are intended to be personalised and not shared. Devices like iPads require software updates and the addition of new apps as teachers discover new ways of using them in their classrooms. I’m not sure they’d be too keen on their iPads not updating or having new apps added until holiday breaks when our IT team would have time to get this work completed. Yes, computers require software updates and reimaging too, but the lure of the iPad is the accessibility to apps and we know that new ones are appearing all the time – teachers often want things right now, not for the start of next term.

I really wanted to explore Chromebooks and see what possibilities they hold for these year levels. As I mentioned in my last post, Suan Yeo from Google kindly let me borrow a Chromebook to use for the first day. It was a great opportunity to see what it was like existing in Chrome OS and relying on what was available there when there is no software to speak of loaded onto the device. You’re obviously dependent on your wifi connection, and any school thinking of heading down this path would have to take a long hard look at their existing infrastructure and see if their WAP points and Internet pipe could support their usage. The Chrome app store has quite a few decent apps that can support creation of docs etc in junior grades, but you’d have to assess whether your needs can be met from here, especially if you’ve been dependent on certain software for your curriculum.

If you were going to take this course, you’d have to become a Google Apps school. Purchasing Chromebooks as a Google Apps school means you have to factor a further $30.00 onto each device’s cost. This allows you to have the Chromebook registered in your Google apps management console and you can deploy the apps you want your students to be using (and restrict access to the ones you don’t want them using) through here. This is also where you can control the release of Chrome OS updates out to those machines. Currently, the Chrome OS is updating every six weeks or so. An update that comes through without warning can play serious havoc with a school’s bandwith,  Updates could be scheduled for periods when the network is not particularly busy (think 4.00pm Friday afternoon!) and all done from one computer that holds the management console. Currently, our netbooks (over 90 of them) are all recalled at the end of the school year (a logistical nightmare) and are updated and reimaged by the school’s IT team, a process that takes a few days and requires room and power outlets to lay them all out so that updates can happen to more than one machine at a time. With the Chromebooks, this would be happening throughout the school year on a regular basis and all controlled through one management console – no need for the IT dept. to be investing huge wads of time at what are the busiest times of the school year for this department currently.

Interestingly, NSW DEC is in the process of rolling out Google Apps to all of its schools. So is CEnet (Catholic Education Network). Monash University and Melbourne University run Google apps, as do many companies including Elders and non profits like the Girl Guides! It really makes you think. If large scale organisations like these are deploying Google Apps, and saving themselves a bucketload of money in the process, then maybe it’s worth considering for your school. I’m betting the legal teams of these organisations have poured over the terms and conditions from Google, because there’s no way they’d be opening themselves to litigation problems. The question was asked at the conference about the security of your information as stored on Google’s servers. One delegate running Google Apps in his school (and with experience running it through local govt. prior to this) said that he felt they offered just as good, if not better security than what he could provide running servers storing the data on his campus. Mark Wagner posited the question, ‘Do you have armed security guards protecting your servers and has your organisation stood up to the might of the Chinese Govt. and denied them access to data you have stored?’ Food for thought.

The nagging question that always sits at the back of my mind is the fact that Google has your data, and in doing so, has the ability to mine it. If Google Apps exists as an option in your school’s suite of products, then particularly sensitive data is stored in database systems (like Synergetic) where access is carefully controlled. I think what is necessary if you’re going to go down this path with your student cohort, is the digital citizenship curriculum that should work in tandem with products like these. Students these days need to be aware of what cloud based storage is and how storing data in spaces like these comes with its own set of responsibilities. We need to help our students become informed users – users who understand dashboard controls and settings and how to manage these so that you are in as much control as you possibly can be. We need them to understand that free does come at a cost, and the cost is data mining to determine your browsing habits, your likes and dislikes. Do this, and we’re preparing our students well for the future they will, (they do!) inhabit. Ignore this, and you’re in serious danger of selling the students you teach short.

One interesting Google product that was discussed is Google Takeout, a new product that allows you to download copies of the information you have stored in various Google spaces. This way, if a teacher leaves your school, they can download the documents they have created in their school domain Google account and presumably transfer them to their own personal Google account. This addresses the problem of what happens to documents created while they are employed within your school. Your management console would give you access to this school account and the documents contained within. Let’s face it, plenty of teachers leave schools right now without storing everything they’ve created in their school LMS or shared resource folders. Google apps may just give you more access than you had before. (If I’ve misinterpreted this feature, please correct me – I may very well be wrong in my interpretation).

Obviously, the conference experience had an impact on me, as I went out today and purchased an Acer Chromebook. I choose this version, because I liked the placement of ports and the increased number of options on this device as compared to the Samsung model eg: both VGA and HDMI connection points. In playing around with it tonight, I can see there is a cloud printing option, but I’m not sure how well this will work in a networked printer setup schools support, especially considering we’re having problems getting iPads printing to our networked printers at the moment. I’ll take it to school tomorrow and see if there are any issues getting it connected to our network .

There is so much more to share from this conference experience. I’m going to try and find some time to Storify my tweets as I shared many valuable links over the two days.  I’ll also try and blog here about my experience with the Chromebook so that others can weigh up whether or not it might work for them. Thanks to the conference organisers of the Brisbane summit for a very stimulating two days. You’ve got me thinking!