Friday 22 November 2013

chromebooks - portals to learning

This article was published in Australian Teacher Magazine - Technology in Education Nov. Edition 2013

I remember first hearing about the Chromium OS open source project back in 2009. I was working as the eLearning Leader at a small Catholic school in Melbourne. The concept of a web based OS made perfect sense to me. It was just before the Microsoft Windows 7 release. Perhaps I was feeling jaded by Vista. Maybe I just liked the concept of a web based OS after spending hours with my tech (Kieran Nolan) imaging laptops. I remember we actually pulled all-nighters setting up class sets of Windows laptops back then. Oh the madness.

 We decided to have a go at installing Chromium OS on some (previously) Windows based laptops. The early builds were experimental and buggy, but the potential was obvious. We were using Hexxeh builds. We experimented with both virtual machines and native installs. I was a long time fan of Linux and I think this added to the charm of the linux-based chromium OS. After testing numerous builds and configurations we decided that Chromium OS wasn’t ready as a daily driver. We shelved the project and waited for a better build or the ‘real’ Chrome OS to be released.

 In 2012 I moved schools (and states). I was hired as the Director of eLearning & EdTech at St. Columba Anglican School (SCAS) Port Macquarie (Approx. 1000 students & 100 staff). I was given management of both I.T. and eLearning departments and tasked with bringing the school ‘into the 21st Century’. The first step in this evolution was overhauling the school’s network infrastructure and internet connection. After months of haggling with ISPs (and eventually laying our own fibre) we achieved 100/100 with Optus. We also installed seamless Aerohive wifi. Having a reliable and fast network is an important prerequisite to any cloud migration including chromebooks at school.

 The second step in our ‘school in the cloud’ migration was improving local tech resources. The standard of school devices was quite poor when I arrived. The school had acquired some small laptops with DER funding a few years prior. They connected to the school’s network via Active Directory and ran Windows XP. The students called them “bricks”. They were slow and unreliable. We decided to try the new Dell Chromium OS build on them. Success. The “bricks” became usable machines! We set up a class set and students began using them. They started up quickly and linked the students to their school Google accounts.

 By late 2012 we had successfully migrated the school to Google Apps for Education. Chromebooks were already being sold in the US and used in schools at this stage. I remember engaging in an animated conference call with Samsung & Staples (during our staff Christmas party). I expressed how keen we were to get some chromebooks for our students. Our order was made and we went on Christmas break excited by the prospect of chromebooks in the new year. Early in 2013 SCAS became the first school in Australia to deploy chromebooks (Samsung model XE303C12-A01AU). We acquired them through Staples and enrolled them in our Google domain with the assistance of Cloud Sherpas. 2013 is also the year that we went BYOT (Bring Your Own Technology) Years 6-12.

 We utilise the chromebooks in two ways. We have class sets in trolleys that roll between classes and we use them as ‘loners’ to supplement our BYOT program. We use technology to support learning. Teachers and students decide what learning needs to occur then choose the technology that best suits that learning. Our bookable school devices include iPads, Macbooks, iMacs, Dell laptops, desktops, android tablets and chromebooks. With these devices supplementing our student BYOT devices we have a smorgasbord of technology to best support and enhance learning processes and goals.

 If you are a Google Apps for Education (GAFE) school chromebooks are awesome. All of our staff and students have their documents, mail, calendars, presentations, notes and videos in the cloud. This means that whatever device they are using (as long as it has internet access) has all their stuff. This is great in a multi device/platform environment such as ours. Chromebooks take this portability to the next level. We have set our chromebooks to autowipe/reset on shutdown. You select this option in the Admin Console under Chrome Management Settings. When one of our users starts a chromebook it asks for their Google credentials. This is their school email address and password. After entering these details the chromebook immediately links to all their Google docs, apps and settings. In effect, the machine is intimately theirs for that session. No data or files are lost, ever. Google Apps also provide revision history so you can restore any previous version of a document. Apps travel with the user on chromebooks. This means that if a student installs a web app on the chromebook they are currently using it will be available on any chromebook they use in the future, immediately. Apps travel with the user account.

 The days of pressing the power button on a computer and waiting minutes for it to be usable are over. The speed of chromebooks is one of their best features. Students open the chromebook and they are operational in seconds. This is invaluable in the context of a lesson. Battery life on the Samsung model is also excellent. They easily last a school day. Google recently released chromecast (currently only in the US, hopefully soon in Australia). This is a small HDMI dongle that allows media streaming and mirroring from any device with chrome browser to TVs and projectors. The capacity to wirelessly ‘cast’ to a screen is awesome in class for teachers and students. At SCAS we have been doing this for awhile with Apple TVs but it is nice to finally have a cross platform solution for wireless mirroring. 

The thing I love most about chromebooks is their capacity to disrupt established educational paradigms. At SCAS we skipped the 1:1 mindset. We chose the cloud and diversity instead. Teachers don’t need to know how to use every device or app in their class. In many cases the students teach them. Teachers don’t need to be content experts anymore. We have the internet for that. Teachers don’t need to be techies to improve learning with technology. We are finally getting to a place with educational technology where teachers can refocus on the learning objectives, not the tools. Chromebooks are catalysing this pedagogical shift. They just work. They get out of the way and let the learning happen. And in most cases the apps they use are free. They are true portals to learning.

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