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32,000 Chromebooks: How a Virginia school system bet on Google's PC platform

Virginia's Chesterfield County Schools recently announced that it will launch the largest education deployment of Chromebooks to date. Here's what you can learn from it.

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Adam Seldow, executive director of technology of Chesterfield County Public Schools, looks at a Chromebook with a student.
 Image: Chesterfield County Public Schools

As Chromebooks gain serious traction in the education market, schools are beginning to work through massive deployments of Google's cloud-based laptops. For example, Milwaukee Public Schools rolled out 11,400 devices, Edmonton Public Schools rolled out 13,000 devices, and Chicago Public Schools topped them both at 16,000 devices.

Now, Chicago has been topped as an even larger Chromebook deployment has begun.

Originally posted on the official Google blog, Virginia's Chesterfield County Public Schools (CCPS), one of the 100 largest school systems in the country, announced that it will be switching to Chromebooks in some of its schools. The rollout will begin in the upcoming school year, with each of the 32,475 middle and high school students getting a Dell Chromebook to use.

CCPS ran a pilot program where it studied the use of six pilot devices in each classroom. School leaders ran a public website where they could chronicle the study and answer questions for parents and teachers. It compared iPads, Chromebooks, Windows 8 tablets, Kindle Fires, a Windows 7 notebook, and an Android tablet; putting them in students' hands at all school levels.

This didn't all happen overnight, though. It took years of rolling out different Google products and preparing the schools for the changes. Let's take a look at the journey of CCPS to Chromebooks.

Making a way

The road toward Chromebooks began for CCPS in the 2011-2012 academic year when the schools introduce Google Apps for Education to all of the teachers and students. Adam Seldow, executive director of technology of Chesterfield County Public Schools, said that it was in an effort to promote blended learning.

"Blended learning is a teaching practice that combines online instruction with face-to-face instruction where students have more opportunities to direct their own learning through the availability of interactive web-based applications," Seldow said. "We began using Google Apps for Education originally because we needed digital creation tools that were both robust and easy to use, as well as immediately scalable to 60,000 students and over 7,000 staff members."

The next step was to convert all of the district's staff to Gmail from the Microsoft Exchange server they had been using. Matthew D'Ascoli, the manager of instructional technology, said that this was because of a change in thinking.

"We're shifting to the idea that technology is part of our tier one instruction. It's part of where we introduce information. It's making our teachers more efficient, it's making our teachers more effective," D'Ascoli.

At this point CCPS began moving toward deploying the devices. When they ran the aforementioned pilot, there were two devices that emerged as winners. It came down to the Windows 7 notebook and the Chromebook. Being that the Chromebook was much cheaper, CCPS decided to go with it.

After setting a clear goal to accomplish with this program and figuring out which device to move forward with, the district had to make sure everything was in place to accommodate the new machines.

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 Image: Chesterfield County Public Schools

Building the infrastructure

What's especially interesting about the Chromebook deployment at CCPS is that it was done within the limitations of their existing budget. Meaning no money was added to the budget to deploy the Chromebooks.

According to Seldow, a lot of time was spent working with school administrators to make sure the logistics were ironed out before the deployment. Each school's administrative group is in charge of that particular school's works with its own technology team to manage the logistical processes for the devices. CCPS also spent time on a accidental damage warranty, and a contract to make sure no student had to go more than 24 hours without a Chromebook.

After the teachers and administrators were taken care of, Seldow and his team turned their attention to the existing network.

"We essentially tripled the amount of wireless to create the proper density to support multiple devices per student, and leased as much bandwidth as the budget would allow," Seldow said. "Beyond the network, we focused on removing barriers to accessing web-based tools by creating a single-sign-on dashboard where all students and teachers begin their blended learning journey. After entering their username and password one time, they can click on any application we offer and launch directly into it without having to create an account or manage multiple usernames and passwords.

When the Chromebooks are rolled out this coming Fall, they will not be going to every student just yet. Right now the plan is for just the middle and high school students to get them, with the middle school students getting the first wave of devices this coming school year.

"We have 62 buildings here, and of those 62 buildings we have 12 middle schools and that will be the first year, this upcoming school year," D'Ascoli said. "Approximately 14,000 - 15,000 Chromebooks for the middle schools this year, and the following year the high schools will be getting them."

The most surprising part of this whole process, according to network manager Achim Purdy, was the robust nature of management associated with the Chromebooks. Purdy said the district was using Active Directory to manage its existing Windows computers and it took a dedicated staff member to maintain. According to Purdy, the Chromebooks can be managed by a few clicks.

"A big selling point to parents is that the student Chromebooks use the district's content filtering to ensure a safer student experience no matter how they access the Internet. The filter is always on," Purdy said.

As Seldow and the Chesterfield County Public Schools get ready for the rollout, they want to make sure they, as Purdy put it, are doing all they can to keep the technology out of the way of learning.

What you can learn: Three takeaways

If you are considering a move to Google Apps and Chromebooks for your school, here are three pieces of advice from Seldow:

1. It's all about the teaching and learning. Don't rush into spending leftover budget funds on the newest flavor-of-the-week device. Do some research on what device will provide an extension of your learning environment, and prepare extensively before the deployment.

2. Transparency matters. Do your best to make all of your information about teaching, learning, and technology available to the parents of your students and any other stakeholders. The more your empower people with information, the fewer surprises you are likely to face.

3. Use technology to remove barriers. It's counter-productive to use technology for the sake of technology. Make it something that blends in with the learning environment and is a natural fit. As Seldow said, "Reducing barriers increases opportunities for learning when the teacher isn't there."

Also see

About

Conner Forrest is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. He covers Google and startups and is passionate about the convergence of technology and culture.

21 comments
Gisabun
Gisabun

Ok. Here's the difference. Chromebooks relies heavily on the Internet/Intranet. Yes the kiddies will be experts in surfing the 'net after they finish school.

Windows [or for that matter even Mac] platform not only turns the kiddies into surfing experts but also broadens their horizon with applications that they will use later in life. Can you imagine a kid heading to college and is required to submit for class a complicated Excel spreadsheet and the kid never used Excel?

Yuri Nate
Yuri Nate

Um, everyone who is spouting about "selling personal data to Google", you do know that Google Apps for Education has ZERO advertising or data tracking?

leon1585
leon1585

Trust the person that decided on this to not give the students the best product but instead be bribed into 1) selling inferior products to students and parents 2) allowing their kids to be spied on and tracked from an early age with no knowledge

leon1585
leon1585

Stupid school system just sold their entire students personal data to Google. Now is that even legal? There's not even an opt out feature. I hate Google for their tactics. I would rather pay more than to be continually tracked.

Bryan T
Bryan T

I support a small school in northern NH. We also looked at Chromebooks about 18 months ago. In the end we stuck with Win 7. Why? No issues with Chromebooks ( we already use Gmail and other Google Apps, but... Some of the software we are currently using still requires 'front end' software to be installed on the device.

Hopefully, this type of issue will be resolved before we need to do our next upgrade!

Wirelessdude
Wirelessdude

My take: your must have an extensive wireless infrastructure for a Chromebook to function. Kudos for the extensive homework this school district performed. 

My second and  more interesting point: Windows 7! It came down to Windows 7 and the Chrome IOS. 

I operate a small business and hate the downtime caused by teaching operating systems and upgraded software versions that worked perfectly fine to our employees. We migrated from XP to Win 7 and will stay with 7. This reinforces my opinion that  Win 8, 8.1 don't add anything to a business who must be productive to remain in business. By the way, we do not live/work in an area that has a terrific wireless infrastructure. Our field techs must be able to use a computer without the wireless network and I do not see companies lining up to cover areas with low population.  

rstoeber
rstoeber

Complaints about Chromebooks being "cheap non-computers" are funny and come from people who shouldn't be making decisions in schools. By the time today's middle schoolers are adults the need to know Windows will be about as useful as fountain pens or DOS prompts. Everything in the computer world is becoming mobile, cloud-based and collaborative. Google's apps are leading the way, but even Microsoft has embraced this model. I'm sure there are still companies running 40 year old COBOL programs today, but I'm not worried about my kids ever working there.

Thump21
Thump21

I wonder if Achim Purdy has spoken with anyone in Milwaukee, Edmonton or Chicago on their experiences with doing this for thousands of users/devices?

jeb.hoge
jeb.hoge

This is my local school system, and I've been excited to see them making this move. One thing that's made it interesting though is the often-spluttering letters to the editor of the local paper about "wasting money on cheap non-computers" and how this move won't prepare children for using PCs as adults. I'm amused by it because my 3rd grader has been using our Chromebook over the past year for his schoolwork with no problem at all.

stevefoerster
stevefoerster

@leon1585 I use a Chromebook and it's not an inferior product.  It has excellent battery life, boots in seconds, and is very responsive.

stevefoerster
stevefoerster

@leon1585, you may not want to call other people stupid since Google Apps for Education doesn't include tracking.  

blueblizzy
blueblizzy

This use case is being addressed by virtualizing legacy apps to the cloud using Sphere 3D's Glassware.

ConnerForrest
ConnerForrest

@Wirelessdude Outside of Win 7 and Chromebooks, what do you think are some good options for small businesses? 

Gisabun
Gisabun

@rstoeber  Last I checked, Microsoft is doing VERY well with their cloud setup. "Microsoft has embraced this model" - You sure it's not the other way around? Hotmail started 8 years before Gmail. OneDrive/SkyDrive started before Google Drive as well.

Gisabun
Gisabun

@Thump21  Wondering if those schools are still using Chromebooks!

ConnerForrest
ConnerForrest

@jeb.hoge Excited to get a local's take on this. What do you think are the biggest positives for this deployment? Conversely, what do you think are the biggest challenges? 

jeb.hoge
jeb.hoge

@ConnerForrest Well,they hit the nail on the head with the cost & ease of deployment.We all know that web-based applications and networks are where the work is being done. Going Chromebook means CCPS can supply more students with take-home computers and can absorb more attrition from accidents or loss, and replacement is just that much easier since all you have to do is hand the kid a new device and have her sign in.

The challenges are FUD (which will evaporate with time and experience); working through the learning curve of offline use, which will come up because not all homes have wifi (it would be a spectacularly successful PR move for some company to provide reduced-fee wifi hotspots to families on a grant/need basis); and printing. If there's one thing I hate about Chromebook, it's that Chromebooks don't support direct USB printing. The school system HAS to get out in front of that, either with a "don't print" campaign (students & teachers go completely paperless) or otherwise educate the users (and parents!) on exactly how Google Cloud Print operates.

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