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.

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.”