Middle school students are required to purchase a Google Chromebook for use in the classroom.
Image: Conner Forrest/TechRepublic

According to an estimate by Futuresource Consulting, Chromebooks accounted for almost 20 percent of the mobile computing market for K-12 schools in 2013. Kentucky Country Day (KCD), an independent private school, has had a 1:1 laptop program for their high school students since 2005, but they recently began requiring the purchase of Chromebooks for their middle school students to use in the classroom.

Simultaneous to the Chromebook experiment was the school’s rollout of Google Apps, which the students use to create and share content and access their assignments. The initial goal was simply to increase communication between the students and their teachers but Greg Korchnak, a science teacher at KCD who helped start the program, said it quickly became much more than that.

“All of a sudden we saw an explosion of student creativity,” Korchnak said.

Students were using their devices to create non-assigned projects like short stories and share them with their peers and instructors for feedback. The faculty quickly realized that the star of the show wasn’t the Chromebooks themselves, but the Google Apps suite they were all now using. The use of Chromebooks in the classroom is subject to the discretion of the individual teacher, but the teachers that allowed the use of the Chromebooks saw a fundamental shift in the way they taught. Now that the students had access to content via the Internet, the teachers began to focus on teaching learning skills and how to apply facts and figures to real-world applications.

SEE: Photos: KCD’s tech in the classroom: Chromebooks, Google Apps, Makerbots

The high school students were not using Google Apps, but as the pilot class moved into high school they urged the faculty to let them continue on with the cloud-based service. The students liked the way they were learning with Google Apps and didn’t want to change, so the administration let them keep using Google Docs as they moved in high school. Getting to this point wasn’t easy, and it won’t work at every school, but KCD said that it started with an R&D attitude.

The R&D attitude

According to Middle School Director Dan Ceaser, the program started out with three distinct ideas: “Collaboration, communication, and organization.” They knew they wanted students to be able to collaborate and share documents, but the school made some mistakes when they started the 1:1 program in the high school and they didn’t want to repeat them. Middle school at KCD comprises 5th grade through 8th grade students which covers many stages of learning development. They wanted a device they could put training wheels on early that also had the horsepower for when they needed it.

Tim Rice, the school’s Director of Technology (who admits he gets compared to Walter White from Breaking Bad), said they began the conversation with the idea of putting the right tool in the hands of kids to enhance how they learned and how the teachers taught.

“What ever direction we took,” said Tim Rice, “the device was going to be our last consideration.”

Tim Rice is the Technology Director at Kentucky Country Day. He helped with the deployment of Chromebooks in the middle school.
Image: Conner Forrest/TechRepublic

So, the school began throwing things out there to see what would stick. They got some iPads, Android tablets, Lenovo tablets, and Chromebooks. The wow factor was high with the iPads, and the school was convinced they were going to be an iPad school, until the kids started trying to produce content on them. At this point the focus shifted to entirely to the Chromebook and Google Apps, where content was easy to produce and collaboration came naturally.

The choice of a web-based product like Google Apps means that KCD is not held hostage to hardware product cycles or specific brands. Being a private independent school , KCD has more resources and autonomy than a public institution. This allowed them to stay agile and invest a little more time in figuring out what worked best for the students without changing their entire approach to education.

Relying on the browser as the tool has also presented some challenges for KCD. Bandwidth and infrastructure issues were major considerations when KCD planned their move to the cloud. They had to increase bandwidth school-wide, making sure access points could handle the increase in student traffic, and they made the move from a 50 mbps pipe to a 100 mbps pipe. One time KCD had an access point go down, leaving an entire class in the dark, but Dan Ceaser said they have scaled to fix that problem. The cloud, itself, can also be a point of contention with parents that don’t quite understand it. KCD has to educate parents on the cloud, safety issues, and the differences between web access at home and web access at school. They also have to educate students on the concept of digital citizenship and how to properly source and cite their work.

The faculty at KCD eventually settled on two models of Chromebooks that students can purchase, the Samsung XE303 and Lenovo Thinkpad X131e. When they launched the program, Chromebooks were solely a B2B offering and they had to go through Agosto to get batches of Chromebooks. It made it difficult for students who were entering in the middle of the school year.

Devices are enrolled under the KCD domain, then they use the Google apps management to break students into groups based on their grade level, control how much email access they have, blacklist websites and put filters on the computers. Then they use Hapara to help organize the students Google Drive. All the safety features go home with the student which was a selling point of safety when KCD first pitched it to the parents.

Once they settled on Chromebooks, the students adopted the technology organically. The school never mandated the use of Chromebooks in the classroom, or even explicitly encouraged their students to use them. Nowadays, the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction and they have to rein in the use of the Chromebooks at times. The high school students, who also use Google Apps, follow a BYOD policy as long as their computers meet certain specs and the primary school students have access to school-owned iPads and laptops. Rice said KCD is slowly moving other aspects of the school to Google Apps and they hope to be operating solely on Google products soon.

Students participate in every aspect of building robots, including soldering the boards and programming the robots.
Image: Conner Forrest/TechRepublic

The takeaway

The use of technology in the classroom has the potential to help and the potential to hurt. According to Kate O’Hara, a professor at the New York Institute of Technology, it all depends on how you implement it.

“Authentic technology integration doesn’t happen on its own—and it isn’t without a solid grounding in pedagogy,” O’Hara said. “When the technology is effectively used and implemented in classroom practice, there is potential for a significant shift in the student/teacher dynamic. And I’m using that word again, ‘potential.’ Classrooms with technology can still be teacher-centered or reflective of what Paulo Freire describes as the ‘banking method.’ We can use laptops for ‘drill and kill’ activities, or rote memorization, or for online test prep—or we can use laptops and associated apps as a medium for creativity, collaboration and critical thinking.”

In KCD’s case the introduction of Chromebooks and Google Apps resulted in a fundamental shift in how the teachers taught and how the students learned. It allows kids to learn at their own pace and it tailors the learning experience to the individual child. Kentucky Country Day’s experience is unique, and it’s simply not possible to incorporate a 1:1 Chromebook program at every school in the country. Kentucky Country Day’s goal is to become a beacon for what it looks like to integrate technology in the classroom. Every summer they host a two-day conference called Tech, Teach, Learn where they gather with schools from around the region to discuss what works and what doesn’t.

They offer programming classes as early as fifth grade, a fabrication lab complete with a couple Makerbot Replicator 2s, and a class where students build a robot from scratch, even soldering the boards. But the introduction of the Chromebooks and Google Apps, as miniscule as it seems in comparison, was more impactful in that it allowed the students to take ownership of the material. Phil Maddocks, a Market Analyst for Futuresource Consulting, explains why Chromebooks are so appealing to educators.

“Chromebooks present a number of benefits to the education market which goes further than just offering cheaper hardware,” he said. “While cost savings can be made on the cost of the hardware alone, the majority of the cost savings originate from savings made from infrastructure and device management.

“As Chromebooks are cloud-based devices, the security, device management, and even core content creation apps such as Google Docs are run in the cloud which produces cost reduction on both managing and setting up the devices, as well as some software licensing costs. Although there are limitations when the devices are offline, core apps such as Google Apps can function offline and can offer some functionality. More and more apps are now including offline functionality which reduces the requirement to always be online.

“Looking further ahead, educational content is now moving digital and is becoming available on the web, and by providing Chromebooks, this will be accessible on these devices. In addition to this, Google has announced their direct competitor to Apple’s Education store iTunes-U, Google Play for Education in the U.S. which will feature content specifically for the education market.”

The faculty at KCD aren’t sure how far the Chromebooks experiment will go, but they adamant about continuing with Google Apps. The use of Google Apps has increased transparency and led to fewer misunderstandings between parents and teachers over assignments and due dates. An added bonus for parents is that it’s harder for the students to lose their homework. Regardless of what devices they require or how they are used in the classroom, Rice wants to get to the point where the students understand the power of what’s in front of them.

“It’s just a tool. It’s not even a consideration,” Rice said. “It just is, and our students are hopefully coming up with the facilities to adapt to whatever is thrown at them.”

Considering a move to Google Apps? Here are some things to consider:

1. Infrastructure. Is your school or organization prepared to handle increased bandwidth from using a cloud-based service? Do you have enough access points and a back-up plan if something goes down? Is your IT department properly staffed?

2. Education. Are your students, parents, and faculty aware of the capabilities and limitations of Google Apps? Do they understand the safety issues of using a web-based product and how to effectively monitor use?

3. Scalability. Are you prepared for the changes in workflow and group dynamics this will bring to your school or organization? Do you have a rollout plan that accounts for differences in development stages and education level?