The future of school IT is 1:1, but how do you provide every student with a device within your current school budget? We show you how.

It was late in December last year and I was browsing with concern our desktop refresh plan. Every prior year was simple, we spend a chunk of money replacing old desktops, a chunk of money on servers, and another chunk on a new IT suite or laptop trolley to expand computer use.

But for the first time the numbers no longer added up. Of the 700 school desktops, 500 needed replacing, but we only had budget for 150. That meant pushing 350 desktops further into their already expanded roll over period — and the following year things would only get worse. I came to the conclusion that maintaining a fleet of desktops which had been plan A over the last 10 years was no longer sustainable.

To make things worse there was increasing demand to innovate with technology in the classroom. Expensive tablets, touch screens, and other technology were being demanded — if we couldn’t afford the basics how could we ever meet student and teacher expectations?

The problem was clear — we had less money but demand insisted we do more. We needed to do something new, something radical.

The old model is broken

I started looking for alternatives. Parental leasing is becoming an accepted option among schools, and leasing certainly has its place, but on principle I’m against shifting costs to parents in state funded schools. Leasing also adds additional hurdles — you have to approach and convince parents it’s a good idea; get a critical mass on board; and deal with managing devices that you don’t actually own. If possible I wanted to do this from current IT funding.

While researching the problem I came across something that stunned me. The school I work at has a relatively high ratio of desktops to students — around 1.5 students per desktop — but despite this computer use was distributed extremely disproportionately. Students with ICT specific subjects, such as coding, may get several hours access to a desktop each day, but students with a focus on Art, for example, may only get to use a school computer for an hour a week. Despite our attempts to improve access to technology the hurdles involved in booking IT rooms, pushing computers into departments, and encouraging creative use of technology was stunting any impact. It didn’t matter how much money we pumped into technology, the traditional desktop computer model of ICT suites simply didn’t allow for fair access to computers. We needed to go mobile.

Choosing a device

It was immediately obvious that if we wanted 1:1 devices we had to have something that was manageable, scalable, worked for students, and was cheap — really cheap. Early on we ruled out iPads. Following an in-depth research project that we conducted in association with the University of Cambridge we concluded that iPads were not appropriate for our students, were very expensive, and are difficult to manage in large numbers. We also discounted Android tablets for many of the same reasons. In general, once the novelty had warn off, students found that using devices without a physical keyboard or a rigid stand for the screen did not allow them to be a constructive as they needed to be.

We decided we wanted a laptop form factor, and the cheapest of such was Google’s popular Chromebook.

Why Chromebooks?

hp-chromebook-11We made the decision to move to Chromebooks based on three factors:

  • Financial – with reducing budgets and increasing demand for technology Chromebooks pricing is hugely attractive.
  • Pedagogy – our experiment with Google Apps on desktops demonstrated that students are engaged by Google’s range of software.
  • Greater efficiency – we wanted to improve collaboration across all our departments.

There is some negativity towards cloud services that I’ve seen when speaking to peers. This attitude runs the spectrum from sensible caution to outright hostility. I won’t go into detail as I’ve written about it at length before, but any school not looking at using cloud services — be it Google Apps, Microsoft Office 365, or others — is losing out on huge technological advantages.

Convincing Management

I had wrongly anticipated some negativity when presenting the Chromebook plan to senior management. In fact the most difficult aspect was in explaining the plan to teachers. One teacher said, “So, we’re just giving the students a gift.” These would still be school laptops, owned and managed by IT in the same was as the desktop are, the only real difference is that students would be allowed to take them home.

The second issue was in explaining exactly what a Chromebook was, what it could do, and what its limitations were. Early on questions like “Can you install Microsoft Publisher” and “Does it run PowerPoint” were common. Also, brand names like “PowerPoint” have become so ingrained in school culture that when I tried to explain that the Chromebook didn’t run “PowerPoint” the teachers took that to mean you couldn’t create presentations. This transition period was also hugely enlightening on how teachers perceive technology. For many teachers “Sharepoint” had become a byword for an on-line forum — a specific subset of functionality Microsoft’s SharePoint service.

Once I’d deciphered these descriptive nuances I later used it to my advantage when explaining more about the Chromebooks. “This is Google Docs — Google’s version of Word; This is Sheets — Google’s equivalent of Excel.”

Pricing it up

I went to manufacturers and suppliers to send us review units of almost every Chromebook on the market. With bulk pricing we had Chromebooks priced between £140 and £195. But when budgeting we also took into account savings in server infrastructure, management software, and training costs which completely change the school’s technology landscape.

Cost savings we identified were:

  • Printers, paper, reprographics, and printer consumables.
  • Textbooks and photocopying.
  • Servers, infrastructure, and network administration.
  • Software licensing.

The next step

The Chromebook is really just a cheap and effective doorway to Google Apps. We could have used Windows laptops, iPads, Android Tablets, or even iPod Touch, but for us the Chromebook gave the best all round experience using Google Apps in an easy to manage package. Don’t forget, Chromebooks don’t need any servers or internal kit to make them work. As long as you have a solid full site wireless network and good broadband you are set to go.

The first thing I wanted to do was get Chromebooks into the hands of our teachers. I didn’t want there to be any excuse as to why they couldn’t use Google Apps.

We took the majority of our desktop roll over budget and bought 300 Chromebooks. We gave one to each of our 80 teachers and our entire Year 12 and started an experiment to create a sustainable, scalable 1:1 roll out.

Challenges

There are a lot of challenges to deal with. How do we deal with repair costs? Can we take a Chromebook of a student as punishment? What about security and web filtering? How do we approach parents?

We’re now more than a month into the project and so far it has been extremely successful, but there are also a lot of issues that we didn’t even consider. In future articles I will cover these areas and also a lot of the technical configuration and planning. Stay tuned!

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About Author

Profile photo of Karl Rivers

Karl is an award winning Director of IT for the Royal Grammar School Guildford, based near London, England. He has been working in education for more than ten years and founded ClassThink in 2013 to share technology best practice with other schools. In 2014 he won the NAACE Impact Award for support services in schools, and writes edtech articles for Education Executive Magazine.

13 Comments

  1. Hi Karl, I have been interested to read your thoughts and experiences with Chromebooks as we are thinking about starting to use them in our school.

    Where are you based and would there be any chance of visiting your school?

    Thank you.

    • Profile photo of Karl Rivers

      Hi Tim,

      I’m sure we can arrange a visit. We’re based in Bedfordshire.

      Get in touch with your email address through the Contact Us page if you are interested.

      Karl

  2. Karl, I appreciate your unbiased approach to technology in education. While I work for a fairly torn school district. Our distribution is 100% iPads for tablets, iMacs in visual/performing arts classrooms/labs, and the first wave of 13″ retinas to some staff/teachers. On the flip side, all past teacher/staff laptops were thinkpads and desktops in classrooms/labs have been thinkcentres. The remaining classroom/library computers have been/are thin clients logging into a VM environment.

    Thinking about the future, chromebooks look more and more tempting. We recently went GAFE and with their storage plans recently announced, this will be a huge benefit. I look forward to reading yours and others thoughts on additional benefits or drawbacks associated with these devices.

    • Profile photo of Karl Rivers

      Hi Mike,

      Glad you’re enjoying ClassThink. My intention is to provide unbiased opinion on edtech as possible.

      There is much more Chromebook and Google Apps content coming up, so stay tuned!

      I’d also be interested in finding out more about how you’re getting on with your iPads and Mac. Get in touch in you’re interested in chatting.

      Karl

  3. Hi Karl – I am Chair of Governors at a small primary school with under 100 children on roll. We have just completed a trial with Chromebooks and are about to roll more out giving us a 1:2 device ratio. A lot of what you say echoes with us about budget, form factor etc. Battery life, speed of start up and ability to manage were also key. Our challenges are more on the use of Google Apps as a productivity and collaboration tool – teaching staff are struggling a little with using shared folders and calendars etc. Found some nice cost effective charging units too. Look forward to hearing more….

    • Profile photo of Karl Rivers

      Hi Andy,

      Glad you’re finding ClassThink useful. Sounds like we’re dealing with a lot of the same issues. I’d like to know more about your 1:2 project. Get in touch if you’d like to share.

      Karl

    • Hi Andy. I’m the head of a primary with 97 pupils. We’re looking to go down a similar route and work towards 1:1 device ratio in KS2. With a tablet based approach in EY and KS1. I imagine the same challenges with staff so would be interested to know how you get on. We buy in all our IT support so would hope to do a lot of the device management ourselves. Do you intend to move the staff (and school office) over to google apps including calendar etc?

      • Hi Chris – yes we have moved Staff and Office over to Google Apps although our initial look at Chromebooks was because we thought they were a good device rather than driven by apps. It is interesting that you went tablet device in EYFS as that is something we are considering. What we did find was that our fears about Y1 and 2 being unable to cope with the domain username were unfounded. That was the benefit of doing the trial, we could test our assumptions before investing.

        In terms of apps they are taking some getting used to. We only had a headteacher@ and office@ email system so concepts such as shared calendar and document collaboration was new to all staff. To be honest I don’t think that would have been any different if we had gone O365 – it would have all been a steep learning curve. It’s the concept of how the services work in the cloud and what’s stored locally or in drive that seemed to be the difficulty rather than real practical issue with the apps.

        The management tool is great. In terms of managing users and devices it is quite simple and easy to navigate. We do struggle a bit at the moment with using Google groups. It doesn’t seem to like group email (e.g Governors@) or using groups to share documents – I may have it set up incorrectly though.

        Karl / Chris – happy to discuss and share ideas. Although interested in any tech my real specialism is in network infrastructure and ISP services for Education rather than devices and apps. But In all the years we have spoken about 1:1 I think Chromebooks are the closet yet to the perfect device.

        • Profile photo of Karl Rivers

          Hi Andy,

          Just as an FYI, we’re using Groups and they do allow you to do sharing and mailing lists in the way you want to. Do you have Google Apps for Business enabled under the Google Apps menu of the control panel?

          Out of interest can I ask where you’re based?

          • Hi Karl – yes i am sure it’s a configuration thing. Otherwise it’s a startling omission!

            Based in North Staffordshire.

  4. Hi Karl. Thanks for the insightful articles. Linked to my reply to Andy’s comment above… I have someone trying to sell me Office365 and migrate our exchange e-mails, calendars etc. Is this a sensible approach if we intend to go down the chromebook route? I understand 365 apps are now available on chrome but with limited functionality. Perhaps we should migrate to google apps and find different tech support to help us through the process.

    • Profile photo of Karl Rivers

      Hi Chris,

      Technically there’s no reason you can’t use Office 365 on Chromebooks. Microsoft have even released Office apps on the Chrome Web Store to make managing them on Chromebooks easy (https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/word-online/fiombgjlkfpdpkbhfioofeeinbehmajg). As far as I know those apps are the same ones you get in a standard web browser.

      The main disadvantage is that you could find yourself having to manage multiple user accounts for each user. The great benefit of using Google Apps is that students login once and have access to everything they need. It’s about as simple as you can get.

      We did a feasibility study before going with Google Apps — I’ll see if I can dig it out and share in on the site — which looked at Office 365 as well. In the end we decided that Google Apps did everything we needed plus had additional collaboration features. Each school may have differing need though.

      What’s your thinking at the moment?

      • Thanks for the advice. I would be interested to see the feasibility study. After we get FTTC (rural cornwall) some time between now and Xmas we will make a decision. I’m going to get a chromebook to have a play with other half term. Probably a dell 13 having read your reviews.

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