Saturday, 1 December 2012

Chromebooks/GoogleApps/Office 365 reflection

I've been fortunate to have a Chromebook laptop to play with to evaluate for possible purchase for our school.  Chromebooks are wireless laptops that essentially don't have hard drives and are built to work with Google Apps and the Internet, so everything you create (docs, pics etc) is stored in My Drive or elsewhere online. 
Chromebooks use a Chrome OS so if you are already familiar with Chrome and Google Apps, the transition is simple.  It turns on 8 seconds flat (faster than a MAC) and has an excellent battery life. (8 hours in the v1 I have).  Once on, you login into Google and off you go.  Icons down the bottom of the screen give you quick access to Drive, Gmail etc and you have a ‘launch pad’ which gives you your apps you want from the Chrome Store.  Note, only those apps that don’t require downloads can be used.  Of course you have full access to the internet through Chrome, accessing all the wonderful online tools that are available.
I am looking into the value of Chromebooks within our school and whether we buy these or laptops or a mix to best support the learning.  We are also looking at Office 365 and Google Apps and need to decide which cloud solution to use to support collaboration, creation etc for the learner.
A v1 chromebook is US$350 ($430NZ), so a bit cheaper than a laptop.  You can get a ChromeBox which controls the settings for all Chromebooks connected to that box.  So IT support is reduced and controlling the available apps and settings etc is straight forward because it's web based. Chromebooks can't get viruses. The keyboard feels good and mouse very user friendly.
At first when I was looking at the Chromebook I was thinking, ok what software do we have on our network and how can we replicate the same experience on the net and through the apps in the Chromestore?  What does Google Apps presentation do compared to MS PowerPoint etc?Having a software and training background in a prior life before teaching, I am used to comparing and evaluating software, so this was the natural way for me to think. I was also thinking about Office 365 and what that offers in comparison to Google Apps.  Our technicians recommended a trial of both, however I struggled to see the benefit in that because they will both come out well I'm sure with advantages/disadvantages in both.
I gave the Chromebook to a year 2 (6/7 year olds) class today and said to the teacher let the kids have a go and see what they create.  I went back half an hour later and the kids were doing amazing things. These children had never used Google Apps before. They had gone onto Google Drive, created a drawing and two children had decided to research the Wonders of the World and had put together pictures with labels within 20 minutes.  They loved the ease of use of being able to create new things.  They felt there were far less steps involved compared to non Chromebook laptops and working within tabbed windows made tasks more manageable in a faster timeframe. Two other children decided to research insects and had been able to put together various pictures found on the Internet to present them within 15 minutes once again using Google Drawing accessed through Drive.

The seamless creation of new products was refreshing and these 7 year olds did this with no teacher input.  It reminded me of the ease of use of an iPad and how quickly children adapt and create products.
Some people say the Chromebooks are limiting because they can't have downloaded software and you can't save anything on the hard drive. After much reflection and working with the Chromebook myself and reflecting on children's experiences, I came to the following realisation.
Why am I comparing what software we have at school and trying to find equivalent online tools? We should be looking at new ways of creating to meet learners needs rather than trying to do what we've done before.  My generation have been almost indoctrinated with MS Office and  MS have held the market for a very long time. Over the past couple of years the amount of Web 2.0 tools available for creation has increased together with apps for mobile devices.  Why would you think PowerPoint as a default when you should be actually looking at what is the best way to present the learning for that child.  If a child's goal is to work on their oral presentation then surely they should be looking at tools which will support that learning for presenting.  There is a whole range of tools available.  There is a shift in the thinking required, in that instead of having a default position of what we use to create and present, children need to drive the learning and understand what their learning needs are and select the appropriate tool to support that. Teachers need to have a shift in thinking and guide the children in their learning journey. We should be reflecting afterwards on the tools we use.  How did that meet our learning goals?   Does this mean teachers need to be experts in technology? I don't think so.  We need to all be a part of the learning process and willingly and give the reins to the children. We need to develop a continual evolving  digital toolkit for both the teacher and the child to use, but together and as a part of the learning process. The biggest challenge I feel is how to get teachers to create a shift in their thinking.  I read a research report on the Manaiakalani Trust where it said “the use of Google Sites and the Teacher Dashboard were the biggest changes in pedagogy across the cluster”.  With evidence of “co-construction of planning with students, less instructional and behaviour management talk from teachers more learning talk by teachers and students, an increase in independence and self management of learning by students”. (   seeManaiakalani Evaluation Report 2011: The Netbook Pilot Year   2011 Final Report (see pdf at end).  

Whilst, technology is just the tool, if that tool can support meeting learners needs in a seamless way then it's a pretty important tool!
Some people say Chromebooks are limiting, however I feel enlightened and can now see how they are actually at the forefront in the shift of thinking and really support learning in a more in depth way than imagined and we need to tap into that.
At the end of the day our school needs to choose a cloud based solution for storing documents/work and either Office 365 or Google Apps will suffice.  I don't think it's necessarily about comparing either product.  Yes a choice has to be made, but maybe it's more about what fits best with the learning. Perhaps Google Apps suits a primary school more because of the additional products such as Teacher Dashboard which lets the teacher manage the classes documents.  From the Manaiakalani Trust research Teacher Dashboard was certainly a huge factor in managing student work more effectively.

What we really need to be doing is developing a toolkit for teachers and children as learners so that children can make informed choices to support their learning.  To me if a Chromebook supports this transition and shift in thinking and makes it easier for the teacher and the learner,then isn't the choice between a Chromebook or non Chromebook laptop obvious.  People say you still need to have a few laptops to do the grunt work of creating videos etc, however I think that it's probably only a matter of time before such functionality is available on the web. I feel lucky in that our school is getting ultra fast broadband over the holidays and we are planning to migrate our servers to the cloud.  We are also looking at trialling two classes bringing their own devices in 2013 as part of a focus on blended learning.  Together with the fact that I am full time supporting teachers and children in e-learning this which I feel makes a crucial difference.

Chromebooks are cheaper than a laptop and pave the way to a whole new way of thinking.  For me Chromebooks fit where we are at as a school in that we are looking for cloud solutions to support the learning and it may be that some schools aren't ready for this move yet.
So my final word on Chromebooks, they open up unlimited opportunities for children and their learning.  Yes they are a different way of thinking and learning but maybe this is a good thing as it will support the change in thinking required to meet learners needs in this day and age. I like how Chromebooks wouldn't necessarily hook to our school printers so it forces people to think in a print less world (note this is just the way our school printers work). It would still be possible to print on a networked machine by logging in on a networked non Chromebook machine, but children and teachers would have to think twice about what they really want to print.  Chromebooks would also support online ways of working together giving children an authentic audience instead of their books or print outs which limited people see.  Some web 2 tools are more orientated towards Google in that you can use Gmail to create class accounts such as  I'm sure competitors will rise, however one needs to make a choice with what is available at the time and I feel that with a Chromebook and Teacher Dashboard with Google Apps  has the leading edge in supporting a shift in thinking which is required in this day and age!

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