Against the Gospel of Chromebooks

Have you heard the Good News?

Ed-tech problems have been solved. The glorious, the infallible Chromebooks have descended from the Omnipotent Cloud. Rejoice, repent, log in. 

If there was a war for technology in the hands of our students, Chromebooks have crossed the Rubicon. They have the product, the company, and the hashtags. The army of Google Certified educators and innovators who will literally stop in their tracks to tell you about how their kids just adore1 cloud-based computing. 

Google is a great company and I’m personally involved in ordering Chromebooks. But the worship of a $300 laptop sets off my spider sense. 

First, Chromebooks are cheap, not just inexpensive. The plastic is thinner, the keys break and the cover provides little protection. The mouse pad is not quite as responsive as I’d like. The processing power is solid, but hardly spectacular, and there’s very little internal storage. No one who knows computers would argue these are “good” computers; getting a great “bang for the buck” should not prevent us from wishing we had more “bang”.

Chromebooks rely on web tools exclusively for producing student work. That’s fine in the case of Google Docs, but dealing with sound creation or video editing is, even assuming perfect bandwidth conditions, treacherous. Heck, I am writing this on Google Docs, but building a brochure, magazine, or “professional” documents requires more bells and whistles.

Chromebooks aren’t good and cheap, they are good because they are cheap. They are austerity made functional. 

Let’s go back to “professional”: Education leaders love pontificating on creating schools that mirror “the real world”2. In said world, does anyone use a computer with limited processing and no internal memory? Yes, people with salaries and weekend ski-memberships use Chromebooks – to watch Netflix or putz around the house. 

Go ahead and ask what computer your favorite ed-tech journalist is using. I bet it has internal storage and a sweet video card. Chromebooks are a cheap simulacrum of the “real world”. I don’t want to say the same for schools.

Cheap is great, often necessary, but it also means educators stop asking some the harder questions.

  • Do educators really confuse “price” and “value”? 
  • Have teachers been prepared? How many use Google Docs for collaboration, rather than just a glorified word document? How many have students share with each other? How many use technology to connect with people outside of their school?
  • More likely: How many have figured out that giving every kid a laptop means they’ll shut up and look busy?

The bottom line here is the bottom line. $330 for a laptop is almost 4 times cheaper than a Macbook. Can’t beat that, right?

Oh. Wait. No.

Strip Windows, add some open-source software, run them through the Epoptes remote-management suite. More privacy, more features, more freedom. If a child figures out the command line and breaks through, hire them as tech support.

So what’s stopping me from doing this ? Simple: I’m not allowed to mass order netbooks, or anything else. Like most districts, we are bound by pre-established vendor contracts. Educational technology choices are almost never about the kids.

And now, I will order 33 Chromebooks3. I will probably love them. To save money, I will keep them in a refurbished Gateway cart. I’ll store the 32 Macbooks somewhere where they graciously die, and my technology students can harvest their organs.

I remain happy, I remain unsatisfied.

  1. stretch that vowel sound for effect 

  2. sidebar: this phrase needs to die. Thanks 

  3. And pray the district respects the contractual limits on class size 

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