Source: Steve Hargadon

Earlier today, reading this blog entry Taking a Step Back and Thinking Critically About Technology, it occurred to me to ask, What are our organization’s goals for our classroom? You’d think the answer to this question was obvious, but high-stakes testing and learning seem to be at cross-purposes in schools today. Isn’t that interesting (sad, too)? I was struck by Steve Hargadon’s diagram shown above because it captured for the first time a thought that’s been lurking in the dark of my brain…essentially, that schools purport to support learning but really just focus on teaching to the test.  You could easily adjust The Long Tail diagram to reflect high stakes testing in the head, putting “learning” in the long tail. That is, self-directed learning that we can all engage in, especially given the plethora of open educational resources (OER) available to us.

This pits two competing visions for what education can be against each other, and there’s no doubt as to which vision is winning. One can easily imagine teachers holding out against testing as ragtag rebels getting their behinds kicked by a more organized, better funded empire of enterprise designed to cut off their funding, brainwash education systems into spending precious funding on expensive solutions.

Sure, I thought, there is a real advantage here for a child to learn with with this tool. It’s pretty engaging. Its flashy (pardon the pun). And its was around the same time that many schools saw the iPad as “The Device.” It happened in my district too. We got several requests less than 3 months out of the box to buy some.
This is a trend that continues to grow and grow and grow. And frankly it’s a little frightening to me. A lot of schools have put all their eggs in the iPad basket or hope to put them there. When maybe we should be slowing down and thinking about what we are doing…I was recently reading over some proposals for a project to give grant money to classrooms. Of the 20 or so I read 18 of them involved wanting iPads. . .What they wanted to do would not have been more enhanced through the use of the iPad and frankly more money could have been spent putting a netbook or even laptop or Chromebook in the hands of more kids than buying a few iPads.

“If you can create an epiphany for one child, that epiphany can last them for life,” says John Seelye Brown (about 50-54 minutes in). Can the tools we use with students result in epiphanies in spite of how we use them? This is a question that I reflect on when I consider the argument between one device and another. I suspect that we keep hoping that the device we provide students will help them move beyond organization goals for your classroom.

“If you’re not comfortable with tinkering, you’re going to face an amazing state of anxiety.” (John Seelye Brown again). Wow, I love that idea of tinkering because tinkering is what you do when you’re playing around with Linux. Can tinkering on one device be better at helping students learn better than another? I suppose it all depends one’s organizations goals for your classroom, for your organization.


How do we approach setting those goals as an organization? How do we reframe the conversation about what’s happening in schools to help us get at a better understanding of how technology can be leveraged to fundamentally shift our paradigm?

This conversation came up on the Google-Certified Teachers (GCT) list. A part of it is in response to this blog entry which documents one story. One person even makes this remark in a related thread:

Having discussions in my district about getting some Chromebooks for students to use. Our MS want Google Apps this year and our staff explored some new tech purchase options and settled on the Chromebook. My Tech Coordinator brought up some valid points vs a netbook below. Any good thoughts/research to back CB over netbooks?
Background – our elem & ms is all Mac & our HS is Windows. Apple’s recent decision to not do the white MacBooks anymore is forcing us to look at cheaper options due to a limited budget.  Chromebooks have been on the table but here are some thoughts against going with CB:
1) We know the Chromebook has limited functionality (java, quicktime video, Wmv video) that we know of.  
2) Plus one of the costs MS didn’t include is the ongoing maintenance/management software of $5/month per device which equates to another $120 per device for the next two years if we look at a 3 year replacement cycle.  
3) My proposal is this…  We buy netbooks instead at $579 (without any special pricing) and the same cost as a Chromebook over 3 years.  It has full functionality and IT isn’t managing another type of device.
4) If staff have to learn something new (Chromebooks), I think they should learn netbooks instead.

Some of the responses include the following points (quoted anonymously from the post):

  1. Functionality – when you can find a device with ‘unlimited’ functionality do let me know (excuse my sarcasm). Seriously – Java works fine on Chromebooks, it would be Java Applets that don’t and these are generally being abbrogated by most forward thinking websites as they move towards going wholly HTML 5. Yes embedded Quicktime videos and embedded Wmvs don’t work on Chromebooks, but generally most educational concepts can also be found explained on Youtube or somewhere which can play on Chrome Os.
  2. When I had netbooks I had to replace the batteries after 18 months at about $170. In addition updating drivers, java, on them would take about an hour  of technician time every two weeks. At $60 an hour, this would mean an equivalent spend of $4 per device per fortnight (I had 15 netbooks). Overall I reckon the monthly maintenance of netbooks cost my school $13 a month (including the battery replacement, which Google will do for free under their 3-year contract).
  3. Again: netbooks? Full functionality? I have a netbook that runs my big presentation TV outside our main office. The number of times I’ve been through the main door to find that my stunning collection of parent-friendly presentations has been spoiled by some previously-unknown element of Windows trying to update itself. Everytime I see it I think – if only I’d purchased an extra Chromebook. Yes you can do more on a netbook – but video editing – probably need a Mac or high-powered desktop (or even an iPad can do simple video-editing better than a netbook). Audio editing? I’ve used Aviary succesfully with a class on Chromebooks – the limiting factor was the wifi access point, which would also be a limiting factor for netbooks unless using an application such as Audacity.
  4. Staff training – my staff love the Chromebooks and I’ve done a sum total of 2 hours training on them. There’s nothing really to learn on a Chromebook – if you can use the internet, you can use a Chromebook. I’ve written about this in my post: – the main thing to teach staff and students about is good password practice.


Thank you for articulating many of the concerns colleagues have hinted at in the adoption of Chromebooks. Often, when you embrace a device with the limited functionality of a Chromebook or an iPad, you’re also agreeing to NOT doing certain things. I’ve found that when the choice lies between limited functionality built on the exclusive use of an environment (e.g. everything works within the Google environment) or a popular technology, the popular technology wins because that’s what the users prefer, ignorant as they may be of the beauty of the former.
The options (in no particular order) for school technology are as follows:

  1. Netbook running Windows
  1. Netbook running Linux
  1. Chromebooks
  1. iPads
  1. Inexpensive laptops
  1. Ubiquitous desktops (uh, no)

If you are focused on productivity, function, and cloud-based computing, then netbooks running Linux are the least expensive approach. You have only to follow the work of Jim Klein (jnetman1) and  Ben Grey (@bengrey) with Read the following write-up:
The next best option might be iPad, even though they are expensive, because they are popular. Of course, mobile device management is a bit of a challenge.
In good conscience, I can’t defend Chromebooks for large scale deployments in schools. At the end of the deployment, what will we really have purchased as a school district?


After a pilot in eight classrooms, we’re going forward with using Chromebooks for a majority of our 1:1 initiative. We’ve just placed about 5000 Chromebooks in 5th grade, 6th grade, and some high school classrooms. We should have full 1:1 for grades 3-12 in August of 2013. We went through a lengthy process to evaluate devices and used a ratings scale to help in the decision making process.  

Netbooks were ruled out because of the imaging and virus issues that take us so much time by the district IT staff. The Chromebooks are basically ready out of the box with a few tweaks for the wireless authentication. We did upgrade our wireless district wide and increase our bandwidth but that would have happened for netbooks too. We’re also using VDI through Ericom to allow us to use Java and other legacy applications on the Chromebooks. We wanted a device that required little maintenance from teachers and IT staff. Implementation is going well, and we are gathering lots of data about what is happening in our classrooms. Please contact me if you need additional information.


I think you’re working through a common predicament. My only words of caution would be around the screen size and horsepower that come with netbooks. Horsepower may be similar between the two, but chromebooks come with a built-in governor in the form of ChromeOS. Users see a browser, and expect it to run like a browser, which it does. People see Windows 7 running on a netbook and expect it to run like a Core i7 with 4 GB RAM, which it doesn’t. Video editing on a netbook is likely to be little more than an exercise in frustration. 

My bigger concern would be screen size. Most netbooks have solidified around the 10″ screen size, which I believe is simply too small for everyday productivity. This is the same size as an iPad, but the iPad has a 4:3 aspect ratio rather than the 16:9 ratio most netbooks offer, which means the iPad screen is actually better suited for viewing webpages and such as shows more content vertically and requires less scrolling. Chromebooks come with a 12.1″ screen, which doesn’t sound much bigger than 10.1 inches, but screen sizes are measured diagonally across the screen. This means that the 20% increase in diagonal screen size on the chromebook actually begets a nearly 50% increase in viewable area (44″ vs. 63″). 

If it’s possible, I would encourage your staff to consider refurbished laptops rather than new netbooks if they are really that averse to Chromebooks. The price point is similar, the warranties are often identical, and the horsepower is likely to be at least as good. The one advantage would come with refurbished laptops would be a big increase in screen size. A refurbished laptop with a 14″ screen offers nearly double the viewable area as a netbook with a 10″ screen. 

Here’s Redemtech’s Red Rabbitt service current stock of refurbished laptops, there are nearly 1700 units available: 

Redemtech is a nationwide reseller and has been pegged by the FCC’s Connect2Compete program to provide refurbished machines to families across the nation who are eligible for the free/reduced lunch program. Shipping costs will be a pain, but if you live in an urban area, you may be able to work with a local refurbisher to keep the costs down. I believe they will supply Windows 7 licenses if you inquire about them.


Those are some of the responses and conversations. School districts are struggling with the right device because we have limited dollars to spend. In any case, we just need to get back to what we hope to accomplish…and somehow, reconcile two opposing perspectives. The successful districts will figure out how to do that, and the device they choose won’t matter.

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Everything posted on Miguel Guhlin’s blogs/wikis are his personal opinion and do not necessarily represent the views of his employer(s) or its clients. Read Full Disclosure