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.
We 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.
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.
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!