In December I received an invitation to a meeting at Google’s London headquarters. Having missed the Google Teachers’ Academy, I was quite pleased to meet up with other colleagues using Google Apps and hear more from Google about their plans for education (especially as we now have Google Apps at Felsted and my next place of employment). After being ushered in to Google’s offices I heard a number of speakers talk about how they use Google Apps and Google state that they really wanted to support and encourage teachers. To this end, they provided a Google Chromebook to all attendees which, in my humble opinion, was a very nice Christmas present! I must admit that ever since the ‘launch’ of the Cr-48 by Google, I had always been interested in the concept because it fits within this growing trend of ‘Post PC’ technology (what I take to mean that the desktop computer with an internal hard drive is not the dominant means for accessing information and creating content). Below are my general impressions after using it for almost three weeks.
The Chromebook looks exactly like a traditional laptop with a 12 inch screen and I was pleased to feel that it felt solid, mirroring the general view of the meetup attendees that it had a certain ‘heft’. The keyboard was pleasant to use and the screen felt surprisingly large after using an 11 inch MacBook Air although I did miss the obvious colour enhancement that comes with a ‘glossy’ screen. What was really disappointing was the trackpad; it felt cheap in comparison to the rest of the device and not as accurate as I would have expected. The Chromebook comes with two USB ports, one mini VGA, one SD Card slot and the biggest surprise being the SIM card holder. I popped a SIM card in from my old iPad and I was given the option to connect either through Wifi or through the mobile network. Mobile data reception was good and it worked well on a variety of train journeys around the country (although this may have to do more with the network rather than the device itself). Other minor quibbles presented themselves with prolonged use - the light sensor worked relatively well with automatic dimming and brightness depending on conditions but it was a little inconsistent when travelling by train and the trackpad would be unresponsive at times. On balance, I found the Chromebook to be a solid device with an impressive battery life. However the key feature would be the software…
The Operating System is based on the Chrome web browser and did what you expect when viewing content so no more needs to be said. However, things took a turn for the worse when I tried anything more than this. For all of Google’s savvy, the file browsing experience when plugging a USB stick/SD Card in reminded me of old versions of Windows (and not in a nostalgic way). I also found it very frustrating when trying to open a document via USB that a message asked me to upload the document first rather than open and convert it for me via Google Docs. This was in complete contrast when electing to print a document and I was automatically given the option of converting it to a PDF and uploading to my Google Docs account. Viewing media content was a little better and the Chromebook was able to handle images and video via the SD Card slot well (although I only tested the mp4 format). I was quite pleased with this feature until I tried to upload to something to dropbox or Flickr which was not possible within the OS (although I am sure there must be an extension in the Google Marketplace for this). What really struck me at this point was the inconsistency of experience – some things worked as you would expect with a Google product and others, well, it smacked of a lack of development time. It also showed the major weakness of the Chromebook; if you are not completely wedded to the Google Apps experience, it can be hugely frustrating to use in a personal context but I can see that within a managed environment, this may be seen as an advantage and Google also offer management tools for schools to help with this.
I liked the Chromebook and it has rapidly become the other device I use when travelling. Would I recommend it to schools? There are essentially three things to think about here. The first is the necessary infrastructure required to run these devices; robust wifi and the deployment of Google Apps are essential otherwise the experience and learning possibilities are practically meaningless. The second issue is price. At £399, the Chromebook is comparable to laptops and even the iPad it comes off poorly in a number when making comparisons in term of screen size, storage and the ability to run both a wide variety of applications (PC Laptop) and dedicated ones (iOS apps). Priced at £200-300, I would seriously rethink this view…
The last, and most important element, is how it would support teaching and learning within the classroom and outside it. The design and features including the ability to use a 3G network would lend itself to being used on trips and in the classroom and when integrated with Google Docs, possibilites for collaboration are impressive and some of the web only appliations are impressive (such as Aviary). However, it does not appear to offer enough (yet) to differentiate it from other pieces of technology but I believe that this is a first generation offering and I fully expect the hardware and the services it uses to improve greatly over the next year or so. One hope is that Google works with mobile operators to offer a data package to schools with filtering and management tools to encourage use in different contexts…
I want to thank the Google team for taking a first bold step in engaging with the education sector and I look forward to their escalating involvement with schools this year starting with BETT and hopefully including plans for another Google Teacher Academy. My reasoning is very selfish; education is such an important task that I not only use all the brains I have but also all the brains I can borrow (apologies to Woodrow Wilson).