2016 is going to be the year of challenges. To kick the year off I am swapping my beloved Mac Book Pro for a Chromebook. For 7 days I am going to attempt to work sole from a Chromebook to see first hand how Google Chromebooks could be used (or not) in a classroom environment.
Chromebooks are a lightweight (in terms of hardware and in most cases physical weight) laptop. Similar to PC manufacturers there are numerous brands who make Chromebooks, from Acer to Samsung. Although each has different specifications, buttons, finishes, screens etc all are unified because they run ChromeOS. ChromeOS is Google’s take on a modern operating system.
ChromeOS is essentially a Chrome browser with added features to enable you to use a hard drive and USB ports. Some of the highlights of the Chromebook / ChromeOS platform are:
- Long battery life
- Quick turn on (typically 7 seconds or less from button press to browsing)
- Simple setup (log in with a Google account)
- Quick account switching
- Simple interface (it can be thought of as ‘just Chrome’)
Because the devices are built around a web browser only, you do need SOME form of internet connection INITIALLY. After the initial setup it is possible to work ‘offline’ with your documents and photos. But of course, the device works best with a stable internet connection.
For this week I am going to be using my Google account, which has access to Google Drive, Google Docs, Hangouts and Google Photos.
The week starts with me buying an Asus C100PA. To make this challenge nice and easy I went to my local Currys store and purchased the device with a Chromecast (think the Google version of an Apple TV). I have previously researched the majority of Chromebooks available, and initially looked at 13 inch devices (this usually gives you a decent keyboard layout, and a big enough screen to work from). Having ‘kicked the tyres’ on a few of the devices in store I actually opted for the Asus C100PA.
The Asus is actually an 10.1 inch device, which folds over to make a laptop come tablet device…I must say before using the device I was an ardent hater of touch screen laptops!
I got the device home and did the usual unpacking and de-boxing of all the bits. I was surprised and impressed with the minimal packaging and simple power pack (no extra leads, no adapters). The instruction manual was insanely simple but also quite comprehensive.
Removing the cellophane and opening the device for the first time was pleasant, some other Chromebooks I have seen in the past tend to stick when being opened (you have to hold the base and pull the lid back due to the lightweight materials being used on the casing), not so with the Asus. It is solid and weighty enough to keep the base on the desk when being opened. The device automatically powers up when the lid is opened. Within 5 seconds the Google Chrome logo had appeared, vanished, and left me with the setup screen. I know that if these devices are being managed on a school MDM (mobile device manager) or Google Apps for Education you don't have to run through the initial ‘consumer’ setup, but instead hold Ctrl + Alt + E before signing in which will then start the enrolment setup instead…again, uber simple!
It has taken less than 5 minutes to click through the initial setup screens, which basically guide me through attaching the device to my wireless, then ask me to sign in with my Google account. If I didn't have one, I could have set this up as well!
I am presented with a simple user interface, the Chrome browser opens and presents me with all my tabs, bookmarks, extensions, and apps already loaded…lovely (no time-consuming customisation here!)
The bar along the bottom of the screen (from left to right) holds:
- Google Search - where I can search the device, my Google Documents, or the web
- A range of Google Application icons
- and in the far right, my settings and status icons.
Navigating around the screen is easy and intuitive with the small track pad on the front of the keyboard. I did have to change the scrolling direction to ‘Australian’ style - similar to the scroll direction on my Mac Book Pro - but this was for habit, and really easy to find in the settings.
Because the device is cooled without a fan, and isn't processor intensive, I can have it on my lap without the sound of a cooling fan and the heat that is normally associated with ‘typical laptops’. I can see this being a great benefit for IT admin guys, no more overheating or maintenance on fans etc.
The whole process for setting up takes less time than drinking a cup of coffee. Less than 20 minutes and I am good to go…time to get productive! I decided to check my calendar and write a few emails and get ready for the week.
My home broadband is a 100mb line, but I notice a distinct increase in speed of pages loading, the browser is fast! I wonder if this will slow down over the week???
Monday starts with a few meetings; a Senior Leadership Team, and a Teaching Support team. Meeting agendas were sent out last week using email. Looking at the calendar last night and its easy to see how Google Apps for Education can save time! From the calendar app I can send an invite to all ‘guests’ of the meeting, attach the agenda, and find a time for all of us to meet (the app checks the calendars of people - so long a you have permission to view their calendar - ideal for schools where everyone is on the same network!) This would have saved a lot of emails and forward/backward conversations trying to find a meeting. Ill use this next time!
During the meeting I wanted to test the Google version of Evernote / Notepad, called Keep. It is basically a stack of digital Post It Notes which you can attach practically anything. Its a great way to organise ideas and tasks - it also links to the other Google packages, so at the end of each meeting I could share. It is every similar to Evernote, but in my mind is almost like a cut down version.
Presenting to an audience is usually done on my trusty iPad Mini Retina with an Apple TV, using Keynote (like Powerpoint). Using the Chromecast, and running through the setup I could wirelessly mirror my Chromebook to the main screen.
Setting up the Chromecast is not as straight forwards as the Apple TV, and does involve switching between wireless networks (from your internet connection / network connection to the wireless on the Chromecast itself). Having said that the instructions on screen are simple, clear, and look wonderful! Within a 5 minutes of unboxing the device I had my Chromebook screen wirelessly linked.
Overall these devices are great for presentation and keeping track in meetings.
Tuesday, and I am visiting one of the many primary schools we are project managing. Today is a meeting with the Architectural team to discuss cabling and wireless infrastructure.
After receiving the invite via Google Calendar, I get an automatic notification 20 minutes before the meeting on all my devices (that have notifications setup on them). The meeting involved looking at what seemed like several hundred layout drawings and technical data maps.
To make sure the rest of my team could access these, and that the school had access to review what was discussed, I used Google Drive and set up a shared folder where I had placed all the photos and document copies.
I must say that this is one of the most powerful things within Google Apps for Education. The ability to quickly share individual files or folders with as little as 4 clicks of the mouse. Giving each user different permissions is really easy. For example I waned the Headteacher to be able to edit and comment, but other key staff to just comment. I meant that staff could mark up documents with comments, allowing me to see changes that needed to be made, but also when they commented!
There is a lot of potential with Google Drive, I’ve really fallen in love with the way this app works, and can see me sticking with this for a long time! One thing I missed off is that you can also search all your drive (and documents shared with you) using the search bar in Drive…no more ‘where did I put THAT folder?!”
Today was planning and preparation for schemes of work for next year. I had a simple grid template from Microsoft Word…a typical SoW outline with various sized columns split into cells for each part of the project.
Sharing these kinds of files with staff often involves sending a digital copy, then following up with a written one for meetings were we can sketch down changes and ideas. Then, collecting in the changes someone is tasked with updating the original…Gaaaaaah!!!!
Today we sat down and used a shared version from Google Docs. To get to this stage I opened Google Drive on my Chromebrowser, plugged my USB drive into the Chromebook, then dragged the Word file to my Google Drive.
I had set up file conversion when I set the Chromebook up initially (this is done in Drive by clicking on the Settings Gear in the top right, then Settings, then ticking the box that says File Conversion). It meant that in under a few seconds, the file had been uploaded to Google Drive and been converted to Google Docs (no longer a Word document).
At first I thought the document would convert strangely, Ive heard ‘those’ stories! Fortunately nothing had moved dramatically, a couple of full stops had disappeared (I blamed the app…but actually that was probably me!)
Having shared the document with the staff around me, we could all work on the document together, each person taking a different section to develop. I gave everyone the ability to both comment AND edit. It made for an awesome meeting!
Today was FANTASTIC! One of the schools I work with are very keen on documenting student work with their iPad devices. One of the difficulties they have is that the devices fill up quickly. I had a play with Google Photos today, and I think I found a way of managing the photos quickly and simply.
I loaded Google Photos onto my iPad, ran through the setup screens (there are 5 panels you swipe through), setting the app to synchronise with my Google Apps for Education account, and convert the photos from ORIGINAL to HIGH RESOLUTION (Googles preferred format).
The reason I opted for this setup is because original sized photos take up storage on your Google Drive (staff are allocated a virtual hard disk like the C: on Windows). If you convert to their format the photos don't count towards this quota…meaning UNLIMITED photos!!!!
When a photo is taken on the iPad the photo goes to the Camera Roll as normal, then Google Photos takes a copy, then pushes that to the cloud converting it on the way. You can then delete the photo from the Camera Roll, freeing up space on the device! Excellent!
Friday is tutorial day. I often create tutorials and instruction vides of teachers after training sessions to help support them when I’m not around to help. My MacBook is essential for this, using iMovie, Final Cut or Adobe Premiere, quickly cropping and organising the video and sound tracks, then publishing to the web. But this week is Chromebook week…so I have to find another way( as the device cant install typical applications, they need to be web based!)
I load Explain Everything from the Chrome Web Store (think Apples App store for Google Chrome). the free version is great and allows me to export video! Even better, I can export out to YouTube!!! With my Chromebook having a touch screen when I fold back the display, I can use it as if I were on my iPad, great! However, most Chromebooks don't yet have touch screen, so I try with the track pad…and it actually works really well!
Saturday has come around really quickly (as it usually does), and its time to catchup with the family. Driving across the country to deliver CPD during the week, I don’t really get the chance to ‘call home’ like I used to. Most of my family have been persuaded (by me) to join the iPhone masses, but this week I get to try Google Hangouts - similar (in a fashion) to FaceTime or Skype.
Not wanting to rope the family into my experiment I simply email them an invite to join a Hangout. They all accept and in a couple of minutes we are all in one large video chat.
Hangouts works rather like FaceTime and Skype in that you can either use audio only, or video and audio. A nice addition to this system is that when one person speaks, the video stream switches to their camera whilst the rest of the group appear in the bottom right. Another great function is the ability to share documents (would be great for remote sessions with feeder schools, or support teams) and to screen share (again useful for IT support, but also peer support).
The session goes well, and a neat extra is the ability to save the Hangout to YouTube…not that I would need to for a family call, but really good if I need to support schools remotely, for their reference etc.
I round off the day using the Chromecast at home (the setup to a different wireless is easy) and watch a few of my YouTube subscriptions / catch up on geeky stuff!
So, Sunday is the day of review. I find myself opening a set of Google Keep notes and colour coding them (pluses, and minuses from the week). Lets take a look at what I found out...
Size & Portability
Being the old man that I seem to now be, I usually carry my ‘kit’ (see this article) in a roller case now - if you want to know what that is, add a comment below! I figure that I have probably 20kg of equipment that I use almost daily, the Mac with accessories makes up a small part of this.
The Asus, as with most Chromebooks is light weight and highly portable. Being a small screen device it is similar in weight and size to a couple of iPad Air devices stacked on top of each other.
Being a touch screen I could imagine using this instead of a tablet and having the benefits of a keyboard should I need it. That said this definitely doesn't tick all the tablet boxes!
Over the last seven days I have really pushed the device, long working hours, a mixture of YouTube and web browsing and presenting. On average I get between 10 and 12 hours out of the device, so have only really needed to charge it every other day.
The battery charges fast, just like most new devices, and hits a full charge from empty in under 1.5hrs (as I use is plugged in).
There is a tiny LED on the left of the device which flashes if the charge gets too low, so you can see the approximate state of the battery from a closed lid, its a nice feature, but because the device powers up in under 6 seconds it is just as easy to look at the icon!
Ease of Use
Because of its small form factor, the keyboard takes a little getting used to. Although now i have had a week using the Chromebook, it seems quite comfortable!
Boot up and shut down times are amazing, faster than my MacBook - which says a lot! I expected fast boot up times, as the operating system is very light, but sub 6 seconds is great…especially when opening the lid (you could say) takes about a second!
Over the week I had one system update come through (via the notifications icon), simply clicking on the icon and then restarting (as the updates download automatically in the background) applied the update and I was good to go - no waiting for “Update 1 of 6501”!
The track pad was sturdy and felt good to use, again it is quite small, but uses multi touch (as do most of the Chromebooks devices) so scrolling and multi window navigation was easy…in fact very similar to the interface of the iPad!
Teacher-ability & Accessibility
Looking at the Chromebook environment from a non-geek point of view, it is really easy to use, and get used to. Because it is essentially a Chrome browser the learning curve is great.
To get started I would need to organise a Google account, and become familiar with the apps, but because they share the same interface it is easy to become productive rather quickly!
One of the big questions I had (as do many teachers looking at Google as a platform) is wether their Microsoft documents will work with Google Docs. I haven't found issues with the documents I used. Excel charts with complex formulae worked, as did planning documents in Word. Sharing out to people not on Google Docs was easy, they get a link and get the option to convert the document at their end. Once it is converted their end though, THEY lose the great sharing and collaboration functions…their loss I guess!
Presenting using Chromecast is slightly different in nature to presenting using and iPad and Apple TV. The Chromecast device requires you install a ‘Chrome Extension’ - easily taken from the Chrome Web Store. This then allows you to share a Chrome window. I found sometimes the Chromecast could struggle on ‘proxy networks’ where the device would need certain settings, but this soon rectified itself.
Most Chromebook devices have HDMI out, one thing to bear in mind if you have older VGA projectors, you will need an adapter. Because of the small form factor, my Asus has a HMDI mini port, so I quickly needed to get an adapter to plug into HDMI…it was £1.99 from eBay!
The Final Verdict
Overall I am pleasantly surprised with the Google and Chromebook platform. There is so much scope for integrating this into schools. In fact, with the range of Google Apps on all platforms I can see this being the go to system to link all devices together. I am doing that right now with a few schools we are working with, hopefully this insight will give you all a flavour of what can be done with Chrome OS and Chromebooks. It is only 7 days, but I am going to continue using this platform and most definitely keeping my lovely Asus Chromebook! I would suggest getting a device and seeing what you can do...if you try them out, let us know...you can blog about it on our site!
How are you using Chromebooks in school? Let me know in the comment section below!