Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Guest Post: Jack West from Hapara

This is a guest post by Jack West, a teacher from California who also works with Hapara.

"Why the Chromebook Matters"

In 1998 I attended a mini conference at Sun Microsystems in Redwood City, California. I was there because a more seasoned teacher, Larry, who had taken me under his wing, told me it would be fun. We sat in a small conference hall with a bunch of engineers while a bespectacled, big-haired guy at the front of the room spat monotone, yet somehow inspiring, prose about the future of personal computing. I believe that speaker was Bill Joy, co-founder of Sun, who would two years later pen the essay, “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us.” for Wired Magazine. Joy used phrases like network computing, thin clients, and ubiquitous access. It all sounded so 2010 back then. When his address finished, the audience moved to the perimeter of the room to carry out internet searches on Yahoo with Netscape browsers on what appeared to be naked keyboards connected to a CRT monitor. The experience was quite like the one I am having right now with a wireless keyboard and an iMac, that on the surface appears to only be a monitor, except that both the keyboard and the mouse had wires. These were terminal machines, and it was shocking (back then) to be using a computer without a hard-drive spinning, fan-blowing tower to cramp your leg space under the desk.

Joy had explained that users would not have to be concerned with downloading and updating software (from 3 ½” floppy disks!), storing files on their hard drives, or even viruses. Computing would be done by bigger computers somewhere in the building or perhaps in another building, and users could all enjoy the same software.

This last part blew my mind. I could not wrap my head around how two users could be using the same version of Word to type up a science test. The IBM 486 machine I had in my classroom could barely run the software for me alone. I was dubious.

2013 is upon us, and Joy’s prognostications about network computing, thin clients, and ubiquitous access have all materialized. Let’s hope his prescience ends there! Read his Wired essay to understand why. And now I understand why Larry took me to a conference full of engineers (and not educators) when I was still trying to learn how to properly use a chalk board. The implications of network computing for education are (to make a Joy-like, bold prediction) game changing.

Edtech: An Abridged Modern History
California got really excited about a computer in every classroom before the turn of the Millennium. Schools earned large Digital High School grants to purchase computers, for every classroom. A whole ecosystem of trainers emerged to teach teachers how to use the computers. Special classes were invented to certify students in computer maintenance, proficiency in Microsoft Office applications, and even basic networking. Other than filling the job pipeline for a few specialty computer rooted professions, that first wave of computing in education flopped - pun intended. From a pedagogical standpoint, there wasn’t anything there. The era of edtech from 1996 to 2000 brought education little more than the webquest.The first decade of the new millennium whet our collective instructional appetite for the potential of high technology as a value add (instead of just sparkle and shine) in the classroom. Internetbased research and engaging presentation methods for both students and teachers became part of the fabric of our work, and the accessibility of knowledge for those with internet access is already a game changer. But not everyone has access, nor do all of those with access have the digital literacy they need to make the best use of their access.

Enter the Chromebook
The Chromebook is the thin-client/terminal/network computer that Joy told me and Larry about back in 1998. Well, not the actual computer, but conceptually it is what he was talking about. The internet, and the computing devices we use to access the internet only have instructional value when we can access the internet; and even then, only when our visit is a curated, welltargeted experience that balances choice with structure. As adults, we are (for the most part) capable of providing this for ourselves. Most young learners are not. Stories of the genius who teaches himself or herself to code or how to play piano by simply surfing the web are few and far between; certainly not statistically significant enough to suggest that access alone is a solution to our education challenges.

The Chromebook is the revolution that we have been waiting for not just because it starts up in six seconds, saving hundreds of instructional hours for every class each year. It is not revolutionary simply because the 6 hour battery life, which in my experience is actually closer to 8 hours, means that the machines never need to be charged during the day, making the footprint of the device itself nearly invisible. The significance of the device as the inflection point in edtech is not solely because no educator ever need to be concerned with maintenance of the device, virus protection, network security or software updates since all of this is done for every machine in the network remotely by a single IT support professional. The device is not a game changer just because it is being sold right now for $279 with a support plan, and for a short time, $99, through a partnership with Donor’s Choose. It would not even be the (inevitable) integration of the haptic capability and voice recognition power available in the Nexus devices that makes the Chromebook the device historians will point to when they identify the end of one era in education and the beginning of the next.

It is not any single one of these things that makes the Chromebook special. It is all of them together, coupled with the free Google Apps for Education (GAFE) services, that means every child (above a certain age) in every school is going to have their own trusted computing device. That is going to change education. Soon too, it will not be just Chromebooks and GAFE. For the sake of avoiding some Orwellian future, let’s hope not anyway.

This ubiquitous access to computing devices that make the techn ology students use to access the web transparent will force us to change how we do education. We have been talking about personalization and n + 1 challenge for years. We have been hoping for artificial intelligence that can assess student argument so that teachers can provide feedback on student writing more frequently. And we have been talking about piping content from great teachers to places where that talent is not readily available. We have been talking and hoping and talking, but we have not actually been doing much of any of this. The Chromebook will inspire the ecosystem that brings these things to fruition.

Just as education institutions need the infrastructural hurdles to be lowered to make computing part of learning, so entrepreneurs need a rich ecosystem of computing education institutions to drive innovation. Certainly, innovation is already happening. ImagineK12, a tech startup incubator in the Silicon Valley has had it’s eye on these prizes for over a year now. Innovators in New York are solving problems education institutions didn’t even know existed because they were so, well, institutionalized. But there is much more to come. The big guys are soon to join the game. Newscorp. is in the edtech lead, for better or worse, of the large multinationals on this front with Wireless Generation. Others will certainly throw their hats in the ring when the multi trillion dollar global education market turns over like a lake in winter.

In the first paragraph of Bill Joy’s essay, he identifies the moment that the thought of how technological innovation might eventually be the end of us (humans) as a species entered his mind. It was when he met Ray Kurzweil at a conference. Ray is a famous inventor whose name is probably most closely associated with voice recognition software and his predictions for the future of human interaction with technology. Interestingly, Ray Kurzweil was just hired as Google’s Director of Engineering. Fortunately for us, Ray’s prognostications are much more sanguine than those of Bill Joy.


  1. We've had Chromebooks in our school since March 2011. They've been terrific. As long as your wireless backbone is up to the task the Chromebooks really are near-zero maintenance devices. No wonder tech people in some jurisdictions are reluctant to deploy them! (BTW: millennium is spelled with a double "n").

  2. Agreed.. "As long as the wireless backbone is up to the task.."

    This has been the one challenge for us. Initially we thought our wireless infrastructure was more robust than it actually is. The result is that we moved the student onto the faculty network. Upgrades will hopefully happen next summer before the flood of one to one classrooms come on.

    I think Jennie fixed the spelling mistake for us, thanks.

  3. The wireless backbone is in shambles all over the country because school districts always choose the lowest cost bidder and they many technology leaders neglect the envitable exponential growth of devices in their buildings.
    Chromebooks are revolutionary for the make the consumer adapt to the cloud. I have so many people say they won't use Chromebooks because they have only been consumers of PowerPoint and Word (they spend to much time formatting). Every device has a weakness but - your right - teachers need to worry about instruction and content - not whether or not their machine has the right flash update.


  4. Thanks for your thoughts Aaron. Arne Duncan visited our school this year on his Back to School Bus Tour. One of the things he promised was legislation and funding to solve the wireless backbone problem. Let's keep our fingers crossed!