Chromebooks Emerging As Classroom Contender

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Low cost laptops emerging as a new alternative for schools with increasing focus on budgets ease of use web applications.

Apple and Microsoft have long dominated the education market as the preferred computing platforms for grades K-12 in the U.S., but Google - and Samsung - are emerging as significant challengers with a new crop of Chromebooks for schools. Citing low cost, quick boot times, easy maintenance, and increasing use of web-based applications, schools throughout the country are increasingly looking to Chromebooks for their computing needs, according to analysts and school district IT managers.

According to Futuresource Consulting, one in four devices sold into K-12 schools in the U.S. are Chromebooks, and the platform is emerging as a strong contender to Apple's well-established market position. And there are signs the trend may not be confined only to the U.S.

ABI Research, who has been tracking Chromebook shipments closely, said the government of Malaysia deployed over 100,000 Chromebook systems to schools last year, and as administrators overseeing that program learn from that initial implementation, ABI believes there is significant upside potential to grow the total area market (TAM).

All told, ABI says that Chromebook shipments hit 2.1 million units in 2013 and is expected to reach 11 million worldwide by 2019. According to a recent study sponsored by Amplify, a maker of an Android-based education tablet, Apple, and the iPad specifically, is still the most common type of mobile technology adopted by school districts. The iPad is followed closely by Chromebooks and other 'mixed' technology supplied by students, including the iPod Touch.

Chromebooks are low-cost laptops starting at around $279 that are built using Google's Chrome OS and powered by chips from Intel, Samsung, and others. They launched initially in 2011 but picked up steam over the last year with several sleek new designs coming to market. Multiple PC makers have Chromebooks in the market today including Samsung, HP, Acer, Dell, Lenovo, and Asus.

According to Google, the systems can save schools on average $5,200 per device over three years. The company has also said more than 5,000 schools have deployed them, representing more than 20 percent of school districts in the U.S.

So far, Samsung appears to be emerging as the clear leader in terms of systems deployed in U.S. schools. But there are also systems coming into schools from Acer, Lenovo, and other computer makers.

Intel for its part has been actively supporting and promoting the use of Chromebooks for schools with a series of webinars, tips, videos and more on its K-12 blueprint website for teachers and educators. Acer and Intel recently offered K-12 schools the opportunity to pilot the Chrome OS with a free 30-day trial of its C720 Chromebook

According to ABI, a few examples of the largest deployments at U.S. schools in 2013 include:

  • 18,000 Samsung Series 3 Chromebooks at Cherry Creek Schools in Colorado estimated at just over $5 million
  • 5,100 Samsung Chromebook 550?s at Passaic Public Schools in New Jersey for about $1.5 million (plus an additional 8,200 units already this year)
  • 4,500 Samsung Series 5 at Richland School District Two in Columbia, S.C., for about $1.4 million (the district also deployed 14k Chromebooks in 2012)

Examples of initial deployments, pilot programs and even a second wave of purchasing this year are everywhere. Lombard Middle School in Galesburg, Ill., is rolling out 2500 Acer Chromebooks to cover its 6th-12th graders as part of the school district's 1:1 Computer Program.

On a smaller scale, the Board of Education for the Kearney, Mo., R-1 School District recently approved the purchase of 300 Chromebooks at a cost of $110,120 for distribution within the district. In Hillsboro, Ore., the Hillsboro School District recently purchased 160 Chromebooks as part of a pilot program to investigate possible larger roll-out over time.

The Shift Has Started

Jeff Orr, senior practice director at ABI Research, says there is definitely a shift happening and a lot of it is based on the web model.

"A parallel [to the Enterprise market] exists in the K-12 education market on the basis of increased choice of platforms and vendors, except for one distinct criterion: content," Orr says. "For K-12, the stars and moon have aligned such that a lot of content applications and custom content development platforms for educators have moved to using the web as the delivery vehicle. This makes for an ideal setting for Chromebooks to deliver on affordability, manageability and usability without compromising the access to curriculum and tools needed by educators."

Part of the allure of Chromebooks in addition to their low cost is a free suite of Google communication and collaboration tools including email, calendar, and documents that allow students and teachers to share and collaborate from anywhere even outside the classroom.

Bedford Public Schools in Michigan is a classic example. They recently started shifting away from Microsoft software and Windows-based hardware to Google Apps and Chromebooks. It's no wonder Microsoft has publicly challenged Chromebooks with a series of advertisements as part of their 'Scroogled' campaign, seeking to paint Google as tracking users wherever they go in order to sell more advertising.

Jennifer Earl, director of instructional technology and who oversees the technology used by approximately 4800 students in the Bedford District, says the shift to Google Apps was a key part of their decision. They evaluated Chromebooks along with traditional laptops, netbooks, tablets and the Apple iPad.

"We just officially launched our Google Apps for Education domain at the beginning of the school year so this has been a year of learning for everyone, staff and students alike," says Earl, adding that Google Docs is now the established platform for meetings, minutes, agendas and more.

380 Chromebooks were distributed to Bedford 6th graders in January and the plans are to deploy 800 additional Chromebooks in order to have a 1-to-1 ratio of device-to-student. According to Earl, all students in grades 3, 4 and 8 will have Chromebooks in 2015-16 and the high school will transition to Chromebooks in 2016-18. Chromebooks are actually assigned to individual students for use at school and home, she said.

Questions Remain

Many questions still remain about the viability of Chromebooks over the longer term, according to Orr. "Some privacy organizations have expressed concern that the inherently connected nature of Chromebooks makes them vulnerable to data integrity concerns and sharing of student information with Google and potentially other private entities without the consent of the students' families, teachers and government," he said.

And there is the question of whether Chromebooks are durable enough to withstand challenges of student use and classroom environments.

Shortly after Chromebooks were distributed within the Bedford schools, they started seeing large numbers of returns for the same type of repair - a missing OS. The district discovered a technical issue with some hard drives that weren't properly attached, and slight jarring caused a disconnection. They turned it into a learning exercise with students, who opened the devices and deployed a fix to all of the Chromebooks within a few days.

What companies stand to win from Chromebooks? ABI's Orr says to date, the contributions of Samsung, Intel and of course, Google, are the most notable, but he expects multiple solutions will still be deployed in schools.

"The companies least likely to feel the joy of Chromebooks would consist of Microsoft and Apple," Orr said. "As with any existing market segment, K-12 education has grown using solutions from both vendors and will continue to. The difference is that the pool of choices available is continuing to expand and Chromebooks deserve a look alongside Windows OS, Mac OS and Linux-based computing solutions."

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