Chromebooks – a review

The advice I was given to blog little and often has half-worked, with my last post coming a good two months ago. I am making a promise to myself to blog more regularly come September, particularly as we should be entering an exciting period for ICT, and learning in general, in our school.

My colleague and I have been piloting Google Chromebooks for the duration of the summer term, and are now coming hurtling towards the end of an extremely whistle-stop tour of the pros and cons involved. This brief review aims to give potential Chromebook users an insight into what worked well – please bear in mind that I am learning as I go, and some of the issues might be easily solved – if you can help, let me know!

Logging in

This seems like an irrelevance, but both my colleague and I quickly found that logging in for lots of children was an issue that we had overlooked. Mis-spellings of their own names and the school’s name were frequent, simple functions such as using shift for @, and forgetting passwords were common problems. This has been overcome through simple repetition – even our EAL and poorer English speakers can now log on without too much of a problem. One issue has been the tendency for the Chromebooks to forget the proxy settings and therefore not connect to the internet. This can usually be fixed on the spot but is not something I would be wanting the children to have to do themselves.

Google Docs

This is a wide-ranging area:

1) Documents

The documents allow the children to work collaboratively, which has really seen an improvement in some of our children’s writing, and both classes seem much more engaged when completing ‘written’ tasks. Lots of children go on to continue their work at home which can only be a plus, and it is clear that they have enjoyed this element. The comments feature allows teachers to quickly mark the children’s work, and it is also possible to print these alongside the finished work as evidence of an ongoing dialogue between teacher and child. The next step would be for children to begin to peer-mark in the style of a blog comment.

The layout is so similar to Microsoft Word, which the children have been used to, so they have not struggled in adapting to a slightly different format. They have also been able to share their work with one another confidently so are now beginning to become more used to communicating electronically.

Adding photographs or pictures to a document is a mixed bag. It seems that dragging a picture from a Google image search (on a separate tab) is easy enough; however, the ‘insert’ function seems to freeze, no matter which option is selected.

One trick we may have missed is a typing class/booster/club for children who have not been used to using computers before. We almost expect children to be able to use their keyboards with a certain degree of competence but this is certainly not the case, and if you are using Google Docs regularly, quicker typing skills are needed!

Joaquin's story, with comments

2) Sites

This is an area where we are still learning. I have set up a couple of small websites for the children to use – one was for a Literacy lesson and the other is an ongoing Maths Challenges site for my more able mathematicians. I am by no means completely au fait with the finer points, but the children were keen to know more.

In our recent Literacy topic, we are looking at producing a newspaper report on our school Olympics, so the children have each set up their own site with a view to including reports, pictures, interviews and links. The actual editing of a site is relatively easy – the layout is almost identical to Documents – but the children need much more time practising the skills of presenting their work effectively. This is where Sites is still in its infancy; with only nine different layout styles, the children have become frustrated when they cannot simply drag and drop text or pictures where they want them to go.

Additionally, the choice of themes are excellent, but as above in Documents, freezing is common and children cannot always get their choice onto their sites.

3) Presentation

An excellent and easy-to-use feature, this was the first area we explored with the children. We created whole class presentations on the Olympics with ease, including what you would expect – pictures, text boxes, fancy text and transitions. It seems much easier than a Powerpoint as children can navigate quickly around the presentation, and are able to edit their work easily. This has also been the greatest area of collaboration – children have left comments for one another on their slides praising one element, while also asking for advice on how to improve their own slide. The one snag is that videos can only be included via Youtube – if this is blocked in your school (as it is in ours), then it is not much use.

4) Spreadsheets and Forms

We have not  used spreadsheets an awful lot in school, but the children have said they prefer using Excel as it is easier. Whether this is simply because they are used to Excel, I don’t know, but I have to concede that I would agree. Once the children had collected their data, they all went through the same process to convert it into a chart or graph but all had differing results – myself included. I’m not sure whether this was just a bug but it certainly didn’t work.

I do enjoy the forms. The children have only created a very brief one in a Maths lesson but this is something to explore further next year. I have used forms to ask parents what they thought about the pilot scheme and it was an extremely easy way of gathering responses. Usually, I would have had to type out a questionnaire and send out paper copies. This is certainly a thing of the past now – see the form I sent below.

Gmail

It might sound silly, but this pilot has been the first time that our school has been in regular contact with children via email. It is easy to use and the children have shown they are confident when using it. It has a large capacity and it is easy to monitor.

Other positives

The autosave function has prevented the endless discussions often heard at the beginning of lessons when children can’t find their files. This has been a real time-saver.

The speed of the machines has generally been excellent, as well as the graphics and sound. The children in our classes have been so enthusiastic about it that they were dying to know if we will be keeping them in September. We are interviewing both classes next week so I will try to Audioboo their responses.

Other teachers have been impressed with what they have seen and heard so we intend on rolling this out to the whole school.

Glitches

Glitches were to be expected in this trial period, and this is something hat we will be meeting with Google about next week. Small issues mentioned above can limit the children, while unexpected failings were frequent; for example, it is possible to take your ow picture but the machine seems to refuse to be able to put it into a document. Similarly, if you upload a video yourself to a document or site you can watch it, but nobody else can. Strange, unexplained things.

The chat function has the potential to be a positive, but due to the lack of administrative privileges afforded to the school, we have had no way of monitoring it. This would need to be looked at.

Summary

Without doubt, Google Apps for Education is a tool we intend to use in the future. The basics are easy to use and it is clear that the children have enjoyed using the machines. They have been able to work collaboratively both in and out of school, and comments from parents show that they are logging on at home to continue school work much more willingly.

However, I would question whether schools need to buy Chromebooks, particularly at the price of £300, though VAT can be deducted. This is simply because a Chromebook limits you to Google Apps and other internet based programs. While I am sure this is the future, we are in the now. Our children use programs such as MovieMaker and Write Online, which cannot be installed on a Chromebook. I would much rather invest in netbooks or notebooks and access Google Apps by signing in through Google.

Our various meetings with our headteacher, Google and the City Council may determine what happens next.

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