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Chromebooks for Schools - The Bad

In the last article I listed six benefits of Chromebooks for schools.  In this article I am going to look at what I consider to be the negatives of Google’s offering.  Since this article deals with the negatives, I want to make sure first that I clarify I am not critical at all of the concept of Chromebooks.  As explained in the earlier article I truly believe that Chromebooks offer an excellent technology option for schools, providing cloud computing, portability, long battery life, centralized management, and more.  I am also a solid advocate of Google Apps for Education and all the associated Google services.  My district has benefited greatly from Google Apps, and I look forward to our staff and students using the Google services in more ways.  I am so appreciative of Google’s commitment and support of schools.

Unfortunately from my perspective as a public school district technology director I find two big areas of concerns with Google’s Chromebook initiative.  (These do not include the lack of Java support for Chromebooks, although that is a potential issue for school that use java-powered education websites.)  The two concerns I have are:
  1. For most school districts, the price per month for the Chromebook subscription plan is simply too high.
  2. For most school districts, the three-year life cycle is actually too short.
To see why I have these concerns, you must first understand the financial situation of most schools today.  Most of what you know about the business world does not translate over to the education realm.  I find that there are three myths about schools concerning funding in general and technology budgets specifically, and it is in these misunderstandings that the problem lies.
  • Myth #1 - Most school districts have at least reasonable funding, and therefore a functional technology budget to work with.
  • Myth #2- Most school districts currently spend money each year on new hardware purchases, software licenses, antivirus protection, warranties, and support services, and those funds could be redirected to the Chrombook subscription plan as an alternative to what they are currently spending.
  • Myth #3 - Most school districts are able to count on a predicable level of funding for future years, and therefore are able to make multi-year commitments.
We will now take a look at each of these myths and see the reality that schools face instead.

Myth #1
  • Myth - Most school districts have at least reasonable funding, and therefore a functional technology budget to work with.
  • Reality - We are broke.
I think most people are aware that schools are struggling financially.  However, I don’t think that many truly understand just how significant that problem is.  As an example I will describe the financial situation of my school district, North Canton City Schools, in North Canton, Ohio.  

We are a district of 4,600 students and 620 staff in a suburban community. We are very successful, receiving a rating of “Excellent” (the highest possible state rating) for the past ten years in a row.  Our community is supportive, our students work hard, and our staff are dedicated, talented, and creative.

Our funding though is a completely different story.  Year after year after year we have lost millions of dollars in funding through the loss of local businesses and state budget cuts.  We have slashed budgets, reduced staff through attrition and reduction in force, restructured programs to maximize efficiency, and agreed to 0% pay raises.  All of this has kept us afloat, but just barely.

The impact on my technology budget has been devastating.  After we pay the bills we have no choice over (Internet connectivity, electronic gradebook, and Cisco service contracts for our core switches) we have $27,000 a year to work with.  No, I did not leave out any zeros there.  To support 4,600 students, 620 staff, 7 buildings, and abut 1,500 computers we have $27,000 total for an entire year.  That has to cover all new purchases, all repairs, new data projector bulbs (they are not cheap), and anything else we can try to squeeze in.  That is $18 per computer per year (not per month).

According to a recent Wired article "Google cited numbers from Gartner that companies spend $3,000 a year per employee on computers."  From our budget numbers above you can see that we spend $45 per employee per year.

Now obviously not all schools are in the same financial situation.  If you are not familiar with the state of school funding, think of it this way.  There is basically a continuum with decent funding on each end, and lack of funding in the middle.  On one end you have schools in economically challenged communities with a very high percentage of students on the free and reduced lunch program.  These are the schools that receive generous government funding.  On the other end of the continuum you find schools in very affluent communities that have a strong tax base and receive generous local funding.  Everyone else is in the middle.  These schools are not poor enough to receive adequate government funding, and are not rich enough to run off of local money.  In Ohio this currently counts for about 50% of our school districts.  Give it one more year and the governor’s new round of funding cuts will increase this to 75% of our schools.

In short, schools have nowhere near the money most people think we have.

Myth #2
  • Myth - Most school districts currently spend money each year on new hardware purchases, software licenses, antivirus protection, warranties, and support services, and those funds could be redirected to the Chrombook subscription plan as an alternative to what they are currently spending.
  • Reality - We don’t spend money on anything but critical needs.
Again, I will use my school district as an example, but again we are more representative than not of most schools.

New computers:

Many years ago (about 12 years back) we used to buy new computers on a planned 5-year replacement cycle.  As funding dried up we had to stretch the years of use.  Then when we could no longer afford new computers, we began buying off-lease (used) computers (often an excellent option for schools).  Then when we couldn’t even afford used computers, we moved to receiving donated computers from local colleges and businesses.

Currently the average age of our staff computers are 5.5 years (Elem), 7 years (MS), and 7 years (HS).  The average age of our student computers are 9.5 years (Elem), 7 years (MS), and 4.5 years (HS).

Software licenses:

We do not pay any annual fees for software.  We have migrated to Google Apps for Education so we already receive the wonderful benefit of Google Docs, Gmail, Google Calendar, Blogger, Sites, and much more, all for no cost.  For those who still need Microsoft Office, we have Office 2000 for students and Office 2002 for staff, which are licenses we bought once and have no recurring costs.

Warranties:

When we are able to purchase new computers (through our tech budget, grants, PTO monies, Career Tech funding, and such) we buy them from companies such as Bytespeed and Daktech who provide 5-year and 7-year warranties respectively.  That is 7 years of total coverage including tech support, parts, labor, and shipping both ways.  Their computers are solid, quality machines so they do not require much support, but when there have been problems their tech support responds immediately and gets the problem fixed.

Support services:

We do not pay for any outside tech support.  We take care of all our needs with our small in-house tech team who are (sadly) paid much less than their skills would warrant in the business world.  We work hard, but we also work smart.  We make master images for our computers and then reimage our PC’s once a year or when a particular system needs it.  Most of our student computers are “frozen” using MIcrosoft’s free Shared Computer Toolkit, so every time they reboot the computers are right back to the functional state we have set for them.  We do our own repairs from swapping out failing power supplies to replacing $2 capacitors on circuit boards that would cost $200 to have someone else do the repair.

So in the end, the simple fact is many schools are not spending money each year on hardware, software, and support, that could instead be re-directed to Chromebooks.  We are a talented and creative team of workers who make systems last much longer than many people realize, on a budget much less than most people would believe.

Myth #3
  • Myth - Most school districts are able to count on a predicable level of funding for future years, and therefore are able to make multi-year commitments.
  • Reality - We have no guarantee of funding from year to year.
School funding in Ohio is as unpredictable as the weather (air conditioner one day, snow showers the next).  From year to year we are hit with millions of dollars in cuts with little or no warning.  We have even had funding changes in the middle of the school year, reducing budgets we had already been given and thought we could at least count on for that year.  It is unrealistic and irresponsible for schools to make commitments that extend for more than a few years.

In the case of Google’s Chromebook subscription plan the commitment is for three years.  Even if we could pay for the devices for three years, there is no guarantee that we would have the money to re-up at the end of the contract.  If you are able to renew your contract, Google will send you new Chromebooks.  However, if you are not able to renew, you are allowed to keep your old Chromebooks but you lose the ability to centrally manage them with the Management Console, and the Chromebooks will no longer receive updates.  In this sense it is not like you are really buying the Chromebooks with the ability to use them for as long as they last.  At the end of their three years you dramatically lose functionality with the removal of the Management Console and updates.

Conventional wisdom says that netbooks have a lifespan to three to five years.  Of course in the education world we would probably stretch that a little further.  Even if the Chromebooks go out of warranty after three years (which is a very normal warranty length for netbooks) schools should still be able to use the Management Console with them.  There is no sense in decommissioning a computer if it still has years of usable life remaining.

In the end, many schools have no choice but to buy computers rather than pay a required annual subscription.  A Daktech computer that we own outright and is covered by a 7-year warranty is a much wiser investment than a annual expense we may not always be able to make.

Counting the Cost

Again, we are just one school district, but I believe we are a good representative for many school districts today.  Certainly there are many schools who have much more funding that is much more reliable than ours.  However, even for schools that do have larger budgets, the pricing model for Chromebooks is still difficult to defend.  Let’s take a closer look at the numbers.

Option #1 - Buy the consumer Chromebooks

Rather than committing to an annual subscription, schools may choose to buy Chromebooks through the consumer channels at a cost from $350 to $500 depending on the model.  However there are two issues to consider.

First, the consumer Chromebooks will not come with the Management Console in Google Apps.  Schools will lose all the benefits and features of managing the Chromebooks centrally, including printers, installed apps, settings, and more.

Second, a quick search at NewEgg.com will show a dozen 12 inch netbooks with similar features in that price range.  Just start up the Chrome web brower on one of these netbooks and it will be very similar to a Chromebook that does not have the Management Console.  Not only that, but the netbooks actually have more features than a Chromebook, such as the ability to install traditional software and work offline.

To be truly competitive, Chromebooks are about $100 off the price point.  At $250 to $400 a Chromebook makes an enticing option.  At $350 to $500 it begins to pale in comparison to other netbooks.

Option #2 - Subscription Plan

For those school who opt for Google’s Chromebook subscription plan, they will be paying (at least) $20 per month per device for a three-year contract.  That means $720 by the end of the contract.  And at the end of the contract the Chromebooks can no longer be managed or receive updates.

You can buy quite a lot for $720.  Earlier this year we had the fortune to use grant monies to buy desktop PC’s from Daktech.  We got top quality computers with excellent specs, Windows 7 Professional, and a seven-year warranty.  And the cost?  $620 each.  And we own them forever.  On the other hand you may not want desktops, but need the portability of a netbook.  $550 gets you a 12 inch netbook from Bytespeed with excellent specs and a three-year warranty.  That leaves you with an extra $170 to spend and a netbook that will not lose functionality at the end of three years.  In either case both companies provide lifetime tech support.

Conclusion

In conclusion I again want to stress that I believe Chromebooks will provide an excellent educational and technology experience for students (see my article on the benefits of Chromebooks).  If I could could, I would love to roll out Chromebooks to all my school buildings tomorrow.  I am also sure there are many schools in the financial position to commit to Google’s subscription plan.  I am sure they will find great success with the use of Chromebooks in their schools.

However, I fear there is a large and growing percentage (perhaps a majority) of schools who will not be able to afford or defend $720 for three years of use, even with all the benefits of a Chromebook.

So, is there a solution?  Perhaps.  First, though I must state that Google certainly does not owe schools anything.  They have already helped us in so many ways through Google Apps for Education and all the other wonderful resources they provide free of charge.  Google is a company and they have every right to charge whatever they feel is best for any and all of their products.  However, if their desire is to have Chromebooks really make a far-reaching impact in schools, I truly believe they need a different pricing model.

My suggestion would be:
  • Allow schools to buy the Chromebooks outright and include the Management Console for the life of the computer.  If possible, include the Management Console for free as is done with Google Apps.  If there must be a charge, make it much less, perhaps less than one dollar per month per device for the service.
I truly wish Google well with their Chromebook initiative.  Perhaps over time the success of Chromebooks will enable them to offer other pricing and ownership plans that address the needs of more schools.  For now I am scratching my head very hard (and trust me we educators are tenacious) to try to figure out how we can be part of this.

At the very end of Google’s “Introducing the Chromebook” video they close with the saying “Ready when you are”.  Oh, trust me we are ready.  And we are willing.  We just aren’t able.

By Eric Curts - May 15, 2011 [updated May 18, 2011]


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