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The Case for Chrome in Schools: Budgets and Tech Support

Here’s something you might not know: I used to be a school tech guy (check out the first bit of advice posted here). For five years I was a classroom teacher, showing the fine youth of our country how to make crazy things with computers. For some of that time I was officially my school’s tech support monkey, and for some of it I wasn’t, but when you’re the “Computer Teacher” people come knocking on your door for help with printer drivers and networking problems whether they’re supposed to or not. It’s kind of like being the geek in your family: People hear you’re “good with computers” and suddenly you’re the guy who can “fix anything even vaguely electronic.”

Here’s something else you might not know: Tech support in schools is a big headache. And it’s often a pricey headache at that. Of my five years in the classroom, four were spent in Mac schools and one in a PC environment. One of the Mac schools ran its own tech support quite well, but this was a very well-funded place with resources to spare both human and financial. And this was way back before every machine in the building was connected to the Web; our teaching labs had no Internet access, in fact. The other two schools spent all kinds of time and money on IT support. Fixing stuff was often the bane of my workplace existence; 13-year-olds with attitude I learned to deal with, but PC malware and OS X networking problems got the better of me every time.

The PC school was a public charter school in New York City’s East Harlem neighborhood, and our IT needs were met by a combination of E-Rate federal funding and a laptop cart obtained entirely through a grant. Said cart came with no tech support. For the first three months of the school year, I was tech support. Malware abounded on those laptops. Then the E-Rate consultants took over and things were somewhat better. But man, did they ever spend a lot of taxpayer money to keep those free Toshibas humming.

So, the idea of a virus-free, operating system-free, networking-free, fully tech supported, subscription-based computer holds a lot of appeal to the educator-slash-school IT guy who still lives on somewhere in my heart. Google’s freshly minted Chromebooks are all that and an apple for the teacher if you believe Wednesday’s I/O Keynote Address. $20/month per user gets a school a foolproof laptop ready to hit the Web running, with tech support included and fears of viruses removed from the equation. A 3G-enabled Chromebook with 100MB of monthly data will run roughly three dollars extra per machine per month.

To get the deal, schools must sign up for at least 10 Chromebooks and also agree to a three-year contract with no early out clause. Want out of the deal early? Fine, just pay out the remainder of your three-year agreement in full. $20 x 36 months = $720 per machine, which is a lot for something consumers can get for $349/429 up front (for the Acer Chromebook or Samsung Series 5, respectively). But Education users get two big bonuses for signing a thirty-six month lease, bonuses that might just make renting Chromebooks a big hit in K-12 circles.

First off, tech support is included. For a school operating on a shoestring budget with E-Rate money to spend on tech, but not enough knowledgable bodies in the building to troubleshoot a Windows network, that’s huge. Google’s tech support track record ain’t exactly spotless (Nexus One, anybody?) but I’ve got to give them the benefit of the doubt here: They’re going big with this whole monthly rental program for Biz and Edu, so they must have a solid plan for support. Right? Let’s assume they do. Suddenly that extra $300 per machine doesn’t seem so bad – just compare it to a few grand up front and a few hundred more per hour in regular, ongoing IT consulting.

Second, as anyone who’s ever bought an “on contract” cell phone can attest to, there are all sorts of reasons to pay more over time for something instead of shelling out less but having to do it all at once. $99 “on contract” phones sell in far greater numbers than $499 “contract free” phones on the consumer level, for many reasons including the lessened blow to the wallet at the time of sale. School IT managers often have very tight budgets and – for better or worse – can only justify asking for budget increases if they’ve spent every penny made available to them the previous year.

Stretching the costs of a massive tech purchase out over years instead of days is the kind of thing budget-savvy school managers will likely take note of. One hundred Acer Wi-Fi Chromebooks paid in full would run a one-time $35,000 tab. Those same hundred machines purchased via Google’s subscription model for Education would cost $2,000 monthly, adding up to $72,000 over three years. On the one hand, that’s over twice the cost (but as discussed, tech support is included). On the other hand, a regular $2k line item can look far more attractive in a budget than a one time hit of almost twenty times that size.

It’s been awhile since I’ve worked in a school IT department or consulted to them (yeah, I did that for a few years, too). So I should step away from the hypotheticals and turn it over to the educators and budget-minders in the audience. But before I do, I’ll leave you with this thought: Macs are awesome in schools for a number of reasons. Educators and students alike tend to love working with the included iLife suite and while OS X isn’t bulletproof, it is far less susceptible to malware and viruses than any flavor of Windows. Entry-level Windows machines can be had for a fraction of what entry-level Macs cost, however, and there’s a huge industry built around Windows tech support funded by E-Rate monies. Plus, there’s a ton of great software available for Windows machines (obviously). Google seems to be aiming for a sweet spot in between Apple’s expensive ease-of-use and Windows’ low cost/high maintenance realities when it comes to Chromebooks in education. If they can sweet talk some developers into making some teacher-friendly apps and make good on their own promise of a virus-free, fully-supported $20/month laptop, they just might hit the mark.

Any educators or school/business IT managers out there in the crowd? I’d love to hear from you on the possibilities of Chromebooks in your environment.


Noah Kravitz

Noah Kravitz mourned the day that Star Castle was replaced in the pizza parlour he frequented as a kid. The sadness ended when he saw an older kid...

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