Andy Specht, Director of Information Technology Services at Allan Hancock College, contacted me after reading my article Why So Few Chromebooks in Higher Education? Andy had some interesting things to say during our first email exchange about his experience with Chromebooks at his establishment. This Q&A session is our effort to bring Andy’s Chromebook information to our wider IHE community.
Q1. What is the history of Chromebooks and Allan Hancock College?
Before the pandemic, we had floated the idea of buying Chromebooks as an inexpensive way to loan computers to students or use them in the classroom. Once March 2020 rolled around, and we suddenly needed to loan out hundreds of computers to students, investing in Chromebooks became a necessity. Of course, Chromebooks also suddenly became a hot commodity and were very hard to find. We were fortunate that one of our peers, Santa Monica College, purchased too Chromebooks, and they were willing to sell us a few hundred at cost.
The process of getting the Chromebooks up and running was pleasantly quick and easy. We dusted off our old Google Admin tenant that we used many years ago for student Google accounts, before moving to Microsoft. We connected our SSO provider to Google, registered the Chromebooks, and then we were ready to start distributing them. Students were able to use the Chromebooks to join classes on Zoom and take classes. One notable thing is how few support requests we have received for Chromebooks. They either seem to turn on and work fine, or they’re dead and surplus, with not much in between. For the past two years, our library has maintained the loan of Chromebooks for students, and Chromebooks continue to be in high demand.
One of the barriers to Chromebook adoption that we recognized early on was the lack of Microsoft Office desktop apps. Although many students are familiar with browser-based applications such as Google Docs and Office Online, we offer a number of computer technology courses that specifically teach students how to use Microsoft Office desktop products such as Excel, Access and Publisher. Typically, these students used our on-campus computer labs for applications, but these labs had very limited availability during the early days of the pandemic. Our solution was to pilot Azure Virtual Desktop for students. This allows students to access a full Windows desktop environment in a browser. It’s a good solution for students who borrow a Chromebook because they can run a Windows desktop and all those Microsoft Office desktop apps from the Chrome browser.
Q2. Where would you like Google to invest to make Chromebooks more viable and desirable in our higher education context?
For one thing, Chromebooks are still a bit ahead of the higher education curve. The software continues to move in the browser and not live as a desktop application. But there are still learning materials or other software that require installation on a Windows or Apple desktop environment, and that’s the limitation of Chromebooks. This hurdle should decrease over time, since almost all software companies focus on building and improving browser-based software.
The biggest hurdle to wider Chromebook adoption is that many of the cheaper models just aren’t that exciting. Keyboards can be a bit mushy, and camera resolution isn’t great on lower-end machines. Google has given up on producing Chromebooks itself, but if manufacturers increased the quality of hardware while keeping the cost low, it would certainly make Chromebooks more attractive.
Q3. What advice would you give to other colleges or universities considering introducing Chromebooks to reduce digital divides, reduce total costs, and provide a more resilient IT infrastructure?
Try it! It’s a small investment to buy a few Chromebooks and management licenses, and you can get them up and running fairly quickly. At the same time, it’s important to set expectations for how Chromebooks will be used; recognize that they won’t meet the needs of all your students, but Chromebooks can probably find a place in your school where they’re a useful and cost-effective option.