Andy Specht, Director of Information Technology Services at Allan Hancock College, has come forward after reading my article Why So Few Chromebooks in Higher Ed? Andy had some interesting things to say about his experience with Chromebooks in our first email exchange its establishment. These questions and answers are our effort to share Andy’s insights into Chromebooks with our broader IHE community.
Q1 What’s the story of Chromebooks and Allan Hancock College?
Before the pandemic, we had considered the idea of buying Chromebooks as a cheap way to loan computers to students or use them in class. When March 2020 rolled around and we suddenly needed to loan hundreds of computers to students, investing in Chromebooks became a necessity. Of course, Chromebooks suddenly became very popular and very difficult to obtain. We were fortunate that one of our colleagues, Santa Monica College, bought it too many Chromebooks, and they were willing to sell us a few hundred of them at cost.
The process of getting Chromebooks up and running was pleasantly simple and quick. We dusted off our old Google Admin tenant, which we used for student Google accounts many years ago, before moving to Microsoft. We connected our SSO provider to Google, registered the Chromebooks and were then able to start distribution. Students could use the Chromebooks to take Zoom courses and complete coursework. What’s remarkable is how few support requests we’ve received for Chromebooks. They either appear to be on and working fine, or they’re dead and abound with not much in between. For the past several years, our library has maintained Chromebook loans for students, and Chromebooks continue to be in high demand.
One barrier to Chromebook adoption that we recognized early on was the lack of Microsoft Office desktop apps. Although many students are familiar with browser-based apps such as Google Docs and Office Online, we offer a large 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 the applications, but these labs had very limited availability in the early days of the pandemic. Our solution was to try Azure Virtual Desktop for students. This allows students to access a full Windows desktop environment in a browser. It’s a nice solution for students who borrow a Chromebook because they can run a Windows desktop and all those Microsoft Office desktop apps in the Chrome browser.
Q2. Where do you think Google would invest to make Chromebooks more viable and desirable in our higher education context?
On the one hand, Chromebooks are still a bit ahead for higher education. Software continues to migrate to the browser and no longer lives as a desktop application. But there are still instructional materials or other software that need to be installed on a Windows or Apple desktop environment, and that’s the limitation of Chromebooks. This obstacle should decrease over time as almost every software company focuses on developing and improving browser-based software.
The biggest obstacle to wider Chromebook adoption is that many of the less expensive models just aren’t that exciting. Keyboards can be a little muddy and camera resolution isn’t great on the lower-end machines. Google has pulled out of its own production of Chromebooks, but if manufacturers improved hardware quality while maintaining low costs, that would certainly make Chromebooks more attractive.
Q3 What advice do you have for other colleges or universities considering adopting Chromebooks to close digital divides, reduce overall costs, and provide a more resilient computing infrastructure?
Try it out! 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 about 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 affordable option.