Wednesday, December 11, 2013


By Rob Kuznia, LA Daily News |

Courtney Hengl-Crowson, left, uses a Chromebook for a class project. 5th graders in Jeff Jennewein's class at Victor Elementary School are now using Google Chromebooks to do homework and class projects. Dec 5, 2013. Brad Graverson - Staff photographer

Nadia Goiset did her class research from a couch at Victor Elementary School in Torrance. Brad Graverson — Staff photographer

Posted: 12/10/13, 4:22 PM PST | Updated: 12/11/13  5am  ::  Los Angeles Unified and other school districts have stirred admiration and consternation with plans to put iPads in the hands of students, some South Bay schools are favoring a less expensive option: the Google Chromebook.

Both the Torrance and Redondo Beach school districts have either purchased or recommended the devices, which resemble mini laptops. Known as thin clients, the Chromebooks essentially operate in the cloud, meaning that virtually all of their functions - such as word processing, emailing, Web browsing, photography and spreadsheet creation - are accessed via the Internet, precluding the need for a large hard drive or powerful processor.

Torrance Unified has ordered 3,200 of the devices - one for every seven students in the district - which should arrive in February.

The Redondo Beach school board will vote tonight on a technology plan that, if approved, would call for ordering 1,200 Chromebooks. Approval could lead to procuring thousands more, so the majority of the district's 9,200 students would have a Chromebook that they can take home.

Derek Kinsey, chief technology officer at Redondo Unified, said more and more districts seem to be favoring the Google machines over other options.

"I was at a tech conference two weeks ago, and it was the talk of the town," he said. "Everybody was pretty much planning to go the Chromebook route."

The heightened interest in the Chromebooks comes at a time when districts like LAUSD and Manhattan Beach Unified have drawn both praise and scrutiny for ambitious technology plans that aim to put an iPad in the hands of every student.

LAUSD's program hit an embarrassing snag in September, when students figured out how to hack through the security so they could surf the Web. The iPad plan suffered another PR blow that same month, when it came to light that LAUSD would need to purchase keyboards for every device to allow students to take standardized tests.

Despite these setbacks, Michael Matthews, superintendent of the Manhattan Beach Unified School District, believes the iPad is still the way to go, though he acknowledged that other technologies are catching up.

"If we are teaching our students to create, collaborate, communicate and think critically, I believe the iPad is still the best learning tool out here," he said in an email. "But the playing field is leveling. It is also clear that there are now many viable options out there that are lower in price."

As for the Chromebooks, educators from both Torrance Unified and Redondo Unified say cost factored heavily into why they gravitated toward them. At roughly $280 a unit, Chromebooks sell for less than half the price of an iPad, whose per-unit cost at LAUSD reportedly runs as high as $770.

Some schools in Torrance Unified do have iPads, but those have been purchased by the school sites themselves, often with money from grants.

The current technology frenzy in the school world is largely the product of an approaching sea change for standardized testing. Called Smarter Balance, the new end-of-year testing protocol will require students to take the exams this spring (on a trial basis) via computer instead of the traditional pencil-in-the-bubble method. The requirement, part of the massive roll-out of the Common Core standards, has districts across the state scrambling to purchase the technology necessary to support so many users logging onto a secure system at once.

When it comes to testing, all devices - Chromebooks, iPads and other laptops - will use a special browser that essentially locks down the computer. This will prohibit students from using tools that would enable them to cheat by looking up answers on Google, or taking screen shots of test questions, said Brandt Redd, the chief technology officer for Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium.

School districts also are allowing students to use the devices in class or even at home. It was this category of use that got LAUSD into trouble back in September. Students discovered they could circumvent the security system preventing them from using programs for music, social media and other purposes if they deleted their personal profile information.

(Deciding which websites to block is a local school district decision. Redondo Beach Unified, for instance, allows students to access Facebook, but not Tumblr or Snapchat, Kinsey said.)

In Manhattan Beach, the cost of the iPads has been a point of contention between the administration and teachers union. Accusing the district of being less than forthcoming about the true cost of the iPad program and other expenses, the teachers filed an unfair labor practice charge with the state's labor board, which, in October, seemed to vindicate the teachers by filing a complaint against the district. The two sides will try to resolve the dispute at a mediation meeting scheduled for Friday.

In Torrance, the Chromebooks are being leased, not purchased.

This gives the district better flexibility to replace the machines when they become outdated several years from now, said Don Stabler, the district's deputy superintendent of administrative services.

Last month, the Torrance school board authorized a $1.1 million expenditure to lease the 3,200 machines, which will arrive in a few months.

Jeff Jennewein, a fifth-grade teacher at Victor Elementary in Torrance, has been a proponent of the Chromebook since before it was cool. A year ago, he submitted a local grant to ExxonMobil for Chromebooks, but it was passed up in favor of another local teacher who wrote a proposal seeking iPads.

In any event, Jennewein doesn't have any particular beef with iPads, or LAUSD's iPad program.

In fact, he applauds the district for taking the lead.

Jennewein said he subscribes to education guru Sugata Mitra's belief that, to some extent anyway, children will teach themselves when equipped with technology tools. Mitra put computer kiosks in impoverished areas of India for children, who in turn used the kiosks to teach themselves. He later won a $1 million TED prize.

"I admire the superintendent (John Deasy of LAUSD) for what he did," Jennewein said. "I think the superintendent was following that belief that if he could allow a lot of these kids to get access to technology, they would develop that drive and determination to figure out how these things work."

Rob Kuznia

Rob Kuznia covers education for the Daily Breeze.

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