Andy Specht, the director of information technology services at Allan Hancock College, reached out after reading my piece “Why So Few Chromebooks in Higher Ed?” Andy had some interesting things to say in our initial email exchange regarding his experience with Chromebooks at his institution. This Q&A is our effort to bring Andy’s Chromebook insights to our broader Inside Higher Ed community.
Q: What is the story of Chromebooks and Allan Hancock College?
A: Prior to the pandemic, we had been kicking around the idea of purchasing Chromebooks, as a low-cost way to loan computers to students or to use in the classroom. Once March 2020 hit, and we suddenly had a need to loan hundreds of computers to students, investing in Chromebooks became a necessity. Of course, Chromebooks also suddenly became a hot commodity and were very difficult to source. We were fortunate that one of our peers, Santa Monica College, had purchased too many Chromebooks, and they were willing to sell a few hundred of them to us at cost.
The process to get Chromebooks up and running was pleasantly easy and fast. We dusted off our old Google Admin tenant that we had used many years ago for student Google accounts before switching to Microsoft. We connected our SSO provider to Google, enrolled the Chromebooks, and then we were ready to start handing them out. Students were able to use the Chromebooks for joining classes on Zoom and completing coursework. One thing that is notable is how few support requests we received for Chromebooks. They seem to either power on and work fine or they’re dead and off to surplus, without much in between. Over the last couple years, our library has maintained Chromebook lending for students, and Chromebooks continue to be in high demand.
One roadblock to Chromebook adoption that we recognized early on was the lack of Microsoft Office desktop applications. Although many students are familiar with browser-based apps like Google Docs and Office Online, we have a good number of computer technology courses that specifically teach students how to use Microsoft Office desktop products like Excel, Access and Publisher. Typically these students would use our on-campus computer labs for the applications, but those 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 is a nice solution for students borrowing a Chromebook, since they can run a Windows desktop and all of those Microsoft Office desktop applications from within the Chrome browser.
Q: Where would you like to see Google make investments so that Chromebooks could be more viable and desirable in our higher ed context?
A: On the one hand, Chromebooks are still somewhat ahead of the curve for higher education. Software is continuing to move into the browser and not live as a desktop application. But there are still instructional materials or other software that require installation onto a Windows or Apple desktop environment, and that’s the limitation of Chromebooks. This obstacle should diminish over time, since almost every software company is focusing on building and improving browser-based software.
The biggest obstacle for wider Chromebook adoption is that many of the less expensive models just aren’t that exciting. The keyboards can be a bit mushy and the camera resolution isn’t great on the lower-end machines. Google has stepped back from producing Chromebooks themselves, but if the manufacturers bumped up the hardware quality while maintaining a low cost, that would certainly make Chromebooks more appealing.
Q: What advice do you have for other colleges or universities that are considering introducing Chromebooks in order to close digital divides, lower total costs and provide a more resilient computing infrastructure?
A: Just try it out! It is a small investment to buy a few Chromebooks and management licenses, and you can get them configured and working pretty quickly. At the same time, it is important to set expectations about how the Chromebooks will be used; recognize that they won’t fit the needs of all of your students, but Chromebooks likely can find a place at your school where they are a useful and cost-effective option.