Port Macquarie school deploys Chromebooks

St Columba Anglican School's IT manager, Matt Richards, on being on the cutting edge of cloud and BYOD in education

Samsung's Chromebook.

Samsung's Chromebook.

St Columba Anglican School (SCAS) in Port Macquarie, NSW, will this week become one of the first schools in Australia to roll out laptops purpose-built for Google's Chrome OS.

Matt Richards, e-learning leader at SCAS, said that the school has purchased 60 Samsung Chromebooks. Google announced the Australian availability of Chromebooks last month, with Samsung and Acer offering the initial models, and an HP Chromebook to launch later this year.

Chrome OS is a 'cloud-based' operating system: instead of relying on local applications, most functions are delivered by Google's suite of software-as-a-service products and rely on the Chromium browser.

SCAS, which has around 1000 students from kindergarten to year 12, already relies heavily on Google Apps. The school started its cloud transition last year, when it adopted Google Apps for Education.

The new Chromebooks will be used by students from kindergarten to year 5 and will be divided into two class sets and made available to teachers. "We're going to put the two sets in mobile trolleys that can be wheeled round to the primary classes," Richards said.

The Samsung Chromebooks will wipe students' Google Account details when they shutdown, which makes it easy to share the notebooks between different classes.

"So if a Grade 3 teacher comes and borrows the trolley with 28 Chromebooks, their kids will log on, do their work, [then as] soon as they log off, it just wipes it. So for the next class, it's a fresh machine," Richards said.

Richards said the school has also been using some aging Dell laptops which were wiped and had Chromium OS — the open source version of Chrome OS — installed on them.

"[The laptops] were getting a bit sluggish, so we actually installed Chromium on those; we kind of made our own 'Frankenmachines' and they've been going really well," Richards said.

Beyond Grade 5, the school largely uses a 'bring-your-own device' (BYOD) scheme — or as Richards prefers to term it "BYOT" (bring-your-own-technology). Beyond certain restrictions — devices need to have at least a 7-inch screen and be capable of holding a charge for a day — students and staff are free to use any computing device.

The most common devices are Apple MacBook Air and Pro notebooks, iPad and iPad Mini tablets, and Nexus 7, Nexus 10 and Galaxy Android tablets, but there are also devices running Windows 8 and Windows 8 RT.

The Dell 'Frankenmachine' laptops are often used by students who forget to bring their computing device or need a laptop-style device instead of a tablet. "They will come to 'The Hub'" — the schools combination of library, technology resource centre and multimedia studio — "and borrow a device for a day."

The school has around 100 teachers, who are also part of the 'BYOT' policy. This has led to some issues with the school's Windows-based reporting and administration system, SchoolPRO, because most of the teachers use Macs.

"It doesn't play very well with the Macs and in the past teachers, when it came to academic reporting period, which is twice a year, they'd use remote desktop or they'd have to use a local machine," Richards said.

To make it easier for teachers, the school has been deploying Parallels Desktop for Mac Enterprise Edition virtualisation software. The IT department can install the software and a Windows image on the notebooks, allowing the teachers to use their own machines for reporting.

The software is also used when teaching students how to use Windows applications. Parallels is also available to students if they need it.

The shift to BYOT has saved the school money in the long run, Richards said, although it required significant investment in its network infrastructure.

"When I came here [at the start of 2012] they were lacking a lot of technological infrastructure; they didn't have real internet. I wrangled a 100Mbps fibre connection up and down, which is kind of unheard of for Port Macquarie.

"We completely redid our wireless infrastructure with Aerohive, so we got a really good network infrastructure in place and then we rolled out the cloud migration and BYOT."

The shift to BYOT wasn't about money though, he adds. "BYOT supports personalisation — using the devices anywhere you want to be — it just makes more sense and it's mirroring what's happening in the real world, in the workplace.

"Most of these students won't be going into an environment where they'll be provided devices in five or 10 years' time. They're going to be going into a workplace with BYOT, so... as educators we need to prepare them for that."

BYOT requires a different approach on the part of IT managers, Richards said.

"I think the biggest change is letting go of this control paradigm. It's inevitable: the Internet is here to stay, personal connections, through 3G or 4G are here to stay, so the ship has sailed. What we need to do is help students to become responsible citizens in their own right."

The school runs a digital citizenship program for its students to teach them about responsible use of connected devices. It runs from kindergarten to Year 12 and students are taught about issues such as privacy and security. "I think that's a better way [than lockdown] of approaching this issue," Richards said.

"You can't just lock it down any more; or you can to a certain extent — we use OpenDNS Web filtering and we've got a few other ways that we filter our network. Our policies say, 'Look we'd like you to use our network please while you're at school' but enforcing that is a challenge. And when the kids go home, they're on their own networks.

"It's in our duty of care to help them become responsible users of the Net and [teach them] how to navigate, how to discern reputable sources of truth, and how to protect themselves from risks. That's kind of the attitude we've taken with this."

Richards also provides support to teachers who are less tech savvy. "So an example of the training we do, I run 'techie brekkies' every Tuesday morning. We get a regular turnout from 8:00am to 8:45am on Tuesday, and we've had a grassroots movement from that.

"So there have been change agents in every sort of department or area of the school that have led this process. And so far — touch wood — it seems to be working."

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