Portland high schools headed toward Chromebooks

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PORTLAND — Google Chromebook computers are known for combining a traditional laptop with web-based storage, at a price below most tablets.

That’s why the Portland Public Schools is likely to outfit high school students with Chromebooks this fall. But first the cost must be included in the new fiscal year budget.

The Chromebooks would represent a one-time $895,000 cost to the School Department, versus roughly $1 million a year it would take to continue to purchase iPads or MacBooks for the city’s high-schoolers, according to Superintendent Xavier Botana.

Michael Dery, the school district’s technology services director, said“The Chromebook is optimized for a web environment, has no data storage limits and the devices are built for educational purposes,” 

In addition, he said, with Chromebooks students could have free access to the 43 million apps now available on the Android operating system.

Overall, “Google has a more academic focus and the vision is for the (Chromebooks) to be solely an educational device,” Botana added.

It’s not a done deal, but Dery said pilot testing has gone well, with students and teachers providing “very positive feedback.”

Dery purchased 80 Chromebooks for testing. Students and faculty at Portland, Deering and Casco Bay high schools have had a chance to work with the devices. So far “student feedback has been very, very positive,” he said.

The School Department has a four-year lease with Apple, which provides iPads to the city’s high school students. The lease expires this year, although Dery said even if the School Department decides not to purchase Chromebooks, “we definitely will not be buying more iPads,” because durability has been an issue with the tablets and the Chromebooks better meet the needs of students.

The whole district moved to Google Suite for Education software this past year and with Google Classroom accessibility, students can better share their work and get real time feedback from teachers, Dery said.

According to Dery, the Chromebooks would also cost the district about $210 per device, with prices still dropping, instead of the $800 to $900 the schools pay now for iPads and MacBooks.

Botana said the Chromebooks offer “lots of value overall,” including the fact there are little to no costs for upkeep. With the devices, he said, the district could cut its hardware and infrastructure support costs by about 65 percent.

The goal, according to Botana, would be to purchase the Chromebooks out of the general fund, spending about $300,000 over the next three years, which would also free up key capital funding for other needs.

“There is a trade off,” he admitted, “because each device has things it can do better. But, the up value for the Chromebook, in terms of cost, is very favorable.”

Botana also said with the Chromebooks, families would no longer be required to pay $40 a year for insurance, which helps cover the cost of repairs to the products now in use.

Botana said going with Chromebooks, which don’t require servers to support data storage, would also free up the department’s technology team from maintenance and allow a focus  instead on “tech integration and innovation.”

Before approaching Botana, and then the School Board’s finance committee this past fall, Dery said he did research “looking for (alternative) educational devices, and the Chromebook is a resounding leader. It’s really become a nationwide trend.”

Going with Chromebooks, Botana said, represents “a balancing of the (user) experience while taking the most responsible fiscal route. Unless there’s a strong rational for not doing it, (buying Chromebooks) is the direction we’re headed in.”

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KirishCollins.

The Portland School Department is likely to begin providing its high school students with Chromebooks like these this fall.