Let Kids Keep Their Chromebooks | Opinion

A district chief technology officer makes the case for giving students their Chromebooks permanently, saying it is not only a move toward more equitable education and but also better for a school's edtech department and budget, too.

Photo of a Chromebook on a table at a student's home.

For the past eight years—as part of the technology department through multiple school districts, across multiple platforms, with peers, contemporaries, administrators, and school board members—I have repeatedly had the same argument about the life cycle of technology.

Schools have a problem. Technology is no longer a component of education in an isolated segment of knowledge one must acquire. It is the medium in which all education takes place. Every pedagogical structure is built on an
assumption that technology is pervasive, abundant, and integral enough to the point that it’s no longer even mentioned.

So, of the many divides that create immeasurable degrees of disparity in education, it is no surprise that the Technology Income Gap stands out like a behemoth. Children with greater access to technology succeeded over children without access.

Things have changed within the last decade, however. I’m not going to try to sound like I’m not promoting one company over others. Google dominates the educational market. It has released low- or no-cost communications and publishing suites with integrated online storage, a host of account-based platforms, a learning management system that was polished ahead of its contemporaries, an amazingly simple administrative platform that allowed even non-techs to manage operations, and, finally, a low-cost, portable, internet-connected, fully managed device that binds many of these technologies together.

Google changed the game, and other companies are in a constant state of catch-up.

When you have a widely accessible, low-cost device and pervasive demand for technology, the problem should be solved, right? But that is where the eight years of arguments begin.

My solution is simple: Give students Chromebooks, and let them keep them.

For years, technology administrators in education have battled with a multitude of distribution methods to varying degrees of failure and success. Bring Your Own Device had promise, until anyone tried to coordinate a shared experience with a host of disparate ­devices. Filling out carts work, but it has limitations as well. One-to-one moved from the outlier to the standard, but COVID really drove home to many how fragile the technology structure really was. It showed us how prepared we truly were, and how far we had yet to go.

For the technicians, while repair and management became easier, the scale of devices we supported grew exponentially. Stockpiles build up, inventory becomes a mess, and our budgets continue to get chewed away while the budget caps never seems to go up. We are expected to do more with less, and for all the praise I earlier heaped on Chromebooks, there is one thing that can be said that holds true about them: They’re not built to last in school ­settings.

It is with all this in mind that eight years ago, I began my tirade. Again, the idea was simple: If we give kids Chromebooks, they could use them for four years, and at the end of that term (which often coincided with graduation), they would keep them.

No takebacks. No cycling to other grade levels. No summer collection and fall distribution. I thought it was an elegant solution to a growing problem. I soon came to learn many people did not, in fact, like my idea.

“You’re just giving it away?” they’d say, along with:

“You’re throwing away money!”

“Why not sell it off if it’s junk and use the money to buy more ­Chromebooks?”

“You can’t do that, it’s school ­property.”

“You’re burning the taxpayers’ ­ ­dollars.”

“You’re buying every kid a Chromebook, why not buy them a car? Where does it end?”

Every time, I had the same response: If I discovered that buying every kid a car was more cost-effective, efficient, and overall effective in improving their educational experience over busing them, I would do it. I would buy each of them a car. But we live in a world where context actually matters.

So, let’s look at the facts. A Chromebook should be replaced every four years because as they age, the repair time increases while the value decreases. At that point you are paying more to keep them than you are to give them away. Replacing a Chromebook every four years ensures that devices are always functional. It ensures that they meet state testing guidelines, that students can use the newest educational apps, and it reduces the drag time that older technology has on the educational process itself.

But there is one erroneous assumption that even contemporaries in educational technology often make. While an older Chromebook may not work for an institution, it actually has a substantially longer life when personally managed and owned.

Individual vs. institutional

Chromebook management costs are specific to institutions and the management of devices at scale. While a four-year-old device that has passed through multiple hands may become a burden to technology departments dealing with thousands of devices, at a personal level, a four-year-old Chromebook becomes far more manageable. You simply can’t compare the management of a few technicians handling many devices to a single user managing their single personal device.

If the device is purchased fairly close to its release, the window for ­Automatic Update Expiration from Google typically runs several years past that date, ­allowing the students to have a supported device for years to come. Even after the automatic updates end, manual updates can be performed at a much more manageable standpoint by individual ownership.

From a hardware perspective, the devices owned by students from their initial purchase are likely to be better cared for than a standard shared device, but, even so, costs become substantially more tolerable.

In education, you strive for uniformity to ensure an equal learning environment. So if a trackpad were to fail (one of the more typical breaks that occur in Chromebooks over time), you would be more inclined to repair it at a premium cost of parts and time. A user managing their own device could ­simply add a mouse.

The same holds true for other components that can fail over time, including keyboards, battery life, and screen. Most of these components can be replaced by low-cost alternatives that, at their worst, sacrifice mobility. These devices provide vital connectivity at low to no cost for several years, which could mean the difference between ­being able to continue studies, fill out job forms, or even work from home, for a family that needs it.

But hey, all that’s only financial. There is a much more important ­consideration.

When you provide a student with a Chromebook, give them with the tools to care for it and the instruction to succeed with it, you change outcomes. Students see when they are handed a device that has cycled back into a different population of students. They see the product they’ve been given and the state it is in, and the disregard they have for the device becomes apparent. With disregard comes the three other horsemen of the technology apocalypse: negligence, inattentiveness, and malicious destruction.

When the Chromebook belongs to them, they care. That doesn’t just show in the care they take for it, it shows in the pride they experience of being ­endowed with responsibility.

Investment for success

Letting students keep the Chromebooks is an investment in kids. Not just by giving them a device, but ensuring they have an equal chance to succeed. It shows that you’re willing to commit to a community. It is a direct form of providing substantial change. And what’s more, you give them the tools they need to succeed and learn everywhere, all of the time. You bring the classroom out of the school building, so that learning doesn’t have to stop.

Look, from an ecological perspective I am not thrilled with the concept of technology being as short-lived as it is, and there are definitely ways to mitigate refuse and promote sustainable recycling practices, even when the Chromebooks leave your hands. But we must face the fact that technology is both absolutely necessary and, now, consumable—and it must be treated as such. Anything less is robbing kids of equity by allowing financial access to be the primary factor to their success and education.

Invest in kids. What is there to not understand about that? People seem stuck on the idea that direct investment in children is wasteful. That’s absurd.

This entire system of public education, from the buildings to the faculty to the support staff … each dry erase board, bus, book, and every single piece of paper, is an investment in children. At some point we realized that our collective investment produced an even greater outcome. The sum has always been greater than its parts.

This is certainly not a cure-all to the many challenges in public education. It’s a drop in the sea. But those drops become the rainfall that churns into the storm of necessary change.

Abraham Elder is chief technology ­officer for Rockaway Township (NJ) School District.

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