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21st Century Dumb Terminal

This week the latest edition of “Technology to Save Education” will arrive!


On Wednesday, Google plans to release something called the Chromebook and a program called Chromebook for Education (actually it’s lumped under business/education, since, as we all know, education is just another business).

As I read Google’s announcement and scanned various reactions to the Chromebook, my first impression is that this new device is not so much the next step in connected computing as it is a 70’s flashback to the time of computing through a dumb terminal.

Lear-Siegler ADM5 video display terminal

For those who were lucky enough to have been born into their computing life during the age of relatively inexpensive personal computers (my first was an Apple IIe) and missed the experience, a dumb terminal was a screen-with-keyboard unit connected to an mainframe computer in another room or another state.  All of the digital work was done by that unseen machine with the results displayed on your screen.

That’s basically how the Chromebook works. When you turn it on (very fast start up was one of the features Google is pushing hard), all you see is the browser, in which all applications are run (Google Docs word processing, for example.) All documents and information you need are also stored in the “cloud”.

For schools, another big selling point was that they wouldn’t own a Chromebook as much as subscribe to it – $20 a month for each unit on a three year contract.  No IT department needed, although, as near as I can tell, that price doesn’t include the absolutely essential connectivity, so either you either provide the wifi connections, or pay extra for a 3G contract.

So, is this the next big thing in ed tech? Can we forget netbooks, tablets, and computers running that antiquated software called an “operating system”?

Probably not.

Google says in their announcement that “With HTML5 and other open standards, web applications will soon be able to do anything traditional applications can do, and more.” but anyone who has used Google Docs and the equivalent programs on even a tablet knows that “soon” is not now.

And the final specifications for HTML5 are not even supposed to be released until 2022, so banking on that technology to replace independently configured devices and native applications is probably not a near-term solution to whatever problems Google thinks we currently have in instructional computing.

From the school’s side of things, certainly the face-value costs of using Chromebooks would be lower since the $720 price tag ($20 a month over three years) is about half what our overly-large school district pays for a standard laptop (although more than our standard netbook), and three years is the realistic life span of one in the hands of kids or teachers.  Plus Google says the fee includes all maintenance and upgrades.

And since, theoretically, everyone will be using Google Apps for their work, the experience is now standardized.  Every student would have a device that looks and acts like all the other devices in the system and there would be no concerns about lost work due to hard drive crashes or virus infestations.  Our IT department and most teachers seem to love standardization, at least when it comes to tech for student use.

Of course, at this point all I know about a Chromebook is what I’ve read on Google’s site, the reactions of others who were actually at the conference, and lots of speculation. I’m hoping to get some hands-on time with it at Google’s ISTE booth in two weeks.

However, at this point I’m wondering: is the ideal personal computer for instruction a device that is, in effect, a dumb terminal straight out of the 70’s?

Image: Lear-Sieglar ADM5 video display terminal by LevitateMe on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license.

1 Comment

  1. Dave

    Maybe ask the question the other way…what is the ideal instruction device? Since I can’t define that, I can’t really exclude dumb terminal 2011 from being a strong contender.

    I want 1:1 more than anything, but different schools and districts have different obstacles in the way of it. I can see how a Chromebook might let a few schools here and there jump into 1:1 that couldn’t have otherwise, so I’m happy to have it.

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