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2019 Dumb Terminal

Recently I’ve noticed that Google has been doing a lot of advertising for Chromebook. The devices themselves are made by several different companies, of course, but all of them run the Chrome operating system created and controlled by Google.

The ads make several implicit comparisons with “regular” laptops – faster startup, longer battery life, no viruses – even though Chromebook are not really computers. In fact, they have more in common with 70’s era devices known as dumb terminals.

A long, long time ago, in my first undergraduate programming class, we never got to touch the computer itself. Instead, we had to punch our program into cards, one line per card. The cards were stacked up and delivered to a window in the computer center where someone would feed them into a reader for the machine to process. Two to twelve hours later, we could pick up a printout of the results.

A few semesters later, I took a graduate-level programming class that offered special privileges. I was able to interact directly with the computer through a CRT terminal similar to the one above. It was known as a “dumb” terminal since the device had no computing power of it’s own and simply acted as an input device for the huge machine in a nearby room. But at least I didn’t have to carry around a big box of cards.

Although Chromebooks do have some processing power, their primary function is to act as a window into the web, especially Google’s online applications. Almost all the work is being done by machines located in data centers around the world. The results of all your work are also stored out there in the cloud.

We can debate the relative value of Chromebooks and whether they are good devices to be using in schools (or using at all).

But please don’t tell me that kids with those devices are using computers. And that they have exactly the same capabilities as any other laptop.

When using a Chromebook, you are sitting in front of the modern equivalent of the dumb terminal I used fifty years ago.


The picture is of a dumb terminal very similar to the ones that lined one wall in the computer center at my college. They came in a variety of forms.

The Wrong Question

You may remember back in March that Apple held one of their events. It was a little different from their usual shows since the focus was on K12 education, featuring new, cheaper iPads, their expensive pencil, and some software.

The usual tech and edtech channels showed up for the presentation, of course, but there were also reports on the regular news channels and even your local stations. Why? Well, because it’s Apple.1

Anyway, the announcements generated lots of chatter among educators I follow on social media. Discussions (arguments?) that largely swirled around the age-old question, what is the best device for education? iPads? Chromebooks? Mac? Windows? Chart paper and crayons (my personal favorite)?

However, that “best” question is totally wrong. It was wrong twenty years ago during the classic Mac vs. PC wars2. It’s wrong today when the selection of devices and software is far greater.

Take a careful look at the products being promoting at the Apple March event. Line them up with competing offerings from Google, Microsoft, and others. Zoom in really close. Notice, that there really isn’t much difference between any of them.

For one thing, most of that technology being sold as “educational” today is far more more about teaching than learning. About controlling devices and access (we can’t have students doing the “wrong” things). And mostly designed to replicate the traditional analog teacher-directed classroom on an electronic device.

Take for example, the Chromebook. It’s fans3 heap praise on the device because it’s cheap, easy to manage, light, great battery life. Did I mention it’s cheap?

All of that is true but above all teachers and IT departments love the Chromebook because it’s a hardware and software system specifically designed to lock down the machine so that students have few options other than following the path laid out by adults. Apple’s Classroom software, a centerpiece of their education event, offers to do the same thing with iPads.

In the same way, Apple’s coming-soon Schoolwork software is little more than a iPad variation of Google Classroom. Classroom, as just about anyone even near a school knows, enables teachers to “easily assign anything from worksheets to activities in educational apps, follow students’ progress, and collaborate with students in real time”.

Except that quote is from Apple’s press release describing Schoolwork. But tell me it doesn’t apply perfectly to Google’s Classroom.

The bottom line is that Classroom, Schoolwork, and whatever Microsoft calls their variation on the theme are not learning tools. They are entirely addressed at classroom management. They exist to distribute lessons and activities and collect the finished products. Lessons and activities that vary little from the paper versions assigned ten, fifteen, thirty, fifty years ago.

Devices from Apple and others didn’t change learning when we first started throwing them into school in the mid-80’s. They didn’t really change teaching either. Flash forward to 2018 and these shiny new products are also having little significant impact on teaching or learning.

And that’s because the basic structure of school hasn’t changed.

The curriculum – what students are expected to know and be able to do when they graduate – is largely the same as it was long before computers entered the picture. The pedagogy – the method and practice of teaching – has been stuck in the mode of teacher-directed information transfer even longer.

We have not re-thought the process known as “school” to take full advantage of the powerful technology teachers and students now have in their hands. Instead we bring in devices and software to “digitize” the familiar and comfortable.

All of which means we are asking the wrong question. Instead of debating the “best” device or class management system, we need to first look at the larger issues of what school should be. At how technology can help students gain an authentic understanding of both themselves and their world.

Next question.


The image is about eight years old but look around. It won’t be hard to find a classroom with lots of laptops (or Chromebooks) and kids working in Google Classroom. 

1. The company still retains some of that Reality Distortion Field, leftover as part of the Steve Jobs legacy. Regardless of the topic, Apple has always done an astounding job of turning their marketing announcements into national news.

2. Spoiler alert: the Mac “lost”. Of course, Apple then went on to become one of the most profitable companies that has ever existed. And the technology that “won” the wars completely failed to “revolutionize” schools. But the Mac likely wouldn’t have done that either.

3. I’ll probably get a lot of hate tweets for this, but in my experience, Chromebook fans are almost as fanatical as those accused of being Apple fan boys.

Keeping IT Happy

In a story about Microsoft’s education event this week, Wired made one good point about instructional technology. That had absolutely nothing to do with instruction.

The article’s focus was on the new, simpler version of Windows, called 10 S, that the writer says is aimed at competing with Google’s Chrome OS.

Chromebooks have been so successful because they’re hard to hack and easy for IT people to deal with; Windows 10 S appears to at least try doing the same.

picture of a laptop with chain and padlockAnd that sentence offers one primary reason why technology in the classroom is so screwed up: many, if not most, schools and districts make purchasing decisions based on what will make IT happy.

IT wants devices that make their jobs easier, something that is easy to clone, lock down, and control. From a central, remote location, please. The needs and wants of teachers are secondary. And students? Well, we rarely ask them about anything to do with what goes into their education anyway, so their opinion doesn’t count.

Certainly there is a place in schools for Chromebooks and whatever Windows 10 S turns out to be.1 But I strongly disagree that this computing-lite approach is “great news for students”.

Windows 10 S and Chromebooks simply represent one more way to standardize and maintain control over the learning process, while appearing to be forward looking.

Spray and Pray Technology

The cover story of today’s Washington Post magazine, one of their two or three times a year “education editions”, asks Do kids learn more when they trade in composition books for iPads?.

Of course, the writer doesn’t really address that question since this is more of a big picture story about the one-to-one programs of two local districts and about how a few teachers are using devices in their instruction.

But the article does manage to highlight several major problems that have come with adding technology to the “normal” classroom. First, is the fact that there is little research showing that computers improved student learning.

Research on technology’s impact on K-12 achievement is limited and mixed, partly because it’s difficult to isolate the role of technology from other things that occur in a classroom, says Elliot Soloway, a University of Michigan professor who studies technology use in schools.

Darryl Joyner, who helps lead Arlington’s technology initiative, says while there’s no “direct line” between test scores and digital devices or any other tool, research shows engagement is linked to performance.

So, like Mr. Joyner, many tech advocates look past the lack of evidence, that direct line, and go with the anecdotal observation that students are “excited to learn” to justify buying all the devices.

Or you have the “preparing students for the tech world” argument.

“These kids are going to leave school and enter a world where technology is ubiquitous,” says Cathy Stocker, a PTA leader in Bethesda. “Their ability to access that technology in school gets them ready for that world. I understand there needs to be balance. But to me the Chromebook is a powerful tool.”

Except most kids already live in that “world where technology is ubiquitous”. We just do very little to help teachers adjust their classroom practice to incorporate that world and to make good use of the power that comes from the devices and network connections.

“It’s a major movement,” says Ann Flynn, director of education technology for the National School Boards Association. What’s important, she and others say, is to adjust teaching methods to make learning deeper and more engaging. “If all you’re doing is automating the old practices … you didn’t change anything,” Flynn says.

Too many school systems buy big before thinking through how devices can be used to improve teaching and learning, says Leslie Wilson, chief executive of the One-to-One Institute, a nonprofit organization that helps implement tech programs. Her organization urges schools to avoid “the spray and pray approach,” and to emphasize learning rather than devices, Wilson says.

The lesson activity examples described in this article reflect that automating old practices. They are little different from those that teachers were using twenty years ago and really don’t require technology. Substituting Google for the reference section of the library and doing poster projects on iPads instead of chart paper does not justify giving a computer to every student.

However, the biggest problem with this article is that it ignores the fact that districts in the DC area (including Fairfax County, the largest and my former employer) have been using the “spray and pray approach” for decades. Spending lots of money on new devices, software, and websites while changing little or nothing about what and how students learn.

Replacing standard desktop and laptop machines with Chromebooks and iPads is no different.

It’s All About the Kids

According to lots of recent stories and year-end reviews, Chromebooks are outselling everything edtech related from Apple and Microsoft in American schools.

So, are Chromebooks popular because they are superior to iPads as instructional tools? Because they offer students more learning tools than the Surface? Because they provide better creative opportunities than Windows or Mac laptops?

Of course not.

School districts covering 4 million students in 36 states were required to implement Common Core online testing in 2014, and for many districts, Chromebooks were able to do the job at the right price. The two main organizations that manage online testing in the United States, PARCC and SBAC, both require testing devices to have a keyboard. “While Apple devices can be used with Bluetooth keyboards, online testing requirements have favored Chromebooks,” Futuresource analyst Mike Fisher told Fortune.

$200 devices that can be used for standardized testing. That restrict students from doing anything that doesn’t come through a browser. Devices that are easy for the adults to manage. What’s not to like?

Yep, schools are buying boatloads of Chromebooks because they’re good for the kids.

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