Category: Chromebook


In the last few years, we’ve visited flagship Maker Faires in San Mateo, California and New York City where we got to hang out with over 100,000 kindred spirits for whom tinkering is a critical component of life.  While formal Maker Faires are a fairly recent phenomenon, the educational application of “making” dates back to the dawn of the previous century when John Dewey said that what a child knew was not as important as what he did with what he knew.  This perspective from the Father of Progressive Education remained central to the thinking of educational leaders like MIT Professor Seymour Papert who, in the early 1990’s, coined the word “constructionism” to describe the process of building representations of knowledge separate from the learner himself. (Papert, Seymour, and Harel, Idit. “Situating constructionism.” Constructionism 36 (1991): 1-11.)

Even libraries have joined the movement with public “makerspaces” being added to facilities previously dedicated to quiet, paper-based, research.  As Erica Compton from the Idaho Commission for Libraries has said, “Libraries need to become more like kitchens and less like grocery stores ― a place where patrons are able to construct knowledge, where they can create, build, make and be actively engaged.”

One would think that a recent surge in constructionist activities has taken the world by storm, perhaps at the expense of reflective thought or of activities of value, even if they don’t result in artifacts.  Well, as far as traditional schooling goes, the progressivist philosophy of Dewey has yet to become the norm.  To be fair, every school has students engaged in making things.  Whether it is a science fair project displayed on a tri-fold board, or more complex constructions, every teacher engages students in some sort of project that requires “making.”   But it is the rare school that embraces the “making” philosophy across the curriculum.

As a product of a progressive public high school in Chicago, my life was pretty equally split between hand-based and head-based learning.  And, it was the work we did with our hands that made what we learned with our heads “stick” and make sense.  As a result, my first year in Engineering at Northwestern University was basically a walk in the park.

While any subject at any grade can benefit from a rich “making” component, the STEM fields are clearly low hanging fruit in this regard.  There are two reasons for this:  First, the scientific method is based on the testing of conjectures through experimentation and our curricular interest in technology and “coding” (programming) feeds into “making” as well.  Second, the Next Generation Science Standards and (to a lesser extent) the Common Core State Standards in Mathematics mandate the use of inquiry and project-based learning as the vehicles through which these subjects are navigated.

And, yet, in too many schools the ground in which these forces are planted lies fallow.  The time has come to change this, and the tools needed are inexpensive and easy to get.  We’ll describe some of these tools, but first there is another topic to explore: the physical structure of school.  According to the architect Prakash Nair, too many schools are built around “bells and cells.”  Children move from place to place at fixed intervals and (especially in the upper grades) sit in rooms at desks all facing the front so they can harvest the wisdom imparted from their teacher.  It is a rare school that allows the free flow of students from place to place and lets them work on projects as long as they need to.

While the incorporation of makerspaces in traditional schools is possible, there is a long way to go if the goal is deep pedagogical change.  In some cases, schools have a STEM lab where groups of kids work on a variety of projects with the freedom to move from place to place as needed.  Except for the burden of bells, such environments can be quite productive ― functioning more like studios than classrooms.  For many, this is a great first step, but it carries the risk that it will be isolated in fear that the practices there would infect other rooms.  As Professor Papert asked on numerous occasions, “What would be the impact of the pencil on education if you had to go to the pencil lab to use one?”

On the classroom computer front, it might appear ― at first glance ― that recent trends are moving us further away from supporting a culture of making.  The reason I say this is because Chromebooks are now the number-one computing platform in America’s schools.  Since Chromebooks rely on cloud-based applications, traditional software is no longer supported, leaving users at the mercy of those developers willing and eager to create applications that can be run over the Internet.  Also, it was not clear at the start how Chromebooks would accommodate maker hardware like 3D printers, and robotics control devices like the popular Arduino board.

Screen Shot 2016-04-13 at 2.28.56 PMIt turns out these fears are unfounded.  In the domain of student programming, for example, everything from MIT’s Scratch (scratch.mit.edu) to Terrapin Logo has (or will soon have) versions that work splendidly on Chromebooks  This helps move the Chromebook from a content delivery platform to one that supports unbridled student creativity.

With the current interest in students learning to program (coding) these developments are welcome.  In some ways this harkens back to the early days of personal computing when there was little commercial software, and students had to learn to write programs themselves.  Of course, the programming world has changed a lot since the early 1980’s with construction block languages like Scratch coexisting with text-based programming languages like Logo and Python.

Of course, with programming languages, the results reside on the computer screen.  With peripherals like the Arduino, computer programs can interact with remote sensors and output devices like lhyperduinoamps and motors.  Using tools like HyperDuino for Chrome (www.hyperduino.com) students can build projects that bridge the virtual and physical worlds.

A popular starting point for HyperDuino is the making of interactive tri-fold displays where, by touching certain areas of the display, the computer might play a video and lights on the physical display turn on to show the area being explored at that time..

Screen Shot 2016-04-13 at 7.47.09 PMMore elaborate constructions can be made using the Fab@School Maker Studio software (www.fablevisionlearning.com) that cuts out elaborate paper shapes designed by students using the Silhouette computer controlled paper cutter.

Even 3D printers have joined the cloud, making them work perfectly with Chromebooks as powerful tools for making.  Two companies with excellent cloud-based printers are Polar3D (www.polar3d.com), and New Matter (newmatter.com).

Screen Shot 2016-04-13 at 9.51.38 PMWhile cloud-based design tools for 3D printing have been around for awhile (e.g., Tinkercad), new and more powerful tools have arrived, such as BlocksCAD (blockscad.einsteinsworkshop.com).  This tool uses Scratch-like programming to design 3D shapes of amazing richness and complexity.

My point is that the maker movement in education is supported on many levels ― from the new standards to the new technologies and beyond.  It is time for heads and hands to be unified in support of learning across all grades and subjects.

Meet the author

Dr. Thornburg and his colleagues conduct workshops on maker technologies ranging from 3D printing to using the HyperDuino technology with Chrome.  He can be reached at david@tcse-k12.org.

Before getting into the content of this blog, I want to ask the flame brigade to hold off until they get to the end of the message.  This blog is not anti-iOS, not anti-Android, not anti-tablet.  It is simply my view of how things seem to be turning out.  So here goes:

Schools around the world have diven into the deep end of the tablet pool, purchasing these devices by the thousands (or more) in the quest to bring powerful technology into the hands of students.  The reasoning behind tablets is that they are rugged, have amazing battery life, and provide access to various apps that may be of value in the classroom.

This last point has been a sticking issue for some.  I’ve argued for decades that the choice of a computer platform for kids needs to be driven by the software they will use, and this message has been lost on some districts who chose the platform first, and then tried to figure out how best to use it.  As with the Apple vs. Microsoft battles of the past, the fight quickly broke down into two camps – the iOS folks (iPads) and the Android enthusiasts.  While some have found ways to use these tools in remarkably powerful ways, the question arises: should we have been looking at tablets at all?

In a 2012 piece in THE Journal (http://goo.gl/HNOy6), Therese Mageau argued that the race to buy iPads (for example) largely came without thinking about the deeper educational shifts implied by every child having his or her own connected device.  While she is correct, I’d like to take a different approach to the question – to ask if tablets were the right choice at all!

While the world was focused on iPads and the like, Google announced the Chromebook at their developer’s conference in May, 2011.  Like tablets, Chromebooks have long battery life (8 hours or more), virtually no boot time (8 seconds from a cold start), a low price (under $300) and the ability to run some applications (word processing, spreadsheet, presentation tools, watch videos, etc.) without Internet access – although this tool was designed to be used when you are online.

While some schools started to adopt Chromebooks, many did not, even though the Chromebook looks like a thin laptop with a full keyboard and high quality display.  But, once again, the question arises on the application front.

Google has done a wonderful job of helping developers create apps for the Chrome Web Store (http://chrome.google.com/webstore) and amazingly powerful educational apps abound – a great many of which are free!  For example, you can get Geogebra, the Scratch programming language, even all fifty of our own Knights of Knowledge inquiry-starter videos that span grade levels and subject areas.  The list of educational apps is growing daily, along with the adoption of this tool as the one-to-one device of choice for many.

And this brings us back to tablets – or more particularly to the schools and districts who purchased so many of these devices for student use. Given what we now know, would different purchasing decisions be made?  As the pundits say, hindsight is always 20-20.

The fact is that the Chromebook emerged as a wild card in a field that never seems to stop and catch its breath.  Does this relegate tablets to the storage closets?  Of course not.  It merely suggests that we need to base our purchasing decisions on the best information we have at the time.  And, make no mistake about it, there will be something someday that eclipses the Chromebook.  This just reinforces the importance of ensuring that whatever purchase we make is based on the actually utility of the device to kids in support of their learning.  As long as we do that, we are on solid ground.

Earlier this month I got a Samsung Chromebook because many of the schools we work with have adopted them in their one-to-one programs.  I just admit that I had some misperceptions that kept me off the Chromebook wagon for over a year, but now I think I can use it as my primary road-tool for giving presentations, creating documents (such as this blog) and doing other things (but not all things) I used to use my laptop for.

My original thinking was that this could be a very cool device.  From a historical point, it all started in 1984 when Sun’s John Gage said: “The network is the computer.”  When he said this many computers (including the brand new Macintosh) came without a modem or ethernet port – so this was a very bold statement.  About a decade later, when the first graphical web browser (Mosaic) was released, I said: “The browser is the operating system” and, just two years ago the Chromebook hit the market.  This ultralight laptop replacement uses the Chrome browser interface for all applications.  The browser is built on a Linux base (just like iOS, MacOS, and Android) thus leaving Microsoft out in the cold.

Because of the browser interface, I assumed (incorrectly) that all applications needed to be used when you were online.  This is not true.  Once you register with your Gmail account, you are able to create documents (such as this one) along with slideshows even if you have no internet connection at the time.  Once you go online, all your new documents and edits get synchronized to the cloud automatically.  This a great for kids who may only have good internet access from school.  They can still work on projects at home even though they are disconnected.

The automatic update feature applies to more than documents.  Applications reside in the cloud (unless you are running local versions on the Chromebook) so upgrades are automatic.  The Chrome operating system is virus proof.  If you completely mess up your system (hard to do), you can do a fresh restart and everything you were doing gets automatically put back in place as soon as you log in.  This means that if your Chromebook gets run over by a truck, you can turn on a fresh one, log in, and keeps working as if nothing happened.  Start-time (from cold start) is about eight seconds.  If you have the Chromebook sleeping, it wakes up immediately.

There are a few changes that need to be made.  Some of the applications (e.g., Geogebra) do not have all the features of the laptop version, and there seems to be a bug in the current release of ChromeOS that makes it hard to rename files in GoogleDrive.

Of course GoogleDocs is the home for word processing and other traditional mainstream applications.  Finished documents can be exported to a wide range of formats (.docx, for example) so you can share your work with others in the format they prefer.

As I continue to use this new device, I will post more insights on this blog.  In the meantime, if you want a reliable device with long battery life (I get over 8 hours) for the bulk of what you do that is web-based (and local to your machine when it is nowhere near the Internet), this can be a very good $250 investment.