Jan 3, 2017 3:00 AM

5 lessons from a Chromebook deployment

Subsidized management and apps plus supersimple administration let schools manage fleets of devices and users at a low cost

Melissa Riofrio

Microsoft has been making major strides in allowing management of devices, users, and information across the Exchange and Office 365 ecosystem, with an emphasis on eventual shift to Office 365 from System Center using a unified approach across desktop and mobile devices.

But the systems are complex to deploy and expensive to subscribe to, even with small-business-oriented offerings available. That’s one reason many schools have switched to using Chrome OS laptops (aka Chromebooks) and Google Apps for Education (GAFE), the schools' version of the G Suite web-based productivity, communications, and sharing suite. Smaller business and even some enterprises might want to consider the (perhaps partial) switch as well to Google’s business version of G Suite on Chromebooks.

John Becker has deployed Chromebooks and GAFE at three private K-8 schools (combined elementary and junior high school) in Illinois, moving away from the previous combination of Microsoft Active Directory and Apple iPads. The schools are St. Joseph School in Downers Grove, St. Joseph School in Manhattan, and Most Blessed Trinity Academy in Waukegan.

Active Directory is too capable for its own good

In fact, what many enterprises like about Active Directory—its rich capabilities and heavy customization—is what made it a poor fit for the schools, Becker says. “In that strength are two weaknesses: the amount of customization and granularity of possible settings leads to inherent complexity, and the complexity leading to it being administrated by professionals with significant amounts of training and coursework.” That complexity rules out many schools.

Compared to managing users and devices via Microsoft’s Active Directory, working with GAFE is “much simpler,” Becker says. In fact, the admins at each of the three schools are not traditional IT staff because schools can’t afford such expertise. “There’s no Active Directory in their job descriptions,” he wryly notes.

The admin controls in GAFE separate the management of the devices from the users, whereas in Active Directory they are intermingled, Becker notes. Active Directory’s complexity means it can handle much more tailored permissions, but the schools don’t need that level of permissions specificity—and they can’t afford the tools or staff to implement them anyhow.

Furthermore, GAFE makes it much, much simpler to support users outside the schools, such as teachers, parents, and students who access school files from their home networks or from personal devices, rather than from the school-issued Chromebooks on the school network.

In a traditional Exchange environment, Becker says, “extending the Active Directory environment and data storage to the home—or wherever the student is doing homework—becomes necessary. The result is a cumbersome, support-intensive exercise.” As a result, “it’s too breakable and the support costs are a nightmare. … Plus, you need a giant hardware platform to run Office [meaning the laptops and the back-end Exchange servers], and the apps are super-duper mega-overkill. Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides very simple by contrast.”

Becker did consider Office 365, which relieves the schools of having all those servers and even PCs, since the apps can run from the cloud via a browser. But Office 365 didn’t really work four years ago when the schools had to decide what to do. Even today Office 365 doesn’t work reliably across platforms in some of its components. The Office 2016 productivity apps today work nicely, but OneDrive is still hinky, Skype for Business only now has production versions for non-Windows devices, and Teams hit beta very recently.

Google’s software has its own issues—“Hangouts is still wonky,” Becker notes—but Google has “nailed” the core functionality like document sharing. And the GAFE admin consoles are really simple and straightforward to use and manage—a big deal when you have new students every year and existing students leave every year, as well as have several classes and teachers every day. That’s something a tool like Active Directory doesn’t understand natively, he says.

Plus, there’s no local data to worry about; GAFE by defaults prevents document downloads, though admins can enable users to download to their devices. The schools Becker works for separate private information on the back end, so there’s little to no sensitive data in the form of downloadable documents to begin with. By contrast, Office 365’s OneDrive—and competitors like Dropbox and Box—sync cloud files to local devices by default, with no option to disable that behavior.

The case for the Chromebook-GAFE combo

The use of Chromebooks marries the ease of GAFE with inexpensive devices that parents and school districts can more easily afford. The schools in fact originally used GAFE on Windows PCs, but as those PCs were retired, they shifted to Chromebooks for cost reasons. Macs were ruled out as well for cost reasons.

Becker notes that you don’t need to use Chromebooks to take advantage of GAFE; GAFE works on Windows PCs and Macs. “Chromebooks happen to be a very low-cost device on which to access the environment, but it is not the environment.” The browser is the environment, and it keeps users away from potential damaging complexity and settings that a Windows or MacOS has. But GAFE isn’t so available on mobile devices like iPads and Android tablets, where the web client rarely works and the native apps are less capable than on a desktop or Chromebook browser.

Where Chromebooks and GAFE don’t fully deliver

Despite the advantages of their simplicity, Chromebooks and GAFE don’t meet all needs, and they've struggled to make their case outside the student deployment.

For example, Google Slides is quite primitive, and teachers strongly favor using PowerPoint, which requires a PC, Mac, or Office 365 license for web use. Getting teachers to use Docs and Sheets is easier, given their greater functionality, but most people have been trained on the Office apps, so convincing them to switch—especially to less-capable apps, even if they don’t use most of the features—is not easy.

Teachers also heavily use an electronic-whiteboard system called SmartBoard, which has historically been Windows-only. There is now a Chrome component, but its very expensive, Becker notes. So many teachers still have their Windows PCs in the classroom. Still, Becker is trying to wean them from those PCs by testing the mounting the PCs to the whiteboard and having the teachers remote in via a VNC connection from their Chromebooks to the SmartBoard-controlling PC. The idea is to get the teachers to use the Chromebook as the default computer.

There’s also some software that isn’t available in Chrome OS, such as education software for young children. The dearth of such apps has kept the kindergarten, first-grade, and second-grade kids on iPads, for which such software is readily available, despite their higher cost. Small children also struggle with physical keyboards, so the iPad’s touchscreen is better suited for them. However, with touchscreen Chromebooks that can work as tablets now appearing, Becker hopes the schools might be able to adopt Chrome OS tablets for the young children—if the apps come too.

Google has also thrown its own irritants into the mix. For example, a management license is required for each device, but that license can’t be transferred to a Chromebook from a newer generation than the one it was initially deployed on. That adds a small cost ($26) but a big hassle when replacing old Chromebooks with new models, such as when they can’t be repaired. Also, the license is good only for five years, and schools face having to buy new licenses en masse in the next two years. The costs are not huge, but they still matter for cash-strapped schools, especially when they come all at once.

Free now, unaffordable later?

The reason that GAFE is so inexpensive is that Google is subsidizing it. Becker fears that subsidy may one day end, such as if Google’s fortunes decline or its focus changes. That would then force schools to spend a lot more money to do what they do today, money they and their parents rarely have. For now, Google is subsidizing both GAFE and device management, thus making managed computing possible to those schools.

Should Google stop subsidizing Chromebook management, Becker is keeping is eye on Neverware, a provider of a Chromium-based Chrome OS derivative that can run on existing PC laptops and MacBooks as a separate operating system. (Chromium is the open source version of Chrome.) Neverware’s OS is at this point inexpensive, and even if Google keeps its subsidies for the long term Neverware could let schools expand their Chromebook deployments to older laptops they and their parents already have, saving on new hardware costs.

Education-specific workflows get the love

For the education market specifically, GAFE has the core workflows built in, so there’s no need for custom or third-party add-ons, as there would be for general-purpose management tools in Active Directory or Office 365. That’s another boost for schools, even if it's not helpful for other industries.

“Because GAFE was designed for schools, the data flow as it applies to the classroom is impeccable. Going beyond basic sharing, the free Google Classroom option in GAFE allows teachers to assign resources, links, and homework; set due dates; and receive homework from students. This enforces accountability on students and eases the teacher’s workload. Students and teachers can communicate via email if needed, and teachers can also assign collaborative homework that groups of students may work on one assignment together,” says Gabby Lynch, the admin at St. Joseph School in Downers Grove.

“Gone are the days of ‘I lost my flash drive,’” Lynch says. “All homework is assigned and tracked via Google Classroom with date and time stamps. So, if little Jimmy says he worked for hours, but the time stamps say 15 minutes, little Jimmy has some explaining to do.”