Acer C720 Chromebook – first thoughts from a Mac user

As I’ve written about a few times before here,  I’m testing the Acer C720 Chromebook as a potential notebook computer for general purpose lab use. I wanted to get a sense for how it performs and what kinds of things it can do, so I’m using it as my main at-home computer for a few weeks. This isn’t what I really bought it for, but I wanted to have a good idea of what its limitations were before committing us to it.

So far the most surprising thing about using a Chromebook is how easily it has fit into my computing life. I have been a full-time Mac user for 11 years, and yet I can do most of my work from this computer. I thought I was far more dependent on Mac-specific applications and utilities than I really am. For example, I received an email a few days ago from a student asking about a missing assignment while I was on the Chromebook. I keep my gradebook for that class in Numbers, and I have it synced with iCloud because I like to be able to enter grades on my iPad during lab.

My first instinct when I read her request was that it would have to wait until I got back to my Mac, but then I remembered that iWork for iCloud was available:

iCloudApps

I logged in to iCloud.com, opened my grade book from the web, checked on the missing assignments, and emailed the student without needing to wait until I got back to my office. Since then, I’ve used the web version of Numbers two other times to update grades, and both times it just worked. The same holds for most of the other cross-platform services I make heavy use of, like Evernote, Dropbox, Simplenote, and (of course) all the Google Apps. With Evernote and Dropbox, it’s not quite like using a native app, but the web interfaces do the job.

One of the programs I use heavily on the Mac is OmniFocus, and I certainly notice its absence on the Chromebook. I can email tasks into it from the Chromebook, but there is no way to access my to-do list over the web. I’ve moved a few kinds of tasks into Wunderlist as a temporary solution, but I still miss OmniFocus. I’m sure if I were writing a paper, or just not in the throes of final exam writing and grading, I would also miss Papers, but alas, I am not. Part of what I need to do now, though, is figure out what our students need to be able to do with these and whether they can get that work done.

As far as the hardware goes, I’ve been more than impressed. The battery life on it is impressive. I’ve used it without a charge for over 7 hours and it still reports about 30% charge left. I was also pleasantly surprised when I plugged it in to a monitor and learned that it does desktop spanning, not just mirroring. I assumed this would be one area of compromise to save cost, but it can drive both the internal display and a 1080p monitor with no problem.

 

Chromebooks and the ‘technology floor’

A few weeks back I wrote about using Chromebooks in some of our biology labs, and now that the Acer C720 has started shipping, I ordered two of them to start testing. I’ve only had them for a day, so this is not a performance review in any way, but I will say that it seems like a very functional computer. I’m used to the 11″ MacBook Air as my daily computer, and the screen size and keyboard are on par with that, although the color gamut seems more restricted; so far the battery life seems much better than the Air.

Part of what I want to work through as I’m testing is what, exactly, is the service model I’m aiming for — what is the purpose for these? The current computers are used to run evolution and ecology simulation software and a statistics package. I didn’t even bother requesting them this semester for our new bioinformatics exercise, opting instead to encourage students to bring their own, which worked fine. So why not just continue to do that instead of investing in lab-owned notebooks? If we are going to have to virtualize some of the software anyway, why not just give students access to it on their own machines?

This would be consistent with the trendy practice known as ‘bring your own device’ (BYOD), but I’m not convinced it’s the right way to go for us. One of the biggest weaknesses of this policy for education is that it lacks any kind of predictability. I’m not referring to predictability in terms of make and model and minimum specs, I mean whether the student brought their computer that day. There is a great benefit to being able to count on certain equipment being available and functional when planning a lab. For example, I know that we have a number of nice spectrophotometers, so I can design a lab exercise that requires them. Knowing that each student or pair of students is going to have access to a computer, and knowing what that computer is capable of, changes the design of the lab, to put it simply.

Here are a few activities that come to mind:

  • The lab manual could be moved online. As it stands, we have the manual printed for the students and (try to) collect the cost from them, which turns me into a cashier. This could be as simple as a PDF or as complex as a real ebook with interactive content.
  • We could produce short instructional videos for routine lab techniques and link to them from the online lab manual. These would be for things like pipetting, using the spectrophotometer, setting up a TLC experiment, or even setting up a slide on the microscope, which seems like a neverending mystery to many students.
  • Get into more detail on the practical side of data management and statistical testing. As it stands, we send students away and ask them to perform simple statistical tests on the data they have collected, but what they take away from this varies widely across the class. Some really get it, but others can’t get a handle on it. It would be nice to do more show-and-tell before sending them away to work alone.
  • Do some real training in literature searching. We have a light requirement for incorporating primary literature into the 2 formal lab reports, but we don’t spend time in lab talking about how to do this. I’d like to change this.

I could go on with a dozen other examples, but none of these is surprising, nor do any require anything other than a computer with Internet access. But you have to know it’ll be there. Right now, the range of access to a computing device begins at ‘none’, and having a set of lab computers would drastically improve that to ‘something’. I guess that is what I find so attractive about this whole idea: it offers a ‘technology floor’ where there is none now.

The idea of a technology floor works on a number of levels here. It supports the objectives we decide on teaching toward in any particular lab, that’s its primary job. But it also doesn’t have to remain exposed, students could choose to bring an equivalent computer of their own and use it. I’m thinking of the difference between vinyl flooring and travertine tile — they look and feel quite different, but ultimately serve the same function.

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