Traverse City News and Events

The Chromebook Question: Do School Laptops Cost Too Much For What They Offer?

By Craig Manning | Sept. 17, 2023

Once upon a time, technology use in schools was mostly limited to the computer lab. In the past decade, though, laptops – particularly Google Chromebooks – have become so commonplace in local classrooms that nearly every student in every grade is assigned one. The trend has brought a long list of benefits to the table, for students and teachers alike, but it’s also raised big questions – like what happens to old Chromebooks once they’ve outlived their useful educational life, or how much money schools should spend maintaining (or eventually disposing of) older devices.

The Ticker sat down with Evan OBranovic, executive director of technology for Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS), to find out what the district’s use of Chromebooks looks like in 2023, and whether legacy devices are causing headaches.

Last month, the Wall Street Journal published an article titled “Chromebooks Were Once a Good Deal for Schools. Now They’re Becoming E-Waste.” The piece examined how rising prices for Chromebooks, maintenance and repair costs, and ostensible “expiration dates” – or when Google stops supporting older devices with software and security updates – were triggering problems for school districts that had bought into the technology.

A Chromebook is a type of laptop that runs on ChromeOS, an operating system based on the Google Chrome web browser and largely oriented around Google web services like Google Drive, Google Docs, Google Slides, and Google Sheets. Because they are mostly web-based, Chromebooks have never picked up much market share among general computer users. The Associated Press once even described the Chromebook as a “stripped-down laptop” that “basically turns into an expensive paperweight whenever it can’t find a Wi-Fi connection.”

But the same no-frills design has made Chromebooks extremely popular in educational environments, ever since Google first introduced the devices with a school pilot program in 2010. For schools, the computers offer a straightforward and affordable way for students to complete projects, collaborate with classmates, work through digital tests and worksheets, and more.

According to the New York Times, by 2016, Chromebooks accounted for more than half (58 percent) of all “mobile devices shipped to primary and secondary schools in the U.S.,” up from less than 1 percent in 2012. And by 2021, 10 years after Chromebooks first hit the general market, there were more than 40 million of them in schools around the world.

TCAPS hopped on the Chromebook train in the early 2010s, and the devices have since become a huge part of the district’s technology ecosystem. When OBranovic arrived at TCAPS five years ago, the district had one Chromebook for every two K-3 students, and a one-to-one ratio for grades 4-12. “And then when COVID hit, we made a push to go fully one-to-one, and to get a device into every student’s hands for remote learning,” he says.

For reference, TCAPS boasts an enrollment of approximately 9,000 students.

A lot goes into managing 9,000 laptop computers across a district that spans 11 elementary schools, two middle schools, and three high schools. In addition to the usual stuff – handling software and security updates, repairing damaged computers, making sure all units are accounted for – OBranovic says a big part of the logistical lift with Chromebooks is simply cycling the old computers out of circulation and replacing them.

“We have a pretty consistent schedule for the acquisition and distribution of Chromebooks,” OBranovic explains. “For sixth and ninth grade populations, we acquire new Chromebooks for those grade levels every year, and then they keep them throughout their time in middle school and high school. So, that’s three years in middle school, four years in high school, and seven years total. And the students will keep them all the way through, taking them back and forth between home and school.” Once a student has had a Chromebook for that long, OBranovic says, it’s typically ready to be retired.

At lower grade levels, Chromebooks stay at school at all times, where they’re stored and charged on classroom-assigned technology carts. Per OBranovic, TCAPS replaces entire carts of elementary school Chromebooks “every four to five years,” but “can stretch that sometimes” depending on the condition of the computers.

The need to replace Chromebooks semi-regularly comes at a cost. In 2013, The Ticker reported that TCAPS had spent approximately $2.2 million on its first 5,900 Chromebooks, paid for out of a 2007 bond. These days, OBranovic says the laptops carry a per-unit cost of $400 to $500 – though he notes the district is never replacing all of them at once, a potential $4.5 million investment. Instead, TCAPS trades out Chromebooks on a rolling basis: In 2017, for instance, the district spent $560,000 to replace roughly one-third of its units.

Often, for reasons of security and reliability, those replacements are unavoidable. Every year, Google ceases support for some older Chromebook models, which OBranovic says essentially forces schools to pull them out of circulation. According to the aforementioned Wall Street Journal article, Google is cutting off support for 13 Chromebook models in 2023, with another 51 models set to “expire” next year.

Per the Journal, some school administrators are frustrated with the support cutoffs and complain of “throwing precious funding at a product that just doesn’t last long enough.” “Doubling the lifespan of Chromebooks could save public schools – and taxpayers – an estimated $1.8 billion,” the article noted.

For his part, OBranovic believes those lifespan extensions are happening. In the early years, he says Google would support Chromebooks for about six years. “They pushed that during COVID time and went to seven or eight years, depending on the model,” he notes. “And I actually just got an email this week saying that they’ve now bumped it up to 10 years.” (As a result of the change, the 64 models Wall Street Journal said were going to expire within the next two years should now have longer lives.)

Even with more years of security support, though, OBranovic isn’t sure it would ever be practical for TCAPS to keep Chromebooks for 10 years. Over time, computers slow down, see declines in battery life, and suffer other reliability and productivity losses.

“Frankly, six years is a long lifespan for any type of technology in today’s world,” OBranovic says. “Even if you’re looking at a MacBook or an iPad, it’s probably not going to last much longer.”

But school district leaders who spoke to the Wall Street Journal said they were considering ditching Chromebooks in favor of Mac or PC laptops, in part because of resale value. One administrator even noted that her district regularly pays to have old Chromebooks hauled away as electronic waste – versus MacBooks, which can still sell for hundreds of dollars after years of use.

OBranovic pushes back against the e-waste argument, telling The Ticker that TCAPS has no problem unloading old Chromebooks to resellers – usually getting $20-$40 per unit – and has never had to pay to get rid of them. And while he admits that the district has had conversations about switching over to something like a MacBook, he doesn’t foresee an end to the Chromebook’s dominance any time soon.

“At this point, for the longevity, the cost, and the overall ability to get devices in the hands of students and give them access, the Chromebook is still the answer at the current moment for us,” he concludes.

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