jeudi 20 février 2014

Got myself a Chromebook… first impressions

Well, I had tried some Chromebooks before, but I figured I should have one and live with it a bit, as well as explore firsthand how this can help students produce content.

I'm very focused on content creation, always have been. It is absolutely a key element in getting students engaged and improving their skills. And the ability to simply create complex and good looking documents is essential in raising their self-esteem. I've seen 2nd grade students produce movies, recording songs, reading stories, programming with Scratch and Lego and many other such projects and their enthusiasm is always incredibly high. This is when they simply do not want to leave for recess and you have to push them out so they get the exercise (and for you to get a break).

So I'm coming at this from the angle of content-creation.

Obviously, I'm also biased. I've worked on Apple devices since the late 70s all the way to today and worked for Apple 19 years out of my career. But through all this, I've always had one key goal, especially when I was at Apple, and that was to support the growth of the education system towards a more constructivist, competency-based approach to equip students for the current and coming realities.

Content creation and creativity are incredibly important. The arts are so important too. Anything creative.

So, the Chromebook... here are my notes:

I chose the Chromebook HP 11. It had a fun feeling to it and the others looked drab to me. I was suggested models from Dell, Samsung and Acer. When I have a choice, I seem to choose HP over others. I guess I have something for garages...

It also was available with a French-Canadian keyboard which is important for me.

Opening the box was a nice experience. Nice clean box, simple packaging, well laid-out, not full of stickers, etc. Not very important, but I appreciate it.

Set-up was very simple, select my network, enter my Google Account and I was in.

I didn't much play with set-up yet, just jumped in and went to Google Docs and checked out document editing, which was as expected. Same as on Chrome on my Mac, albeit somewhat slower, but not terribly so for that kind of work.

The screen is quite nice, 11 inches is useable, although I miss placing documents in portrait, but no big deal.

Trying it out as a consumption device, I played a few YouTube videos. Nothing terrible, but nothing impressive. Audio is a bit out of sync sometimes, image is not quite smooth all the time, but no huge problem.

Obviously, typing works out pretty well. Especially in French, since the accents are there. But, it is not as nice as you'd expect. The CSA keyboard on my MacBook Pro has preset accented characters. The é and É are on a key, which is the same on the HP11, but all other accented characters as well, or most of the common ones, like à, è, ç. ù... on the HP11, they are two-key combos, so you first hit the accent (say ^) then the letter, and you get ê. The difference is notable for me on the MacBook Pro, but on an iPad without an external keyboard, things are a bit worse, except for the fact that you always know which key will give you the right character. Long-press the e to get all possibilities and select the right one. Still, compared to an iPad without an external keyboard, for me at least, it is faster to type on the HP11.

Editing plain text is also improved compared to an iPad because of the trackpad. For text editing, I prefer being to select with the extra precision a trackpad offers. Students have told me they prefer typing on the iPad because it is the same as their iPhone and they can use the same sequences. Other students prefer a solid keyboard. The Eastern Townships School Board will be doing a research project on document editing on the iPad to learn more. Most of what we've heard comes from adults that come to the conclusion that a keyboard is «obviously» better... but we want to get the facts and we'll work with Dr. Thierry Karsenti to find out more. We think kids do not mind for the most part and see other advantages, like the ability to see your text and the keys at the same time without moving their eyes, something I've heard from a few 5th and 6th grade students.

When comes the time to create documents though, typing is only one part of the equation. Student suse today's communciation languages to express themselves and although this also means text, it certainly means enhancing their text with other media. SImply copying and pasting an image, inserting a photo you've taken with your device during an experiment, or a video for that matter. All in the word processor.

I cannot say I find Google Docs well-suited for this, but I'll explore this on the Chromebook to see if it changes my perception. Since everything is online or accessed through the same tools, perhaps it will be simpler than on my MacBook Pro.

Photos and videos
So the HP11 comes with a webcam. A pretty bad one at that with it's VGA resolution. And the processor isn't terribly snappy, so capturing a photo is not very smooth, but certainly useable.

Ok, pause here... just wanted to go to Google Docs and see if I could insert an image from my webcam. Ended-up closing all my tabs and getting back to blogger took a bit of poking around. Managed to realize this environment tries to reproduce part of the traditional document or hard disk metaphor... which makes things more complex than in other environments.

I had to 'save' my image to disk... now I can 'import' it into Google Docs. It works as you'd imagine. Simple enough and no worse than a computer and different than an iPad with the extra navigation and 'saving' perhaps. One layer of extra work and management. These complexities make managing technology in a classroom that much harder. I get mixed up and I'm an expert... but maybe this is my bias speaking.

I'll explore video editing as well, for now, I was quickly just trying to capture a clip using the webcam and it brought up something interesting. There are quite a few web apps available, some are well known and useful on any device. Some are a bit more specific. But as soon as you try to do something a bit more useful, say like more advanced video editing or even just capturing a clip, you have to find the right app. The ones I tried were very focused on getting you on their site. Some work offlie, some not, which is confusing if you travel around on a bus for example. You have to choose wisely. But more importantly, lots of web apps keep asking you to register for their paid service. Every time. And this bugs me a lot in the light that kids using devices should be able to focus on creating content, not be constantly bombarded by requests to register or buy something. Mind you, apps on the iPad have this to some extent, but the experience is more uniform in an education environment where a selection is provided. I have to find out how this gets reproduced. I guess we could provide a set of apps to every student via the management tools. But as a consumer, I find this constant presentation of 'plans' and pricing quite bothersome. And every time you register for such a service, you start getting emails to 'help' you get started. I'm quite sure when you have a GAFE set-up, you can avoid much of this because of the apps which tie-into this of course. That exploration is for later as this is just my 'First impressions' post.

Paying for software is in my genes, and as a developer myself, I can appreciate that you'd have to pay for quality software. Some companies, like Google and Apple give away quality products for free and that's their strategy. A few others do this as well, but if we want to democratize software, we need to reward those who invest in creating new tools and better tools. Going only with what is free is not going to help this industry. Some free, some paid, in order to achieve your goals. Offer and demand.

to be continued...