Looking for more classroom computers? Turn old laptops and desktops into Chromiumbooks (open source Google Chromebooks) Part 1

Where did July go? Future Shop is already running back-to-school specials and we’re not even into August yet.

Sometimes the biggest challenge with integrating technology into the classroom isn’t a lack of interest, desire, or know-how, it’s a lack of resources. And the problem with resources is that they cost money.

One of my side projects this summer is seeing if I can turn some old computers into viable working classroom learning tools using Chromium OS. If you’re like me and you play around with technology, chances are, you have a few old laptops or desktops gathering dust in your basement.

Sure, those clunkers running on Windows XP might still work, but after you install the most recent service pack and update all the software, sometimes those machines run very slowly indeed.

And, as classroom teachers know, there’s nothing more irritating than a slow machine grinding down the pace of learning (unless it’s the sound of 30 students complaining about how slow their computer is.)

What are Google Chromebooks, why would you want one in your classroom, and what’s the difference between Chrome OS (the operating system in an official Google Chromebook) and Chromium OS (the free operating system you can download and install on your old laptops and desktops)?

What is a Google Chromebook and why would I want in my classroom?

Google Chromebooks are very fast, lightweight netbooks that are perfect for cloud-based computing. Actually, that’s the only thing they can do because they run Chrome OS (and not Microsoft Windows like your PC or OS X Mountain Lion like your Mac.)

So unfortunately, you won’t be able to install programs like Microsoft Word, Adobe Photoshop, or Dragon Naturally Speaking education edition. Instead, you’ll have to find cloud-based internet apps like Google Docs, Aviary, and chrome voice-recognition extensions like Voice In.

The way I explain Chromebooks to my students is that, basically, they’re Google’s version of a laptop. Think of it as a laptop that can only run the Google Chrome web browser and you’re not far off. (Yes, I know there’s a hard drive that you can save files to, and yes, I know that it’s running Linux, etc, but for all intensive purposes, my students see these machines as Google Chrome personified.)

The (older) Samsung series 5 Chromebook (Wi-Fi) goes for $349.99 USD on Amazon.com and BestBuy. Unfortunately, you can only buy it from stores in the US or the UK (£299.99). If you live in Canada, you can buy Chromebooks through individuals on eBay. You’re probably looking between $250 and $300. If you’re lucky.

Chromebooks are also available for the enterprise and EDU markets and have started to make their way into Canadian classrooms. The Vancouver Sun ran a story about a secondary school that deploy chromebooks in the classroom. Apparently, the costing formula for Wi-Fi chromebooks in the Canadian classroom is as follows:

  • $449 per Chromebook (pay up front.)
  • $20 per month per Chromebook (either pay upfront or pay monthly for 36 months)

If you use Google docs in the classroom, then, Google chromebooks can be quite nice, particularly because of how well Google apps for education is integrated into the machine.

  • Once students have logged into their chromebooks, it’s one click to get into their Google Docs account. With a Windows-based machine, students have to log into their school accounts, get to the correct Google docs login page which is surprisingly difficult for many students because there are two login pages which require different usernames, and then enter their Google Docs credentials.
  • You can lock down and manage chromebooks on your school domain. You can control which web apps are deployed or blocked which is nice because you can do this at the school level instead of at the board/district level.
  • Chromebooks are fast. They boot up quickly and wake up quickly once you open the lid which means your school laptops aren’t not holding back your learning. (No more waiting for computers to boot up.)

What’s the difference between Chrome OS and Chromium OS (aside from spelling)?

Back to the point of this post: where do we find more computers for our classrooms? Why not try to bring back some of your old desktops and laptops to life by turning them into chromebooks (well, Chromiumbooks to be exact)

Here’s what you need to know:

  • Chrome OS is the operating system designed by Google for Chromebooks (laptops) and Chromeboxes (desktops). It’s hardware specific and it’s only available preinstalled on machines from Google. In other words, you can’t download and install chrome OS. You can only get it if you buy a Google Chromebook.
  • Chromium OS is the open-source version of Chrome OS. You may be able to install Chromium OS on an old computer to have a Chromebook like experience.

If you’re able to install Chromium OS onto an old computer, it may look and feel like a Chromebook, but there are some important differences. Here’s what Google has to say about the difference between Chrome OS and Chromium OS on the developer FAQ and the general FAQ on the chromium projects page:

  • Chromium OS does not auto update. Official Google chromebooks will auto update to keep their machines running the latest versions. If you install Chromium OS on your own machine, you will have to update it yourself.
  • Verified boot security only works with Google chromebooks because of custom hardware requirements. Verified boot checks to make sure that your system hasn’t been tampered with. The chromium OS developer FAQ says that verified boot only works on chromebooks, this Chromium OS security YouTube video says that you can do verified boot on Chromium OS by plugging in a USB stick, and this article talks about how to bypass verified boot security in Chromium OS.
  • The general Chromium OS FAQ page says that Adobe Flash (and PDF) is not allowed to be included in Chromium OS. I was able to install Chromium OS on a laptop (Hexxeh Lime December 2, 2011 Build) and when I visit the Adobe flash website, it tells me that I have the latest version of flash “on my Chromebook,” so it’s possible to get Adobe flash on your Chromiumbook. You’re also able to open PDFs in Google Chrome so that shouldn’t be a problem either. 
  • The Chrome OS logo is green, yellow and red (the Google Chrome browser symbol.) The Chromium OS logo is blue.

Next time, I’ll talk about how to install Chromium OS onto your old computers to get them working in your classroom. If you want a sneak peak, Lifehacker has a nice post about how to turn your netbook into a Chromebook with Chromium OS, although Jason Chapman pointed out to me on twitter that technically speaking, these aren’t Chromebooks, they would be Chromiumbooks – the difference being the verified boot and security.

Warning – it may not work on your old laptop or desktop and it may require a lot of patience to find a bill that actually works. So far, I’ve been able to get 1.5 of my old machines working. (I say .5 because although I’m able to install Chromium OS on one of my old desktop computer, it doesn’t recognize my ethernet internet connection. But that’s another story.)

Would you use a Google Chromebook in your classroom?

This blog post was dictated using Dragon NaturallySpeaking Premium in Word 2010.

  • There were 1175 words in the first draft of this post.
  • Dragon Naturally Speaking made 32 word errors which mean that it transcribed 97.3% of the words correctly.
  • The voice recognition software also made an additional 22 punctuation, capitalization and command recognition errors meaning the total accuracy rate was 95.4%.

Click here to find out more about the Dragon NaturallySpeaking Student / Teacher version.

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