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27,000 Google Chromebooks headed to U.S. schools

Google has found allies in three school districts that will bring the browser-based laptops to thousands of students. At least some of those kids not-so-secretly covet tablets, though.

Diane Gilbert, a South Carolina teacher, shows off a Chromebook and said students like to customize them with skins.
Diane Gilbert, a South Carolina teacher, shows off a Chromebook and says students like to customize them with skins.
screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Google has won over three school districts with its Chromebook vision, bringing more than 27,000 of the browser-based laptops to Iowa, Illinois, and South Carolina.

Rajen Sheth, Google's leader of Chromebook work for business and education, announced the deals in a speech today to the Florida Educational Technology Conference.

Including those three districts, Sheth said in a Webcast speech, "we now have hundreds of schools across 41 states that have outfitted at least one classroom with Chromebooks."

The support is a nice feather in the Chromebook cap, especially since today's impressionable, fast-learning students are tomorrow's technology buyers. But Google should also be paying attention to what one of its new Chromebook advocates had to say about what the students often want.

"Students love the tablet. I am not going to hide that from you," said Diane Gilbert, an English teacher at Kelly Mill Middle School in Blythewood, S.C., who's taught with tablets in her classroom. She added, though, that Chromebooks have a place: "They will bow down and kiss your feet for a tablet or for a [Chromebook]. But I'm a language arts teacher. My goal is to have students publish their work--create and publish. The [Chromebook] is more alike to a laptop or a desktop in the ability to publish."

The first-generation Chromebooks have been roundly criticized for slow performance, but Samsung showed off a faster Chromebook model at CES earlier this month. And Sheth said Chromebooks work well for schools that need easy administration and for students who appreciate 8-second startup times and 8.5-hour battery life.

"A lot of schools are on OSes that are 5 to 10 years old because of the cost and labor to bring that up to the latest standard," Sheth said. "The Chromebook updates itself automatically and gets better over time."

A first-generation Samsung Series 5 Chromebook
A first-generation Samsung Series 5 Chromebook Samsung

A few thousand devices are drops in the bucket when compared with the global education market. But Google has to start somewhere, and school representatives on a panel discussion were happy to tout the Chromebook's advantages.

"This is the right device for student learning," said Bryan Weinert, technology coordinator for the Leyden Community High School District in Illinois. "We plan to deploy 3,500 to students next year. Every single student will be issued a Chromebook they can use at school and at home."

The Chromebooks will replace Netbooks, he said. "We were looking for a device that can be invisible. We want teachers to focus on instruction," not technical support, waiting for laptops to boot, or making sure they're charged, he said.

Richland School District Two in South Carolina will use 19,000 Chromebooks in a three-year program to bring the devices to students in 3rd through 12th grades, said Donna Teuber, technology integration coordinator for the district.

And Council Bluffs Community School District in Iowa plans to use 2,800 at its high schools and 1,500 in middle schools, said David Fringer, executive director of information systems for the district. "Next fall we hope to give each student one of these," he said.

The Chromebooks are closely linked to Google Apps, Google's online suite for word processing, e-mail, presentations, and more. They also can run any number of applications downloaded through the Chrome Web Store or simply loaded as Web pages.

Updated at 9:22 a.m. PT to correct Sheth's title. He leads Chromebook work for business and education at Google. Updated at 2:30 p.m. PT January 26 to correct Gilbert's quotation. She said students also want Chromebooks.