Having long wooed the educational market with its Apps for Education suite of productivity tools, Google is now poised to bring to students and teachers the hardware necessary to take full advantage of these Web-based apps and of the Web itself. Google's Chromebooks for Education announcement at Google IO this morning could provide schools with a huge opportunity to equip their students with computers, at a $20 per student per month rate.

No doubt, many schools still operate with pretty woeful IT, in terms of hardware, software, and Internet access. Plenty of schools still have just one computer in a classroom - if they have computers at all. Some have computer labs, of course, where rows of desktops line the room and where students can come for one class or so a week to learn keyboarding, do research, or play games. As computers have become more affordable and more common, and as computing has become more mobile, many schools have experimented with one-to-one laptop initiatives, all in the service of putting a computer in the hand of every student.

Costs for One-to-One Computing Initiatives

But one-to-one computing is not cheap, and as many schools have been tempted to embrace the iPad as an alternative to laptops, the price tag to equip each student with a mobile computing device seems to be going up and is cost-prohibitive for most districts.

Of course, $20 per student per month still adds up quickly. A 1000-student school would be looking at a $180,000 annual investment (and a three-year contract) to take advantage of the Chromebooks for Education program. But $180 per student per nine-month school year isn't a bad price (and better, one might add than the $475 per iPad deal that the Auburn School District in Maine just cut with Apple to equip every kindergartener in the district with an iPad). And there's nothing that says schools can't ask parents to pay the rental fees and data plans, something that a recent survey indicated many parents would be more than willing to do.

As these devices are entirely Web-based via the Chrome OS (and will, for a lot of schools, tie in to the free Apps for Education offerings), there may well be fewer expenditures for the various applications students will need or want.

Although the potential cost savings may be appealing to many schools that are interested in one-to-one computing initiatives, there are still some other questions here that schools will have to consider before signing up for the program:

Schools, Student Safety, and the Open Web

The Chromebook doesn't just mean that a student will have her or his own laptop to use at home and at school. This is a device that is built around the Web, in terms of its operating system and in terms of its purpose. The devices that are available via the Chromebook for Education program will have 3G and wireless capabilities, which is important as many students may not have access to the Internet at home.

But equipping students with an Internet-ready device means students have access to the Web, and that's something that many schools are still reluctant to do. That reluctance may come from a variety of origins, but many schools will point to CIPA, the Children's Internet Protection Act, and its requirements that schools and libraries that receive federal e-rate funding have an Internet safety policy, monitor online activities, and filter any Web content that is obscene or harmful to minors as a reason to be cautious about letting students have access to the Web.

This will require many schools to make sure those Internet safety and acceptable use policies are up to date to reflect the new technologies. However administrators will have the ability to control students' access to certain apps, with granular controls that mean kindergarteners for example can view different things than high schoolers. The administrative control panel - a new feature since Google launched its Cr-48 pilot program - will be a boon to many IT directors who are normally responsible for administering hundreds of machines individually.

The ability to remotely provision new devices within minutes and simultaneously roll out updates across devices will surely appeal to many IT administrators, as will the elimination of any need to install virus protection (and repair infected computers).

Cr-48 Pilot Program in Action

Rachel Wente-Chaney, CIO of the High Desert Educational Service District spoke at a roundtabe discussion at Google IO today about her district's experiences with the Cr-48 Pilot Program. She said that when her school received their Chromebooks, she was able to hand out the devices - unboxed, but already provisioned - to classes of middle school students. Within one class period, students were able to unpack their boxes, install their Chromebook batteries, get logged in and onto the Web. If you've ever worked with students and technology, you know that that is a huge feat.

The students have loved the devices, Wente-Chaney says. While the notion of working solely in the cloud may cause adults to squirm, she notes that "students have been living the Web as a platform or browser as a platform for quite some time." She stressed the importance of the speed of these devices as well, noting that devices that take 5 or more minutes to boot up and then more time for students to log in are "a missed opportunity."

Google Lock-In?

Google already boasts over 10 million students using its Apps for Education. By offering schools the Chromebooks rental program, the Google brand certainly will be strengthened in the education sector. That's good news for Google, to be sure, but there might be plenty of schools that are unwilling to hand over that much control - hardware, software, email, storage, to one company.

Nonetheless, in the long string of "one laptop per child" projects, the weight of Google behind this one may be good news for students - and that's what matters most.