A recent headline in the Wall Street Journal questions the value and usefulness of Chromebooks, the popular laptop computer provided to students by school districts across the country, including here in Evanston.

Chromebooks Were Once a Good Deal for Schools,” the headline declares. “Now They’re Becoming E-Waste.”

Between obsolescence, repair costs, and replacement expenses, the Journal quotes one school IT director as saying “‘For each school I’ve worked in … I have this image of piles of broken Chromebooks being the norm.'”

But in Evanston, school officials say that type of norm is not normal.

“We don’t want to be contributing the to a yearly landfill grab of Chromebooks,” says David Chan, director of instructional technology at Evanston Township High School/District 202.

ETHS gives each of the school’s approximately 900 freshmen a Chromebook, which is the student’s to keep all through high school and even after graduation, if the student wishes to hold on to it.

“The idea,” Chan explains, “is ownership of the device.”

A student is more likely to take good care of the computer knowing that it’s theirs.

“You have more skin in the game,” Chan says.

That’s something which “separates our program” from many others,” which require the Chromebooks to be turned back in.

Of course, computers can break (about 10-15% a year, Chan estimates).

ETHS has loaners, and also trains students in computer repair in what’s called the “Chrome Zone” fix-it shop.

Equity is an important value at the school, and Chan says that is reflected in the Chromebook policy, where every student is given the same computer.

In some schools, Chan says, “there are students using $2,000 laptops, and others using $300 laptops. One of our earliest desires,” Chan says, was to make sure each student has access to the same device.

The $50 annual fee is waived for those receiving free or reduced-price meals.

Because ETHS buys Chromebooks in bulk, the cost per unit is about $250-$300.

That’s the same price paid by Evanston/Skokie District 65, where, spokesperson Hannah Hoffmeister says, the expense is “often less than iPads, making them a cost-effective choice … which have “historically provided excellent value.” (Chromebooks are generally less expensive than other types of laptops for students).

District 65 provides Chromebooks for the approximately 2,000 children in grades 3-5. The youngsters do not get to keep the devices, whose operating systems would likely become out of date by the time those students entered ETHS and received a more current version. (iPads are used by students in grades K-2 and 6-8).

Hoffmeister says D65 has a computer repair specialist on-site, and the Chromebooks are replaced on a 3-5 year cycle (the same time frame as iPads), “ensuring that our students have access to up-to-date technology….”

One major issue raised by the Journal is that Chromebooks “expire,” when the operating system is no longer usable.

“Chromebooks have no second life,” the article notes. “When they expire, they become e-waste.”

However, Chan says that conclusion is a bit misleading.

He says Google has extended the expiration date to eight years from six, which certainly more than covers the time any student will be in high school.

Plus, he notes, “you can still use the computer with an older operating system, it just won’t automatically update.” The older laptops, he says, can be utilized as short-term loaners.

(Google this month also announced a change to its software update policy — saying it will keep updating Chromebooks “for up to a decade.”)

So for local school districts at least, Chrome still shines.

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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