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Lessons in rolling out 300,000 Chromebooks from Chicago Public Schools

About Chicago Public Schools

Chicago Public Schools (CPS) is the third-largest school district in the United States. CPS is home to 642 schools, 25,000 teachers, and more than 350,000 students. According to a recent Stanford University study, Chicago Public Schools students learn at a faster rate than 96 percent of school districts in the country.

“Many teachers are ready to push their teaching to some unimaginable new levels. They’re already asking what’s next—like starting to think about augmented reality and virtual reality and how they can use these technologies. It’s fascinating to see how teaching will change.”

Ronald Carroll, Manager of Instructional Technology, Chicago Public Schools

The secret to mega-Chromebook rollouts: device management

Rolling out 300 Chromebooks to a district’s students and teachers takes careful planning. Up that number to 3,000, and IT managers and instructional technologists have to really ramp up on planning, professional development, and testing. In the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) district, home to 350,000 students, ongoing device rollouts required 300,000 Chromebooks.

As Ronald Carroll, the district’s manager of instructional technology, explains, seamless device management is critical for rollouts that run into the hundreds of thousands—especially in a district where decisions about technology use and choices are decentralized and built around each school’s unique needs.

“The management piece of using Chromebooks—that is, the Admin console and the Chrome Education Upgrade—really helped drive the 1:1 program,” Carroll says. “Especially the ability to delegate some admin tasks at the school level, which gives the schools freedom to choose extensions and apps and customize home screens.”

Understanding the “why” of classroom devices

Chromebooks first made their appearance in the district in 2012 at Chicago Academy High School, where Carroll was a technology coordinator. “We had a visionary principal at the time who wanted to try Chromebooks, which were brand-new then,” Carroll says. The small college prep school’s junior class was the first to try out 100 Chromebooks.

Carroll’s biggest concern back then was ensuring there was a reason for the devices, so that tech wasn’t in classrooms just for tech’s sake. “We had to start with the ‘why,’” Carroll says—the idea that in a changing world, and with students being prepared for jobs that might not yet exist, technology needs to support and transform teaching, not simply run admin tasks. “You have to look at technology as a tool that will do something for the teachers, since they’re the ones making the magic happen in the classroom.”

Google Workspace drives collaboration and Chromebook adoption

At about the same time that Chicago Academy High School got its delivery of Chromebooks, the entire district adopted Google Workspace for 300,000 students and 25,000 teachers. “One of the reasons we did this was to create a more open and collaborative workspace for teachers and students,” Carroll says. In many ways, allowing individual schools to make their own decisions was empowering, but the decentralized approach made management difficult—and also prevented teachers and administrative staff from sharing information and learning from each others’ best practices.

Gmail replaced the district’s FirstClass email system from OpenText, giving teachers and admins a consistent way to communicate with each other. Students in 4th grade on up also received Gmail accounts. The arrival of Google Workspace and Gmail, along with new district-wide tech support for devices, started accelerating the arrival of more Chromebooks in 2015, since the devices help students and teachers seamlessly work with Google Workspace tools.

As of late 2019, the district has 300,000 Samsung and Dell Chromebooks. School leaders still have leeway to choose the technology they want; but overwhelmingly, Carroll says, they’re choosing Chromebooks. “We love that the updates are seamless, happen in the background, and keep devices secure automatically—and teachers and kids love that Chromebooks boot up fast,” he says.

In a logical progression, Google Classroom caught on after Gmail and Chromebooks were becoming common classroom tools at CPS. “It’s really taken off,” Carroll says. “It’s been a great driver for better communication with parents—something teachers struggle with.” Instead of asking their children repeatedly for updates about school assignments and progress, and only seeing final grades, parents and students can read summaries throughout the school term.

Device management for district and school-level control

The Chrome Admin Console has brought both greater control and more freedom to CPS school leaders—all while streamlining the process of rolling out Chromebooks. As the district’s IT leaders have taken on central management of devices and Google Workspace, they’ve also realized that managing Chromebooks takes less time than for other devices.

“With Chromebooks, it’s just one person on our IT management team, who with a click of a button makes something happen on every device in the district,” Carroll says. “That is just awesome.”

At the district level, IT managers can use Chromebook App Hub to discover apps or extensions that the entire district needs, such as the Gopher Buddy app that offers usage insights. The district’s Admin console allows IT managers to provision apps or delegate control of some settings to individual schools—for example, schools that want to offer Lego’s MINDSTORMS app.

A “train the trainers” PD model

In addition to effective management, ongoing professional development is key to not just rolling out devices but making sure they’re used just about every day in the classroom. “Some of it’s about basic documentation for what I call ‘button-mashing,’” Carroll says. “You have to understand where to click.”

But Carroll wants to make sure that teachers can go beyond the basics, and become active creators of engaging lessons that integrate technology tools. He and other district-level IT leaders provide support to tech coordinators at each school, who are often librarians. In 2018, Carroll launched a program to provide “train the trainer” coaching to about 140 teachers at 40 schools.

“The idea is to have them become the internal support team—about four teachers per school,” he explains. “The biggest problem is being the only person in the room who has all the answers. This way, there’ll be several people with all the answers. And over time, the teachers can start training other teachers so we can scale out training much faster.”

Two annual technology conferences for teachers—one in April and one during summer break—provide a deep dive into classroom tech. “We’re also circling back to the tons of great PD we do in the district to make sure we bridge any technology content gaps,” Carroll says. “We want to make sure that when we do any kind of training, it includes technology and how it can improve learning outcomes and increase student engagement.”

Inspiring teachers to get creative with Google Workspace

As Carroll visits district schools, he sees how Chromebooks and Google Workspace have changed teaching and learning, just as the principal of Chicago Academy High School predicted back in 2012. “Now people don’t question whether we need devices—they question how we can use them to boost student engagement and encourage collaboration in the classroom,” Carroll says.

The differences also revolve around the give and take between students and teachers. “Here’s one small example—with students who are normally shy about participating and raising their hands,” Carroll says. “Now students can share within the comments in Google Classroom and have conversations that way. It takes the pressure off those students, and helps them learn and participate in ways that work for them.”

As teachers get the basics of “button-mashing” out of the way and brainstorm new ways to weave devices into lessons, they’re getting more creative. “Many teachers are ready to push their teaching to some unimaginable new levels,” Carroll says. “They’re already asking what’s next—like starting to think about augmented reality and virtual reality and how they can use these technologies. It’s fascinating to see how teaching will change.”

At a Glance

What they wanted to do

  • Integrate devices with classroom teaching
  • Prepare teachers and students for using Chromebooks
  • Build conversations around the “why” of devices

What they did

  • Adopted Chromebooks beginning in 2012
  • Added 300,000 Chromebooks over a several-year period
  • Created a district-wide “train the trainer” program

What they accomplished

  • Helped the district centralize device management using the Admin console
  • Inspired teachers to explore more new technology options for classroom instruction

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