Are Web-Only ‘Chromebooks’ the Ideal Computers for Education?

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The first computer I ever used in a classroom was the Apple II. My first grade teacher, Mrs. Hogan, would line us all up against a wall before walking the class over to the computer lab, a rusty bungalow tucked away in a dark corner of the school.

It was in that lab—which my elementary school shuttled us back-and-forth to for five straight years—that I learned important life skills like proper typing mechanics, floppy diskettes should always be put back in their envelope, and that you can only carry 100 pounds of buffalo meat with you back to the wagon on any given hunting trip.

(MORE: The 10 Greatest Games on the Apple II)

Flash forward to today, and obviously the tools at a student’s disposal are exponentially more advanced than they were two decades ago. But they also present a different set of challenges: The machines themselves not only get dated quicker than ever before, but their hardware is expensive to maintain and they’re prone to viruses. According to a study from Gartner, each machine could potentially cost upwards of $3,300 during its short lifetime.

Which is why bringing Google’s web-only “Chromebooks” to the classroom could be a good idea. In a blog post from yesterday, Google announced that the first three schools as part of its Chromebooks for Education program were off and running.

Chromebooks, of course, are Google’s cloud-based, web-only laptops that connect to the internet through either Wi-Fi or 3G. They’re less expensive than fully realized computers (the cheapest model is available for around $350) and the “Chrome” operating system is constantly updated. They have relatively long battery life (7-8 hours per charge) and, since they’re hard drive-less, have fewer moving parts to muck up.

(MORE: When All You Want Is the Web: Google ‘Chromebooks’ Are Here)

Here’s what one principal from a small school in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, writes about the experience:

“This summer, we considered three options: a complete PC refresh, Windows loaner laptops, or a set of Chromebooks. The first two choices would cost tens of thousands up front not including additional license fees and time I don’t have to maintain a Windows server environment. Chromebooks were the obvious economical choice, but they also made the most sense from an instructional perspective since we use Google Apps for Education, which is well integrated with Chromebooks. In my English class, students do peer reviews in real-time in Google Docs and with Google Maps and Earth we can do real-world math problems, which is far more tangible than working out of a text book.”

In addition to eight second boot times, Chromebooks don’t really need new hardware and the operating system actually gets better over time with updates. And while lots of consumers are still wary of transferring their information over to the cloud, in a classroom it’s actually an advantage for teachers, who will have a web-based management console with which to monitor their kids’ activity.

For schools they run $20 per month apiece, which, over the course of four years still comes out to only $960 per machine.

Though it’s important to point out that all three schools in the program are for grades K-9. Most high schoolers will probably need full-fledged operating systems if they’re to be properly prepared for college or their careers. (Learning C++ in 9th grade, for example, was very different from gunning down pixelated buffalos.)

Still, it just might be a good idea. Head over to the Official Google Enterprise Blog to read more.

PHOTOS: A Brief History of the Computer

Chris Gayomali is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @chrigz, on Facebook, or on Google+. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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