The Digital Pulse Journal | The Wall Street Journal
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Chromebooks Were Once a Good Deal for Schools. Now They’re Becoming E-Waste.
Low-price, easy-to-use Chromebooks were once a boon to cost-conscious schools. Educators say the simple laptops are no longer a good deal.
Models have shot up in price in the past four years. Constant repairs add to the cost. Google imposes expiration dates, even if the hardware still works. This year, Google ceased support for 13 models. Next year, 51 models will expire.
These surging costs are presenting a predicament for anyone who runs a school and wants to educate children. Some administrators say they are throwing precious funding at a product that just doesn’t last long enough.
Doubling the lifespan of Chromebooks could save public schools—and taxpayers—an estimated $1.8 billion, according to U.S. PIRG, a public-interest research group that analyzed Chromebook data.
Chromebooks have no second life. When they expire, they become e-waste. By contrast, Macs and PCs can run apps even after their native software is no longer supported. They can even be repurposed into Chromebook-like devices.
During the pandemic, schools rushed to buy Chromebooks and other devices for remote learning. Chromebook sales slumped after in-person classes resumed. In the second quarter of this year, shipments jumped again, prompted by a May 13 deadline for the federal government’s Covid-19 emergency fund for schools and libraries, according to analytics firm Canalys.
Chromebooks released pre-2020 receive automatic monthly updates for about five years. Google extended the lifespan on newer models to up to eight years.
The clock starts ticking once the Chromebook goes on sale. By the time schools purchase Chromebooks, that time frame is shorter. That was the case for Frederick County Public Schools in Maryland. The district purchased Dell Chromebooks released in 2017 for the 2018/2019 school year—just four years before their June 2022 expiration date.
Chromebooks prepared for students at Boston Preparatory School in Massachusetts.
In addition, software for state testing often doesn’t work on expired Chromebooks, explained Derry Lyons, technology director for Washington state’s South Kitsap School District. “Your home PC, you can stretch it,” he said during a recorded January board meeting.
“Chromebooks have a hard stop on them.” Lyons added that thousands of the district’s Chromebooks are set to expire in 2026. It will cost $2.8 million to replace them.
A Google spokesman said, “We’ve worked diligently with our hardware partners to increase the years of guaranteed support Chromebooks receive.”
Forrest Smith, a ChromeOS product manager at Google, explained why expiration policies exist, saying they correspond to manufacturer support for hardware components inside the laptops. “These dates aren’t arbitrary,” he said.
Google must get laptop and components manufacturers to guarantee the hardware that runs ChromeOS can continue to perform, and test new features across supported models. Extending the lifespan is no trivial effort, Smith added.
Unfortunately, expiration dates often aren’t advertised. Some schools are lured by “dirt cheap” Chromebooks sold by large retailers, said John Sowash, a Michigan-based consultant who offers technology training to educators around the country.
“These devices are discounted because they only have one to two years of updates remaining,” he explained. A quick
Amazona search showed two Acer models that expired in 2022 are still available for purchase. Chromebook buying tip: Always check the Auto Update Expiration date listed on Google’s website.
“We used to buy new MacBooks, then after four years, resell them for hundreds of dollars,” said Jeannie Crowley, a former director of technology at Ethical Culture Fieldston School in the Bronx, New York. Chromebooks, she said, can actually cost money at the end of their life.
Crowley could sell bulk lots of Chromebooks mixed in with other Macs or PCs as scrap. No one bid on the Chromebook-only lots, so the school paid to haul away the e-waste.
And the cost of Chromebooks is going up. Piles of broken Chromebooks await repair at Cell Mechanic in New York. The firm restores thousands of laptops a month for schools.
Unlike a Mac or PC, Chromebooks generally don’t come with software such as video-editing apps, so schools have to pay subscriptions for them. Much of this software is increasing in price. Then there are Google’s administrative fees. In 2021, Google raised education-license pricing to $38 per device, up from $30.
Crowley, now the director of technology at Scarsdale Public Schools in New York, said the district spent more than $77,000 on licenses over the past four years and expects that number to jump when the current laptops expire.
Another strain is repairs. “When you drop a MacBook or PC, the metal tends to bend or dent. Our Chromebooks are lightweight and the plastic hardware cracks and breaks very easily,” Crowley said. A replacement touch screen for one model costs $172, more than half its original cost, she said.
“For each school I’ve worked in, I have this image of piles of broken Chromebooks being the norm,” said Crowley.
Chromebooks are still the best choice for schools because they are easy to manage, said Eric Curts, a tech specialist with Stark County Educational Service Center in Ohio. “The amount of time and effort we put in to support a fleet of Windows, with the virus issues and the amount of updates,” he said, “It was so, so much.”
Parkrose High School in Oregon spent $411,000 on Chromebooks for students to learn at home in 2020, according to the school’s director of operations.
Old MacBooks and PC laptops can be turned into Chromebooks, which could address several of the concerns. Google freely offers ChromeOS Flex, which does the switch-over.
It is a lovely idea, but not a likely one. An estimated 72% of Chromebooks are sold to educational institutions, according to analytics firm IDC. Chromebook manufacturers will be hard-pressed to give up those sales.
A more realistic fix, according to Curts, could be Google’s own plan to separate the Chromebook operating system and Chrome browser, so that at least the browser can continue to be updated.
That could conceivably extend the life of a Chromebook. After all, a 14-year-old Mac can run the latest version of Chrome, but a six-year-old Chromebook can’t. Google didn’t say if or when it would make this software widely available.
If it does, schools might want to invest in protective cases—no software fix will make cheap Chromebooks any sturdier.