The Loaded Chromebook
*** 11/2017 Update: In short, this is a Chromebook with the RACHEL USB version (static content) installed onto an SD card with a lightly modified index.html. This page has not been updated in a long time, however, the “loaded Chromebook” is a terrific project that we still field in many places. It is still necessary and quite a cool project. If you want to jump in and help us update this, or you want to build your own, join us in our community. ***
Students and teachers need some sort of client to interact with the software we deploy on our various hardware and we’ve tested many different solutions.
- Wi-Fi enabled Smartphones. Pros: Relatively inexpensive, easy to repair, low power draw, low risk of viruses. Cons: Too small for most “real” education, delicate.
- Cheap tablets. Pros: Inexpensive (starting at $30), low power draw, low risk of viruses. Cons: VERY delicate, fidgety software won’t run most training, “cheap”, hard to repair.
- Expensive tablets. Pros: Low power draw, good software runs most training, low risk of viruses. Cons: Delicate (glass screens? YIKES!), expensive (around $200), hard to repair.
- Laptops: Pros: Real operating system builds real computer skills, durable, relatively easy to repair if a tech is available. Cons: Expensive, risk of viruses, high power draw.
- Desktops: Pros: Real operating system builds real computer skills, durable, relatively easy to repair if a tech is available. Cons: Very expensive, risk of viruses, VERY high power draw.
What is The “Loaded Chromebook”?
Working in some of the harshest environments on the planet however, we needed to find a client that met some rather stringent requirements. Our client must feature:
- A solid state build. No moving parts ensures low heat and lower power draw. “Fanless” operation keeps dust and dirt out of the internals.
- A modern HTML5-compliant browser that can handle modern web-based content and video (including Flash and mp4 files) within the browser.
- A quick and easy factory reset, allowing non-technical staff to rebuild a machine in the field. It should be nearly impossible for students to “mess up” the software on the machine.
- A built-in “guest mode”, ensuring static student sessions. It should be impossible for a student to “mess up” the session for other students.
- Good battery life and a low power draw. Most of our installations have only part-time power or rely on solar. The client should last a full school day (at least) on a full charge.
- A low price point (around $200). The schools we serve have extremely tight budgets.
- The backing of a major manufacturer. We need assurance that the machines can be repaired and that parts are available.
- Two USB ports allowing for a keyboard and mouse. This extends the life of the machine by keeping the student’s hands off the hardware.
- Light weight build. This allows the machines to be easily packed up and locked at the end of the day and cuts down on shipping costs.
- At least an 11″ fairly bright screen for good visibility, especially in bright environments.
- Virus-free operation. Viruses are awful in developing countries. We can’t have the learning experience messed up because of viruses.
- Optional VGA output to allow connection to a budget/older projector.
Our research led us to a fairly new breed of machine, the Google Chromebook. With solid-state operation, the built-in industry-leading Chrome browser, the security of virus-free operation thanks to a solid and secure “guest mode”, a simple factory reset function and a relatively low price point, the Chromebook line seemed to fit the bill. Eventually, we found the $200 Acer C7 Chromebook. Backed by the Acer brand name, it was our first choice and we were not disappointed. Further testing revealed that the C7 met all of our demands and then some. It ran all of our content, including Flash and MP4 video and connected flawlessly to the RuggedPi and other hardware solutions. It was a match made in heaven.
However, we also wanted to make sure the C7 could operate as a stand-alone machine, so we added a $20 32gb SD card and loaded both RACHEL, GCFLearnFree content. We locked the card and super-glued the lock (making it read-only) and the result was an extremely resilient, nearly impossible-to-mess-up training station, at a retail price of only $220.
We are working with two builds right now, each of which fit on a standard 32gb SD card:
- The “standard” build. This is pretty much the standard RACHEL deployment with a few tweaks. It provides an offline “library-in-a-box” solution geared toward primary, secondary and tertiary schools. You can preview this build here.
- The “village” build. Best deployed with an English-speaking caretaker, this build contains 1,050 documents from the Appropriate Technology Library that opens up a wealth of information to the sustenance culture living below the poverty line. This creates an offline library of information on agriculture, energy, healthcare, small business, and so much more. You can preview this build here.
The build is relatively straightforward. Here are a few notes:
- Log into guest mode, connect to a wifi Internet connection, click on Settings, then Help to allow the Chromebook to update. The factory build may be outdated and affect the learning experience.
- We install the USB version of RACHEL, including the MOWES, Apache and PHP software. Although it’s not needed by the Chromebook (which is only viewing RACHEL’s static HTML pages in it’s browser) this setup allows the user to safely distribute RACHEL from the (locked) SD card with an SD-to-USB adapter to any machine that can run the fully dynamic version of RACHEL, including (possibly virus-ridden) Windows-based desktops and laptops.
- We superglue the SD card’s lock into the locked position after the RACHEL install. This ensures that the card can not be written to.
- We only use guest mode. Unless you really know what you’re doing, don’t log into a Google account for a student session. The reason for this is that the real Google account session will save various changes between sessions. This is not ideal for most uses as the student may get confused if their desktop and other settings are changed between sessions. Remember, the guest mode is always the same as it’s recreated each time it’s invoked.
- Don’t be tempted to load Ubuntu or any other operating system onto the Chromebook. You will lose it’s best features: the ability to resist unsigned code (viruses, etc) and the ability to be easily field-recovered.