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Wits to start 6-month trial of 40 Google Chromebooks

The University of the Witwatersrand kicked off a six-month trial of Acer’s new Chromebook today, a low-cost laptop that has been designed with education in mind, and with Google’s Chrome operating system at its heart.

The 40-Chromebook trial started this morning with the announcement at the University of the Witwatersrand, where representatives from Acer, Intel and Google introduced a crowd of academics, students and media to the Chromebook.

At its core, the Chromebook is a Celeron-powered notebook with an optional touchscreen that packs between 16GB and 32GB of solid-state storage, has 3G or WiFi connectivity (or both), runs for up to 11 hours between charges and has a price tag of anywhere between R2 500 and R3 300. (That’s really, really cheap for what you’re getting.)

Wits aims to make the 40 Chromebooks available to both students and staff, keeping them primarily in the sciences departments, in an effort to see how their existing systems integrate with Google’s services. Paul Collins, Acer’s commercial channel manager for personal computers, said Acer won’t just deliver the Chromebooks and forget about them, but that the company would get stay in touch with the university and get three-monthly reports on how the project is going.
A Windows-less PC

The Chromebook’s biggest departure from a regular notebook is, of course, that it runs Google’s lightweight Chrome operating system. Using Chrome OS is essentially like doing everything on your PC via the Chrome browser, with a few interface tweaks here and there to show you things like a taskbar to see what’s currently open and an app loader that shows you the list of Google apps that you have access to.

By bypassing Windows (and its license fee) and including a whole lot of useful, free apps, the Chromebook’s price can be kept really low but still provide essential services that make it useful out the box.

Best of all, by merely logging into a Chromebook with your Google account, all of your apps, settings and mail follow you around without requiring any additional setup.

As good as they are on their own, Chromebooks really take off when they join the Google for Education programme (GfE), which offers a host of education-specific apps that make learning and collaborating in the classroom a much more streamlined and manageable affair.

Joining the programme is a once-off cost of just $30 per Chromebook, and it grants teachers access to things like Google Play for Education, a selection of teacher-approved apps designed specifically for educational purposes.
There’s a catch

This is all very good news indeed, but there’s a catch: Chromebooks aren’t going to be sold through South African retail as they’re intended purely for educational institutions. That means the average the South African won’t be able to walk into their favourite tech shop and grab one off the shelf; you can’t even order a Chromebook online.

We were told that if you want one you’ll need to go through an Acer distributor, which has its own share of challenges. For starters, distributor accounts aren’t handed out to just anyone – you’ll need to be a registered business (or know someone who is already registered) before you can buy anything.
A promising start

Even though Chromebooks aren’t going to be available to the public through retail channels, this is still good news for South African education in general. Cheap laptops like these coupled with internet connectivity and Google’s large number of productivity and educational apps means a huge pool of resources are within more people’s grasp than ever before.


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