LOS ANGELES — Google's Chromebook has become ubiquitous in classrooms across the United States, often considered the go-to option for digital learning given its relative affordability and web-based programs — a combination that proved even more valuable for distance learning during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since Chromebooks' launch more than a decade ago as a cheaper alternative to tablets, their use has expanded exponentially in schools nationwide, providing more students a personal computer device — including in many low-income districts. And although issues of internet connection and at-home access to devices persist, new improvements to the Chromebook could help stretch its lifetime and scope.
Google recently announced plans to expand Chromebooks' automatic updates up to 10 years, maximizing the potential lifespan of the devices that have become key for both in-school lessons and after-school studies. Beginning next year, the change will automatically apply to all Chromebooks launched in 2021 or later, and for devices released before 2021 there will be an option to extend the updates to 10 years from the platform's original release, Google officials said.
"I think this change is going to save a lot of laptops from getting disposed of," said Lucas Rockett Gutterman, the director for California Public Interest Research Group's Design to Last campaign. Gutterman worked on a report this spring called Chromebook Churn. "This update is going to give them more years of support so that they can stay in use longer."
Gutterman and his team found that Chromebooks previously lasted an average of four years before reaching an automatic-update expiration date — a set date when software support and critical security checks end. For many schools, that cut off access to certain secure websites and applications, including critical state testing, Gutterman said.
The Chromebook Churn report also found that some working devices were forced into obsolescence due to these pre-fixed expiration dates. Doubling the average lifespan of a Chromebook to eight years — without accounting for other maintenance issues, which educators say often arise — could save schools across the country $1.8 billion, or about $225 million in California, the report found. Such a change would also vastly reduce carbon emissions by minimizing unnecessary electronic waste.
"To [Google's] credit, they listened," Gutterman said, citing pressure from educators, parents, activists and environmental groups. He said the change could also provide the opportunity for a "secondary life" for the devices through resale, given the longer software window.
Although most educators welcome Google's plans to boost the Chomebook's life, some say, in practice, the change may not have much of an effect.
"I think we'll probably keep a similar refresh cycle just because of the wear and tear we're seeing on the devices, especially those in the take-home program," said Scott Bennett, assistant director of technology support for the Irvine Unified School District. "They hold up a little bit better than cellphones, but realistically, I'd say six years is probably about the limit."
What with physical damage — cracked screens, worn hinges — and diminished battery life, Bennett said he didn't expect his district's Chromebooks to last 10 years, even when they have the capability. Since 2015, Irvine Unified has purchased about 75,000 Chromebooks for the district, a third of which have already been taken out of circulation, either due to physical damage or that set expiration date, which hit about five or six years after purchase, he said. Of Irvine Unified's 36,000 students in prekindergarten through 12th grade, Bennett said middle schoolers tend to be roughest with the electronics.
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