Monday, April 1, 2013

Chromebooks and Word Processing

I finally picked up a Samsung Series 3 Chromebook, which I've had my eye on since I had the chance to work with one at the Boulder GAFE Summit last August (cf. my notes taken on a Chromebook).  I'm a big fan of Google Apps and have transitioned the majority of my work into my Drive account, so it's certainly a sensible purchase.  Additionally, my Mac is on its last leg, and the school-provided laptop is much too big for travel, and because I find using an iPad tedious for conferencing, the Chromebook seems like a great choice for a portable yet functional device while on the road.  After playing on it for a few hours, I'm very happy with the purchase.  Some quick observations:

  • The Spotify extension didn't initially work, but after going through Facebook, it now opens the player.  The web player still in demo and doesn't offer full functionality.
  • The trackpad is a little clunky, but I like the keyboard.
  • The screen resolution is fine.
  • The sound is surprisingly loud, even if somewhat muddled at high volumes, and the camera is respectable.

As our school moves toward a 1:1 laptop program beginning next fall, I've been working to keep the Chromebook in the picture as a viable laptop choice, and I've pushed toward as many web-based applications as possible to obviate the need for students to purchase expensive software that they would rarely use (I could easily see these software lists getting out of hand).  While web-based versions of most of the tools that students rely on are now available, however, there's still a dependence on Microsoft Office for all of our word-processing tasks.

I'm positive that I'll get quite a lot of use from the Chromebook, but one of my biggest issues in using it with students is the limited utility of fonts within Drive. Classics and linguistics consistently rely on specialized fonts for written work, and while Google Docs support nearly everything that we need, it is extremely tedious to generate non-standard characters easily within a document.  Consequently, I have two questions that I need to answer by August, before Drive can become a viable primary word-processing tool and the Chromebook can be a legitimate "BYOL" device for what I want to do in my Latin classes.

My Latin classes have found Drive useful (especially Docs and Spreadsheets), but we haven't yet used it to its full potential.  The default Chrome language can be set to Spanish, French, etc., with all diacritical characters readily available, and so modern language teachers should have little issues with writing the target languages.  But there's no "Latin" keyboard that offers the capability to write a long vowel with a "macron" over it, e.g. writing a verb like dūxērunt "they lead" (pf.).  When our students are doing written work on the computer, I want them to have the capability of marking vowel length without fuss, rather than having to insert a special character manually or type the Unicode character for each one, e.g. U+0113 for ē.

My question:  is there a way to create shortcut keys to type long vowels?  In Word, once can easily create a custom shortcut key, but because shortcuts are tied to browser function in web-based text editors, I'm not sure that this is possible.  Alternatively, can custom keyboard layouts be created?  If not, I'm worried that the usefulness of Docs will suffer, at least for Latin students, and that it will be even more difficult to move away from Word.

Similarly but going a step farther, it's impractical for me to do work with Proto-Indo-European (which traditionally does not use IPA), if I have to rely on inserting special characters like *gʷʰ or *ṷ (I can find no syllabic r). This issue isn't as urgent as the need for marking long vowels in Latin, but I would love to be able to do collaborative work with others.

I'll continue to explore Chrome-related questions over the next few months and will share my thoughts here.  As usual, I would greatly appreciate input from others.