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A Netbook for Every Student

Affordable and portable—but do they get the job done?
The 10-inch MSI Wind was one of the first netbooks-low-cost, compact laptops designed for online use that have become popular tools in districts.

The development of the first personal computer in 1971 began a process that has led to a computer reduced in size, weight and cost, which makes it increasingly popular in education—the netbook. Initially caught flat-footed by the concept, major manufacturers are scrambling to produce their own models, sometimes working with district leaders to test them.

Thanks largely to cloud computing, which provides access to data only through the Internet, and the Intel Atom processor, built purposely for affordable and easy-touse mobile devices, netbooks are proving to be effective one-on-one learning tools for students and, with a price range starting at about $200, a good buy for districts with tight budgets.

Unlike stripped-down versions of full-function laptops, which they might resemble at first glance, netbooks provide sufficient computing power and all the basic features necessary for most educational uses—at lower costs than conventional laptops. Netbooks are launching what some experts see as a new megatrend in computers. According to Gartner Inc.,an information technology research company, nearly 10 percent of the PC market could be netbooks by the end of this year.

Historically, computer use and computer products have grown at a fast rate since the 1980s. By 1986, a quarter of high schools used PCs for college and career guidance. In 1994, most classrooms had at least one PC available for instructional delivery. As the 20th century ended, many schools were rewiring for Internet access, and some were installing Web servers and providing teachers with a way to create instructional Web pages. Students accessed them initially on PCs and then conventional laptops.

The creation in 2005 of the nonprofit One Laptop per Child (OLPC) organization by Nicholas Negroponte and others from the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology led to today’s netbooks, suggests Alice E. Owen, executive director of technology in the Irving (Texas) Independent School District and chair of the Texas K-12 Chief Technology Officers Council.

When OLPC devised the design for a “$100 Laptop,” also known as a “Children’s Machine,” and later produced it as the XO-1 computer, “they revolutionized some of the technology for laptops, and that’s what we were waiting for,” says Owen, who also has served on national committees to develop standards for the educational technology community. Until then, she explains, the only option for districts was to buy expensive business-model laptops for their students. “At one point, we were paying close to $1,800 per machine, with the warranty and all the bells and whistles that came with it. That’s what the vendors were bidding. We kept telling them we didn’t need that big a laptop with all those extras; we’d like something smaller. But none of the big manufacturers saw that as a market.”

When OLPC came into being, some in the computer industry, including Apple CEO Steve Jobs, derided it as a joke, an idea that seemed unrealistic to achieve. They stopped laughing when OLPC began rolling out its XO in 2007 and it became a huge hit. Initially targeted for children in developing countries and not the United States, it fulfilled the vision of a super-cheap student laptop with enough power to do real-world work. Suddenly, says Owen, vendors thought maybe there was a market for students.

First-graders at Hanes Elementary School in the Irving (Texas) Independent School District use netbooks for class assignments.

School Beta Tests

Now several major manufacturers are targeting the K12 market, some with products so new—Fujitsu just launched a netbook on June 2—that they are working with districts to test their devices and then are tweaking them based on the feedback they get from teachers and administrators. For example, Acer America is inviting districts to participate in its K12 Seed Unit Program and get a free 30-day trial of its new Aspire One netbook. Program participants take part in conference calls with Acer representatives before and after the test run to discuss their own technology setups and needs and give their impressions of the netbook. Afterward, the participating schools and districts are entered into a drawing for a grand prize of a fully equipped computer lab or three runner-up prizes of up to 30 Acer netbooks for a classroom. August 31 is the deadline to apply for the Seed Unit Program.

"We kept telling them we didn't need that big a laptop with all those extras; we'd like something smaller." -Alice E. Owen, executive director of technology, Irving (Texas) Independent School District

Hewlett-Packard introduced its first version of a netbook, the Mini 2133, last year after “we helped design it,” says Kurt Madden, chief technology officer of the Fresno (Calif.) Unified School District.

HP has a branch facility in Fresno. “Our teachers were telling their students, ‘Take your textbooks off your desk and bring out your laptops,’ and then, ‘OK, put away your laptops and get out your textbooks,’ ” Madden says. “We needed something that would fit on the desk with a textbook, something with a 7- to -9-inch screen and without this big DVD, because kids run around with flash drives and iPods and don’t need the CD drives anymore.”

With those specs, HP devised a prototype.

The Fresno district initially bought 5,000 of the devices, and individual schools in the district bought 5,000 more. Meanwhile, HP has come out with a second-generation product, the Mini 2140.

HP works with a volunteer advisory board of about 20 teachers and technology administrators from districts nationwide who meet throughout the year at an HP facility to understand their needs and develop products and programs that resonate in the K12 market. “It’s not what HP thinks they need. We want their feedback on what they think they need,” says Elizabeth Crawford, HP’s education marketing manager for K12.

The North Daviess 21st Century High School, a technology school in the North Daviess (Ind.) Community Schools, will start using the HP Mini 2140 this fall in a “living textbook” project to replace some print textbooks and reduce costs for parents. Students will download curriculum into the netbooks and use them instead of textbooks. They will also use them to do research on the Internet on subjects such as social studies and Indiana history, all aligned to state standards.

The project will begin with ninth- and 10th-graders, who will be charged rental fees from $55 to $73.33 per year, compared to print textbook fees that could be up to $120 per year in some subjects, says Todd Whitlock, technology coordinator for the district. Students will be able to use the netbooks 24/7 from wherever they are.

North Daviess ultimately aims to include all students in grades 5-12 in the program. “We won’t eliminate textbooks completely. We still will have to buy them for some classes, like math. But we hope we will have to use them less and less, and more as resources than as curriculum,” Whitlock declares.

The Round Rock (Texas) Independent School District plans to test a new Dell netbook in two schools this fall. Dell is headquartered in Round Rock. “We didn’t go out and look at other netbooks until we knew what Dell was planning to do,” says Ed Zaiontz, the district’s executive director of information services and also chair of the Consortium for School Networking.

Even before the Dell product was on the market, Zaiontz suggested making sure “that if something goes wrong with it, we can fix it right here ourselves, with or without warranty, and don’t have to ship it someplace.” He notes that netbooks “don’t have as many moving parts” as desktops or earlier laptops, “so we’re hoping there will be fewer failures with them and they will be more maintenance-free.”

Screen Size and Costs

The size of netbook screens and keyboards has been problematic for some districts and manufacturers. Zaiontz sees netbooks as useful for online testing and suggested to Dell that a larger screen would be better for that. The Irving district bought 1,200 of a 9-inch model produced by ASUS and put them in some of its elementary schools and all its middle schools. “It has been working great,” reports Owen, “but we decided it was too small for the hands of a big high-schooler.” The district is awaiting vendors’ responses to a request for 10-inch models with larger keyboards.

Arapahoe High School in the Littleton (Colo.) Public Schools is testing an 8.9-inch ASUS model but probably will go for a product with a 10-inch screen, says Karl Fisch, the school’s director of technology. Meanwhile, in response to “a ton of questions” he gets from parents about what netbooks they should buy for their children, he suggests they consider the many options and features of different products.

Finding the cash to fund large-scale netbook purchases is another issue for administrators. “We had to find something that was more sustainable in terms of the cost of the device. Luckily, the price has come down some,” says Owen. The district had been paying about $1,000 per laptop, but the ASUS netbooks it bought last year cost about $550, she says.

Round Rock is tapping some of the $29 million earmarked for technology that was included in a $293 million school bond issue that district voters approved last fall. And training teachers to adapt to netbooks is a challenge. “There sometimes is a digital divide between students and teachers these days,” Madden says. All Fresno teachers get a basic orientation to netbooks through a 90-minute after-school professional development program, with more help available if they need it, Madden says.

In the Irving district, an instruction technology specialist on every campus can train teachers at any time. Also, teachers can get professional development credit for attending an annual summer training program that includes “numerous technology sessions,” reports Owen.

Finally, administrators must decide what to do with the old computers the netbooks are replacing. Fresno moves some of its “more recent ones” into classrooms that need additional computers, and a local electronics recycler buys the older ones, Madden says. In the Irving ISD, “we cannibalize some for parts,” says Owen, while others go to the maintenance department as surplus to be auctioned to the public.

For All Students

As commercial vendors race to catch up, OLPC is adding to the growing use of the products. While OLPC does not sell the XO to consumers on the retail market, it has made the product available to local governments and school districts nationwide for about $200 per machine. This has caused commercial manufacturers to jump into the market.

The largest U.S. deployment so far has been to the Birmingham, Ala., city government, which bought 15,000 XO’s for the Birmingham City Schools, to be distributed to all 13,000 students in grades 1-5 and their teachers. The city provided an additional $500,000 to cover costs of deployment, which was completed in February, and teacher training. Mayor Larry Langford wants all students to be computer literate, according to Robert McKenna, the mayor’s assistant.

It’s important for administrators to pay attention to netbooks, says Susan Einhorn, executive director of the Anytime Anywhere Learning Foundation. And even as netbooks are filling needs, another group of computers called smartbooks are building steam, according to The New York Times. These devices should be cheaper than netbooks and have longer battery lives—eight hours instead of two.

“You can’t ignore technology,” Einhorn says. “It exists in kids’ lives and they are very aware of it. The whole relevancy of schools changes if they don’t have the tools the kids know are out there.”

Alan Dessoff is a contributing writer for District Administration.