Do we owe kids more than netbooks?

Are netbooks what your students really need? If so, buy extras: they're cheap. But if not, consider the alternatives.

Netbooks are great. No, really, they are. Cheap, highly portable, and practically disposable, these little computers have pushed many schools farther towards really favorable student-computer ratios than just about any device. And whether they're Dell's latest Latitude 2110, Intel's Classmate, or anything in between, we've seen that they can work very well for students and teachers.

That being said, there are plenty of times when they simply don't cut the mustard. I started typing this on something of an un-netbook, the Lenovo X100e. While it looks and feels like a netbook in many ways, the dual-core Neo processor and NVidia graphics make it pretty tolerable as a daily machine. It also can't be had for the rock bottom prices of the average netbook, but its full-sized keyboard and 11" screen make it worth the price (Amazon sells the model I've been using for around $500).

Notice, however, that I said I started typing this on the X100e (which, I should add, has been my primary computer for a couple of months now). Then my MacBook Pro arrived. I'm not typing on the X100e anymore.

This isn't to say that the Lenovo isn't a great ultraportable. It really is perfect for what it does. It travels well, it's durable, it has a great keyboard, and performance is tolerable for daily use. However, given the choice between tolerable and really fast, or between a usable screen and 15 inches of high-res anti-glare glory, I'm going to opt for the latter. I'm sure I'll regret that the next time I'm on my way to New York and I'm missing 3 pounds of Lenovo lightness easily cradled on my lap, but the performance tradeoffs are now such, given that I spend as much as 15 hours a day on my computer, that I can live with the feel of warm aluminum on my lap and the glares of other train riders between whom I'm squeezed.

That's me, though. I'm a professional writer and content creator. I can justify the cost of the MBP (and, to be honest, my wife would beg to differ with you). By leveraging the low cost of entry represented by netbooks, schools can get many more computers into many more hands, making 1:1 not only possible, but more realistic than it has ever been. Younger kids in particular can benefit from netbooks that are sized perfectly for smaller hands, smaller backbacks, and smaller spaces, not to mention low costs and increasingly ruggedized features that make the computers OK for even the most accident-prone of children.

Next: What happens when those little guys stop being so little? »

What happens, though, when kids move out of that K-6 ideal age group for netbook deployments? While students through grade 8 can certainly benefit from a well-designed deployment of netbooks (especially with dual-core Atoms on the way and solid solutions from the likes of Dell and Lenovo), it isn't hard to make a case for a different approach as kids get older.

I'm not suggesting that 8th graders really need MacBook Pros. Or even MacBooks, for that matter. However, if budgets are sufficiently constrained to make netbooks the only viable option for your secondary school students, then it's time to think about how else you might spend the money earmarked for those 200 HP Mini 100s. As I type this on the perfectly-spaced keyboard of my new MacBook with a Windows VM running at the same time as a couple of web browsers and iMovie happily encoding video, all at speeds that the X100e couldn't match with just Windows and Office running natively, I can't help but think that the netbook, when shoehorned around requirements and needs in the name of cost may not be the best use of those scarce resources.

Chances are, the emerging class of ultraportables like the X100e will meet the needs of older students very well without adding too much cost to the bottom line. But what happens when even $250 per student for a basic netbook is a stretch? $250 a student for 200 students is $50,000. At a minimum, that represents 10 high-end interactive whiteboards with integrated projectors, sound, and a netbook of their own. $50,000, could therefore buy a smartboard for every classroom in which those students learn every day and most likely pay for the professional development to train teachers to use them well.

$50,000 could buy 4 computer labs that are centrally managed and energy efficient, using solutions from Wyse or NComputing.

$50,000 could buy new projectors, screens, and interactive response systems for every classroom, enabling ongoing formative assessment. There would be money left over for training so that all teachers would fully understand the power of regular, immediate feedback.

$50,000 would install computing centers in every room with 7-8 stations taking advantage of Windows Multipoint Server or Edubuntu.

$50,000 would install servers running student information systems, learning management systems, and library systems, with training and initial setup included from any number of companies that act as value-added resellers for open source school solutions.

I'm sure you get the point. One could argue that any of the items I noted above could have as great or greater an impact as a 1:1 solution that isn't appropriate for a given age group or simply isn't implemented well.

When money is tight, but a school is committed to transforming education with and through technology, 1:1 (whether with netbooks or otherwise) is hardly the only means available. For many schools and students, 1:1 is the way to go. However, there is no shame in setting aside an unsustainable or poorly implemented 1:1 initiative in favor of other disruptive technologies that contribute directly to student achievement.

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