As regular readers will know, our district has two rolling labs of Intel Convertible Classmates. One of the labs at our K-3 school has worked quite well in spite of some logistical hurdles around the use of a portable lab in an aging 2-story school with no elevator. The other lab, however, was in pretty bad shape by the end of the holidays. Some repair work was definitely in order.
Unfortunately, in the K-6 school, the Classmates were put through quite a rigorous schedule, such that there was little chance to inspect them or check them in and out properly to ensure student accountability. Before we knew it, many were missing keys, screens were damaged, and the cart was largely unusable.
One has to wonder if a single piece keyboard like that on the OLPC XO might be more resistant to mischievous little hands prying at keys, but I agree with Intel's argument that the tactile feel of a single-piece rubber keyboard is mighty poor. I also decided to try my hand at popping the keys off of an already damaged machine. My experience with the Classmates has been one of serious durability, but perhaps there had been some quality control lapses. Guess what? It took prying with the stylus to remove the keys and the rubber boot beneath them. They certainly weren't just "falling off".
I've dropped Classmates from well above their rated height and I've spoken with others who have implemented them in harsh conditions in developing countries. They've lasted for years without mishap. Obviously, things happen and daily wear and tear will take its toll on any equipment; these aren't military-grade ruggedized machines. However, they can only take so much abuse.
That said, we're rolling them out again, fixed up, with new accountability measures in place, and a new sense of ownership for the kids based on shifting usage models and real efforts at educating them regarding the care and feeding of the machines. I'm confident that we'll see much better reliability when they're used as intended.
And while it's taken me a while to get to the point here, it's worth noting that the Classmates are quite easy to maintain, in the event that things do go wrong. While the tech and school principal had the advantage of an assembly/disassembly guide from Quanta (the ODM for the Convertible Classmate) as they replaced keyboards (purchased for the low, low price of $45 a piece), they noted that the actual procedure was very straightforward. I'll post the guide if I can get permission from Intel, but for now, as the principal noted,
Keyboard replacement when done properly is a quick job. Four screws, a panel removed and pressing the release tabs for the keyboard frees the keyboard from the top. Removing the old ribbon cable and inserting the one from the new keyboard starts reassembly. Once in the zone, it's a ten minute job at the most. Even a principal can do it.
Easy maintenance is an important feature of any educational hardware, given that corporate-level IT support is rarely available. This is the sort of maintenance that may fall to students, techs, teachers, and even principals and it needs to be straightforward. I'll keep you posted on the new rollout efforts, but I'm confident that a new approach will be the most effective remedy to our problems, not the introduction of new computers. The Classmates are solid, particularly given the disparity between our experiences at two different schools with two different age groups; we just need to ensure that students have enough accountability and ownership to appreciate what they have at their fingertips.