Do we owe kids more than netbooks?

Do we owe kids more than netbooks?

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

TOPICS: Mobility, Hardware

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.

Topics: Mobility, Hardware

Christopher Dawson

About Christopher Dawson

Chris Dawson is a freelance writer, consultant, and policy advocate with 20 years of experience in education, technology, and the intersection of the two.

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  • RE: Do we owe kids more than netbooks?

    Chris I agree with your points, but now that we have the Smart Boards, and the LCD Projectors in the classrooms we want our teachers to integrate the use of computers into their curriculum. This way the students do not need to move from their classroom to a lab.
    • RE: Do we owe kids more than netbooks?
      I LOVE
  • RE: Do we owe kids more than netbooks?

    If you shop smartly and look around you can get 15" LCD (LED lited) Core i3 with 4G of DD3 RAM with 250G/320G HDD with Windows 7 (64bits) easily for $499. The only down side to that is that it'll weight closer to 5lb and battery life is probably more along he lines of 4hrs instead of 8.

    I bought an Acer from Newegg at the beginning of the summer and an HP from Bestbuy (local store but same price online) about 2-3 weeks ago.
  • I think there will also be a lot of very interesting form factors with Arm

    coming very soon. An 11.5 inch multi-core Arm tablet with folding keyboard would be a very interesting option for us "older" farts on the road. Also, say a 12 or 13 inch multi-core Arm laptop with 12 hours battery would be very interesting. These could be at extremely low price points, lighter, thinner, longer battery life than the Wintel couterparts.
    • Why Limit yourself with ARM?

      When an Intel netbook is capable of running all operating systems, which logically would be of more a benefit then using an ARM processor in a netbook?
      Tim Cook
      • RE: Do we owe kids more than netbooks?

        @Mister Spock
        Battery life might be an important factor then ARM wins hands down at the moment.
      • RE: Do we owe kids more than netbooks?

        @Mister Spock
        Firstly, battery life. Secondly, both amd64 and ARM run Linux-based operating systems, so there is no downside to ARM.
      • RE: Do we owe kids more than netbooks?

  • RE: Do we owe kids more than netbooks?

    someone should bring back the IBM " Butterfly" keyboard, it would be great on anything with a screen smaller than 12".
  • RE: Do we owe kids more than netbooks?

    I think your post expands on the basic idea that there is not one magic bullet that will work in every educational setting. Your alternative $50,000 scenarios make sense, but as with all things like this, the devil is in the details. In this case, that means analysis of the situation particulars, the time and talent available to implement the recommended solution, integration with supporting services and existing facilities, and long-term follow-through and back-up. IT projects have a bad habit of going bad far too often; this type of effort is no different.

    I would like to take issue, though, with the idea that once one has advanced beyond middle school, use of netbooks is a poor alternative to a more standard notebook PC. Over a year ago, I gave away a 15" Toshiba dual-core Windows XP notebook and replaced it with a 10.1" Asus Eee PC netbook. In the intervening time, I've maxed the RAM to 2 GB, cloned the 160 GB Windows XP operating system to a new 500 GB drive, which dual-boots Windows 7 Pro, and continued to use it as my only portable computer. I have access to powerful desktop PCs at home and work, but for me, the netbook is perfect. The size of the keyboard is not an issue (and I don't have particularly small hands), and the ten-inch display shows me enough to get my work done. I run the full Aero desktop, along with MS Office 2010 and other mainstream apps. I even have a 3D CAD app I occasionally run. My needs aren't that exceptional, and I will admit that a faster machine would be nice at times. The things that keep me happy, though, are the 6+ hour battery life and the three-pound weight. I'm quite satisfied with my choice in trading "down." Once again, though, as is often the case, your mileage may vary.
  • RE: Do we owe kids more than netbooks?

    Wow, Chris, was this really about netbooks in the classroom, or were you just looking for a way to brag about your new Mac?

    All this talk about 1:1 computers of ANY kind right now is just BS. We have school systems everywhere laying off teachers to the bare minimum and modifying or cutting bus routes because they don't have the money to sustain them. How about we wait a year or two and let the economy improve before we start trying to push this 'one laptop per child' crap again.

    Some of us learned things quite well at school with just textbooks and a chalk board. Sure the kids need to learn computers, but most of the kids I know either have their own at home, or use the family computer, and can run circles around most of the adults with them.

    High school and college kids, yes, elementary and middle school, not so much. I think you are living in a fantasy world.
    • RE: Do we owe kids more than netbooks?

      babyboomer57 --<br><br>Absolute agreement. Until American schools can raise average reading and math scores to levels competitive with other top-scoring nations, technology in the classroom is a "nice to have" rather than a "must have."<br><br>I know: Mr. Dawson and others here might argue that computer/internet knowledge is a "basic skill" now, or that it's a "requirement" to function the modern world. I would argue that unless tech skills are underpinned with a solid verbal and math foundation, then children will grow into adults who merely use computers and mobile devices for Facebook, YouTube, shopping, and [semi-literate] texting.<br><br>As old-fashioned and unsexy as it is, most vital skills -- even in the Internet Age -- can be taught from books and chalkboards/whiteboards. Consider PISA 2009 results (<a href="" target="_blank" rel="nofollow"></a>): do you really think that all of the nations who outperformed the U.S. could boast "one laptop per child"?<br><br>Don't get me wrong: computer/web skills are great for children to learn. I just think that they need basic verbal, mathematical, and critical thinking skills <b>first</b> if they're to be anything more than docile, gullible consumers.
  • RE: Do we owe kids more than netbooks?

    JJ_z mentions a model that is a clone of the Lenovo laptop I bought my kid 3 weeks ago for college. Of course it was listed as a laptop on Tiger Direct, but the packaging called it a notebook. Sorry, by my understanding of the terminology a 15" LCD, Core i3 with 4G of DD3 RAM with 250G/320G HDD running 64 bit Windows 7 is a bit more than just a notebook.

    He's in a film program at Keene State and they have a lab with all the beefier workstations he'll need as most portable systems aren't in the league of Lucas Films workstations.

    1:1 ratios are a necessity at the college level. 1:1 may even be an expectation at the high school level. But there are necessary mental and motor skills that need to be taught and practiced at the elementary and middle school levels that are mutually exclusive of 1:1 computer useage to the point I would recommend banning computers from classrooms, and homework, for other than research purposes.
  • Lets teach our kids how to think again

    Let's not give them the latest netbook, instead let?s take away their calculator and hand them a slide rule. This trend of letting machines think for our children is teaching our children not to think. If you went into a restaurant where high school kids ran the register how many do you think could give you correct change without at least using a pencil and paper of the register were to stop working? I am betting nearly zero could do it in their head.

    You should focus on teaching students how to handle the basic skills and forget about what is fashionable from Dell.
    • RE: Do we owe kids more than netbooks?

      @balsover - Why the hell don't they have 'LIKE' buttons on this blog? I would give you a bunch of them.

      Best answer I have seen on any blog so far this week !!!
      • RE: Do we owe kids more than netbooks?

        Technology is an extremely important part of today's curriculum, and the use and teaching with technology is important for any student that wishes to get a respectable job.
      • We need thinkers more than automans and rote-clickers

        @azabani <br><i>Technology is an extremely important part of today's curriculum, and the use and teaching with technology is important for any student that wishes to get a respectable job. </i><br><br>I'm not sure this needs to extend to children before the 5th or 6th grades. I think learning the core fundamentals - per classical education - during young people's most formative years yields greater upsides. Personally, I see this as a critical component toward fostering the ability to think and act on your own. After that, technical implements can be introduced to serve a more heightened role.<br><br>I'm with balsover here; the slide rule should not be left in the dust, not in the digital age or any uncharted eras beyond.
      • RE: Do we owe kids more than netbooks?

        azabani --<br><br>Computer/web use should complement basic math, verbal, and critical thinking skills, not replace them.<br><br>Someone who can only watch a video (rather than read a book), or solve math problems with a calculator (rather than do them mentally or on paper), is NOT educated ... they're merely a passive tool-user.<br><br>What's more, if students aren't taught to think <i>critically</i> about information they encounter, or to choose between problem-solving strategies (which is much more than just knowing "which buttons to push"), they'll be slaves to their technology rather than intelligent, informed users of it.<br><br>I know that many here, especially the young (which I suspect includes you, azabani), will disagree because technology is so "shiny and cool" compared to dusty old books and chalkboards. Unfortunately for you, "shiny and cool" doesn't guarantee that you're competitive in the global marketplace. Verbal, math, and critical thinking skills -- all teachable via low-tech methods -- <b>will</b>, however, give you a fighting chance.
    • I agree that technology is making them less intelligent

      @balsover We here in India have a subject know as Mental Maths, in which every kid is taught to calculate in his mind without using a pencil & paper... Guess that makes them at least use their brains.. At least I have used mine...
      • RE: Do we owe kids more than netbooks?

        tejasmodi --

        This is why many American students who can't solve problems without reaching for a calculator, or can't write a research paper without Wikipedia, will be working for Indian bosses in coming years.

        (...And I'm speaking as an American who's proud of his country but concerned with its current endemic laziness.)