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How I'd use Classmate PCs in the States (and why I really want a UMPC now)

While the United States and other established markets are not the target for Intel's Classmate PC, I sincerely hope they bring something like this to the States. I'm still not sold on 1:1 computing in the sense of giving every middle schooler a laptop.

While the United States and other established markets are not the target for Intel's Classmate PC, I sincerely hope they bring something like this to the States. I'm still not sold on 1:1 computing in the sense of giving every middle schooler a laptop. I certainly couldn't ask taxpayers in my town to fund something like that, even if we were a wealthy community. Frankly, I don't think that utilization would be great enough. However, if Intel can keep costs down on these little computers while integrating ultra-low power, higher-performance CPUs (as Intel is planning for future generations), then I could envision a host of applications for these machines in elementary and middle schools.

Most elementary schools in our town have a single computer lab and 1-4 computers in each classroom. While really well-funded schools may have more computer facilities, this is hardly atypical at this level. The Classmate (and other computers like it) could easily replace dedicated lab facilities, freeing up space and allowing kids to stay in their classrooms, with their teachers for more time. Because of the low cost of the machines, 2 or 3 mobile labs could easily be supported for the cost of a single lab of standalone computers (I'll exclude thin clients from our discussion here).

Similarly, the rugged nature of these computers (according to Intel, they can be dropped while they are running and still function without a hitch; I haven't worked up the nerve to actually shove one off my desk), precludes the need for expensive laptop carts and should help teachers feel comfortable setting them on 2nd-graders' desks. Their small size makes them remarkably inviting to young people and I had to practically pry the Classmate out of my 5-year old's hands. He much preferred it to his desktop computer (yes, everyone in my family has a computer; it's just better when 4 budding geeks don't need to compete for technology resources), and could easily carry it with him wherever he went.

While I will discuss the software that comes with the Classmate in a later post, it should be noted that teachers, from their own PC, can blank screens, share or broadcast their own desktops, and/or broadcast a single student's desktop to all of the other Classmates in a classroom.

In addition, despite it's small size, the wide viewing angle of the screen lends itself to classroom use and student collaboration, meaning that schools could choose to purchase small classroom sets of these laptops (say, 1 for every 3 students). Obviously, they take up very little space and make for much easier use (especially in small groups) than 2 or 3 computers sitting in a back corner of a classroom.

Even at the middle school level, where an emphasis on computer literacy becomes much more important and adolescent growth spurts haven't made the keyboard too small for the average football player, classroom sets of tough, small PCs could go a long ways towards supplementing heavily used computer labs. Word processing, presentations, Internet research, and streaming media all work quite well on the Classmate, provided one doesn't try to do them all at once.

Are these little computers limited by their performance? Sure they are; they aren't meant to be mobile workstations. Are they potentially really great tools to give kids an understanding of the PC as a tool, early on? Yes indeed.

I used a Classmate all weekend during a strategic planning conference for our school district. Not only were the attendees fascinated by the little device ("Hey, is that the $100 laptop?" No, and the $100 laptop really isn't. "How much can I get one of those for?" Well, you can't right now. "Well, where can we get them?" Umm, China?), but the elementary school staff participating in the conference were especially interested in the ways they could make use of them in the classroom.

I learned 2 things using the Classmate this weekend. The first was that there really is a market for the Classmate and its competitors (which I hope extend beyond the Asus Eee and the OLPC XO) here in the States. Teachers at the conference were already imagining what they could do with sets of these laptops in their classrooms, even though I made it clear that they weren't going to be here any time soon. No one was talking about giving one to every student in a true 1:1 model, but everyone was talking about how they could use readily available computers that the kids would have a tough time breaking and could use in new, collaborative ways in the classroom.

The second is that I really want a UMPC (Ultra-Mobile PC). The ability to pull a small, fully-functional computer out of my bag and begin working no matter where I was proved incredibly valuable this weekend. Need some quick information from the Web? Got it. Can someone write that down? Already done and emailed out. Does anyone have a copy of that document? You bet - I'm downloading the PDF right now. All that happened on a computer designed for little kids, most of whom have had very little experience using a PC before. Am I willing to sacrifice some performance for total mobility? You bet your Intel stock.