Textbook of the Future: The hardware

If we acknowledge that iPad is not the appropriate hardware solution for teaching students in the 21st century, then what is?

In my last article, Textbook of the Future: The challenges, I wrote at length about the hard financial realities of having to deploy expensive tablet devices like the iPad to tens of millions of K-12 students.

I also discussed the flaws in Apple's iBooks Textbooks publishing model and how it is unlikely that a non-reusable book system will resonate with public school systems, and whether or not with the iPad and iBooks Textbooks we are actually solving a problem with electronic textbooks in the first place.

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My ZDNet colleague Chris Dawson and I have talked a great deal amongst ourselves about revolutionizing the American educational system by using enabling technology. Inexpensive and equal access to learning materials would be a significant step towards improving the educational futures of our children, but it is only part of a much larger group of problems facing our educational system.

Neither of us are going to pretend to have all the answers or even try to present solutions to a large chunk of them. Not all of the problems facing education are even related to technology. Many of them are social and economic ones.

Still, ZDNet is a technology site, and since we're technology writers, we have to at least try to utilize the tools and methods we have at our disposal.

As an educator Dawson has chosen to attack the problem from a ecosystem-related perspective which encompasses the required support infrastructure as well as demolishing the traditional textbook publisher model with the potential for far less expensive Open Source / Educator-created textbooks and other media.

All of this is going to be important if we are going to reduce costs and also provide value to schools and to students.

As a technologist I intend to attack it from a systems approach.

So the iPad and iBooks Textbooks are too expensive and also too proprietary. That much is a given. What do you replace it with?

Whatever you end up giving to students either has to be durable or it has to be so cheap that it has to be considered practically disposable, from the standpoint of a school system which would have to finance it entirely on its own or from the standpoint of a parent that has to equip their children with a device as part of a yearly school supplies budget.

The reality is that any device that is going to end up in the hands of students for the purposes of serving as the primary knowledge transfer platform is probably going to have to be an amalgam of all of these things.

Relatively inexpensive, but also relatively durable.

The argument has been made that schools may not have to buy devices at all, but instead will rely on a BYOD strategy since kids will already have devices that their parents will buy them anyway. I think that's a very naive way of looking at things.

For starters, there are many families which live below or at the poverty line and cannot afford to buy things such as iPads and Android Tablets and the like for their children.

Even middle class families would struggle to do this for more than two children at a time, and given the current durability of consumer electronics, it is unlikely that these types of devices could survive constant transport back and forth to school.

There's also the issue of current non-standardized charging methods since the kids wouldn't necessarily remember to charge their devices at night, and you cannot expect to equip each desk with an AC plug. You'd need some sort of standardized charging station in the classroom to juice up a few tablets at a time, which could be swapped out for a freshly charged device if needed.

And there's also the issue of how one would restrict the use of BYOD devices to only the educational material during a classroom setting, and that inequality in the classroom with certain children having better devices than others is going to create problems in and of themselves.

There will be fights among the students, and there will be vast theft if consumerization of the classroom is brought into the picture.

You certainly can't have that.

So BYOD is probably not doable. What you want is a standardized piece of hardware that is durable, is fairly inexpensive, is easily managed from the educator's perspective for controlling what is learned in and out of the classroom, and has zero value from a theft perspective. The device needs to be brick-able by the management software if stolen.

What we're really talking about is something that more resembles a vertical market-type of device than something that exists today in the consumer space like an iPad or a full-size Android tablet.

If we are looking to educate K-12 with electronic textbooks and other multimedia learning materials (Web, videos, audio, apps) we want something that gets the job done but is not necessarily at the state of the art of what exists in in the consumer space.

It has to be a device that can be produced in very large volumes (in the tens of millions) using an extremely stable supply chain, has a low bill of materials and has a workable life span of three or more years before reconditioning or disposal.

The device has to be semi-hardened (water resistant and shock absorbant) and probably have a basic design that would not need to be altered for at least a ten year period before a major re-design.

The core of such a device would have to be a very low cost SoC (System on a Chip) similar to the 700Mhz Broadcom BCM2835 on the Rasbperry Pi which currently costs about $25.

At Q 10M volumes the price of this could be reduced to effectively half or perhaps even less, maybe even $5, particularly if the reference platform form the SoC/mainboard of this device stays consistent for 10 years.

Such a device would definitely be powerful enough to render rich media textbooks, present HTML5-based web curriculum, display videos and play audio and run educational apps. It wouldn't be good enough to run state of the art high-res 3D tablet games, but that's not what we want this device to do.

A single-core CPU clocking at 700Mhz-1Ghz with 512MB-1GB of RAM with an integrated GPU similar to the BCM2835 will be more than ample enough to do the job.

The mainboard should contain a low-power Wi-Fi chip as well as an internal-only USB interface so that the device can be easily re-imaged by the school but the OS and contents cannot be tampered with by students.

Primary storage should be confined to MicroSD only, and it is likely only about 2GB-4GB of storage will be needed to store an entire year's worth of curriculum, plus the managed OS itself.

We expect that the local storage is really going to be acting as a content cache and the predominance of the material is going to reside in the Cloud, either in a caching virtual appliance in the school system shared infrastructure or perhaps even at the cloud provider itself, such as Amazon, Microsoft, Google, or even a large services player like IBM.

The remaining major electronic components should include the display, the speaker (monaural) and the battery, which will eat up the majority of the device's cost.

Chris and I both believe that it makes sense that there should be two models of the Educational Pad. One, for grades K-7, and the other for grades 8-12.

[Next: Textbook of the Future: Beyond the electronics]»

While the major electronics/mainboard should probably be identical in order to standardize and facilitate mass production of such an ambitious project, there should be two screen sizes because younger children will need a smaller device than older children.

The younger kids would be better off with a 7" screen, and the older kids would do better with a 10 or 12" screen.

We believe that by the time such an Educational Pad project is ready for rollout that 720p-capable or better low-power color displays using Pixel Qi or Mirasol touchscreen technology will allow for a $100 7" device and a $150 10" device at Q 10M volumes, provided the supply chain could be long-term stabilized for a project of this magnitude.

In addition to the electronics itself a bit of a attention needs to be paid to the casing. We think that it needs to be constructed of a strong polycarbonate resin with a rubberized covering (think OtterBox Defender) and that all the electronics need to be treated with a water-resistent coating such as Liquipel.

We also believe that it needs to be constructed in a sandwich matter using an O-Ring seal to protect the electronics and to prevent the introduction of moisture, grime, oils and other materials using a simple two-piece casing.

Ideally, the device should not have any visible receptacles, vents or ports whatsoever to avoid tampering and should only be able to be opened by the school system or whatever company is designated to perform servicing on their behalf.

We believe that the only button on the device should be the the power button, and it should also be protected by a rubberized cover. Audio playback should occur using some type of sound vibration transmission method directly through the casing. This is to prevent any sort of dust or dirt from entering the device.

Ideally, we'd like kids to be able to drop this thing in a sandbox or in a dirty puddle, or spill a soft drink on it and have it still work after just wiping and drying it off.

We also think that charging should be accomplished by some type of standardized magnetic quick-disconnect connector (not unlike the MagSafe connector that Apple has apparently recently patented) so that in the event that it is pulled out of the device quickly, it will not break the charging electronics on the device or damage the charging cord/adaptor itself.

While for the purposes of this article I wanted to focus on the hardware itself, as Chris is going to write at length about the software infrastructure and the ecosystem, we should pay some attention to the operating system on the Educational Pad.

There are a number of operating systems that could be used on this device, including Apple's own iOS that powers the iPad. iOS is an excellent operating system, but I don't think the standard consumer iOS as it exists on the iPad would fit the bill.

Apple would have to work with the organization designing this Educational Pad to effectively create a new OS image that can be managed and provisioned for an educational setting and opened up for the needs of creating content and providing curriculum on the device.

Other than the basic user interface, it wouldn't much resemble what exists on the iPad. So while I am not discounting that Apple could produce a device like this under contract, and that iOS could be modified to suit the task for a focused educational experience, Apple would have to give up a level of control that they enjoy in the consumer space they probably wouldn't be comfortable with.

The fact that this device would have to be school serviceable to a certain extent is probably a non-starter for a company like Apple, a more flexible and less walled-garden ecosystem provided at the back end notwithstanding.

So what could you use? Well, I think something like Android is a good idea, but the entire platform from kernel to libraries to user interface layer and all the applications that comprise the base OS would probably have to be Open Source.

And while Android is an excellent platform, we've learned from experience that Google can take its sweet time when it comes to releasing source code. We don't want the educational future of our children to be dependent on the whims or the future of one software company.

So whatever we use to build the OS for this device is probably going to have to be forked from the originating tablet OS and have its own development path specifically for the purposes of running the content produced from this new educational software ecosystem.

OSes like Tizen (formerly MeeGo) which are being developed by the Linux Foundation might be a better choice than a forked Android. And while Android and its device OEMs are dealing with IP issues coming Oracle, Microsoft and Apple, it might not even make the shortlist at all.

Perhaps even something based on Open webOS forked and maintained specifically for producing this series of devices might even be better.

What do you believe should comprise the hardware platform for the textbook of the future? Talk Back and Let me know.