Why can't you do 1:1 for $300 a kid? Wait, you can!

$300 doesn't buy you as much as you might think it would when it comes to a computer appropriate for 1:1 deployments in K12. FOSS can help make up the difference.

A colleague asked me the other day about potential costs for a 1:1 deployment in a high school. He had a number of $300 per computer in his head. $500 per computer, however, seemed a lot more realistic to me. After all, people see the prices on the sorts of netbooks I reviewed this weekend and get a serious case of sticker shock, forgetting that the average bargain basement netbook isn't running an OS that can join a domain, lacks Office or anti-malware, and presents durability concerns for younger kids and capability concerns for older kids.

So suddenly you're staring at a netbook that will run you between $500 and $700. But wait, what's this you say about licensing? Isn't that what open source software is all about? Couldn't a cheap netbook running Ubuntu (or Fedora, or OpenSUSE, or Sugar for that matter) join a domain and be just as easily managed as a netbook running Windows 7 Professional? In fact, if you set up a simple Linux LDAP server, you could dispense with domain join and Windows Server licensing entirely, right?

Well, right. But are you giving up anything other than the most socially acceptable software ecosystem (at least here in the States) and subjecting yourself to anything more than ridicule from parents and administrators over "real world software?" HP thinks that it can hit the $300 pricepoint with a barebones semi-ruggedized netbook called the Mini 100e, but this computer is directly marketed for grade-schoolers and the $300 price tag assumes you are buying in quantity as part of a bid. Even the original OLPC XO is around $200 and is strictly for youngsters (and is quite long in the tooth in terms of hardware).

So just what sort of specs are we talking about here? »

To get a relatively durable netbook at around $300 that could satisfy the needs of both elementary and secondary students, you have to look at close to $300 worth of hardware, leaving only free software as an option to run that hardware. I would recommend a minimum 92% of full-size keyboard, 2GB of RAM, and a/b/g/n WiFi, a 10.1" screen, and a battery with at least 6 hours of capacity. While this may seem like overkill to netbook bargain hunters, our goal is to make 1:1 happen cost-effectively without potentially jeopardizing the project. Even with a short 3-year lifecycle, what will 1 gig of RAM look like 2 to 3 years from now? We can talk iPods and tablets as well, but for now, let's assume that one of the requirements is an actual computer with a keyboard. That discussion may be very different a couple years from now, but I think it's a safe assumption right now.

TigerDirect is always a good place to look for steep discounts and they actually have a 10.1" Asus Eee on sale for $269.99. It meets every requirement above except for RAM. With only one slot, you have to buy a full 2GB stick of RAM. Again, looking around on Tiger, these can be had for $44.99 (I'm ignoring the rebate since it's limited to one stick per customer and I'm assuming a school setting where more than one would be deployed). This bumps us up to $314.98, but I can live with that.

A bit more bargain hunting might get you to that magical $300 price point, but Asus makes solid notebooks (and is actually the ODM for many of the netbooks rebranded and sold by other OEMs). A bit more flexibility can yield CULV laptops or dual-core refurbished notebooks in the low to mid $300s.

Machines at these prices, regardless of how much you bargain hunt, won't be coming with Windows 7 Professional installed, though. The costs I've outlined don't include any software licensing, whether to upgrade the OS or give students the latest version of Office. To get yourself a modern, secure, efficient OS, you're going to need to use Linux. Productivity software will either need to be cloud-based (e.g., Google Apps or Office Web Apps/Live@Edu) or OpenOffice (yeah, yeah, I know I said OpenOffice is dead, but I was speaking broadly; it will get the job done here).

So can you do 1:1 for $300 a kid? Yes you can, and you can do it with some decent hardware. It isn't hard to make a case for higher end netbooks from Intel or Dell that are specifically aimed at education and ruggedized for the abuse they'll receive in the average backpack, locker, or classroom. These netbooks, though more expensive, pack a lot of value. However, for schools that need to make this happen on the tightest budget, f

Do, however, have to give kids options. If a kid is building a digital portfolio of art, video, or wants to dig into computer science, they need access everyday to a Mac or a machine that can readily run Photoshop or a rich IDE.