Thursday, July 18, 2013

Why Did We Pick the Netbook As Our Hardware Platform?

Occasionally I am asked why we chose netbooks as our hardware platform. As I think back, the original proposals I gave to my principal involved a 1:1 laptop program. When the first netbooks came out we were intrigued by them for two main reasons. 


The price point was very appealing. Most laptops were priced from $500 or more, median price somewhere around $1,300. The first netbooks were introduced from $300-400. This price point probably helped us begin our 1:1 program when we did, using netbooks and BYOD—bring your own device— as our approach. 

Parents often spent $300 and more for Christmas presents on devices like iPod Touch, Nintendo, and Wii; personal computing devices for entertainment and gaming. We took a chance and began our 1:1 BYOD program with netbooks just before Christmas. We suggested the idea of buying a netbook as a Christmas present and bringing it to school in January when we would begin using netbooks as learning tools. Of course, they could still be used during free time for gaming, audio-visual applications like iTunes music or YouTube videos, and other entertainment applications. The response was overwhelmingly positive, and our 1:1 netbook program began.

Standardized Software

We wanted to use a set of standardized software in our 1:1 program. To use software effectively and efficiently, students need to learn the computer's file management system. This was something we wanted for our students. I had been teaching Windows File Management as part of our lab-based computer classes in grades four and five for several years before we started our 1:1 program. Kids learned how to save files, to back them up, and to find their files saved earlier. Our students learned things their parents often did not know how to do. Parents often expressed their delight at seeing their children learning these skills.

Our standardized software list is completely cross-platform and FREE. This means a student can easily migrate from the Windows operating system to the Mac operating system if they like. Why do this? Many families own a Mac at home. The children learn to use Windows at school and may already know how to use the Mac. They can do their work at home on a Mac and at school on their netbook. The files can be opened and edited on either operating system. In my classroom I use a Mac and the kids are exposed to the Mac OS. They also learn the Windows OS. They leave my class with the skills they need to work with several software programs on both major computing platforms in use today.

* * *

Since we started our 1:1 netbook program I've done a lot of research on some of the other hardware platforms used by 1:1 schools. One that's gaining a lot of traction is the iPad. Let's face it, and iPad is a very handy computing device, easy to use, small and lightweight. Why not base a 1:1 program on iPads or something like the Galaxy tablet based on the Android mobile operating system? Again, there are several reasons why we don't move in this direction.


I own an iPad. It's maxed-out at 64 Gb, has a cellular radio, and I have a Verizon plan that enables me to get online anywhere, often with 4G LTE speeds that exceed what might be available via WiFi. However, this package cost me $830! The least expensive full-sized iPad costs a minimum of $500 unless you purchase an iPad Mini at about $320. Now you have only a 7.9 inch screen compared to a 10 inch netbook. In other words, the low-end iPad Mini compares in cost to a 10 inch netbook, both coming in at around the $300 price point. So, now you must look at what each device can do.


We do a lot of word processing in our 1:1 program. Our students learn to touch type in fourth grade. They are very productive on the keyboard and can write for every one of their core curricular areas. Our objective is to increase the amount of writing they do for subjects like science, social studies, and of course, language arts. We want them to produce content on their computing device, and much of this involves writing. An iPad or other tablet is not designed to be an efficient keyboarding device. Sure, there's a virtual keyboard. I use it on my iPad. I use the keyboard on my iPhone, too. But, I wouldn't want to type a 3 page research paper on a virtual keyboard. Sure, you can add a Bluetooth keyboard (I have one). Now your minimum-priced ($320) iPad Mini costs an additional $30-60. We wanted to keep our device costs as low as possible since we were asking our school families to buy them.


The iPad file system is very appealing. It's simple. My four-year-old grandson can navigate around my iPad by pointing to icons of his favorite apps. In essence, you don't really see the behind-the-scenes file structure very often. When you do, as when you're looking for something you typed in your favorite word processor, you just point to the one you want. Apple has made the operating system easy to use for everyone, and that's appealing for an elementary or middle school classroom. With minimal file management requirements we could focus on the core curricular work we want the children to do on their computing device. Why wouldn't we want to use something like this? The simple answer is that we want our kids to learn a major file management system. By design they wouldn't be able to do so on an iPad.


We have our kids install Adobe Flash on their netbooks. Although I do not have it installed on my Mac, I use Google Chrome which has Flash included. I rarely have a problem on my Mac, never on my netbook, but I still have occasional websites that don't work on my iPad because they use Flash content. Apparently, even a modern Android tablet now comes without Flash installed. I think one day we'll see websites developed in HTML5 or maybe something new, and Flash will no longer be an issue for mobile operating systems. However, today it still is an issue for tablets like the iPad.

Overall Productivity

I recently gave some thought to the question, "Which single computing device would I want if I could only have one?" I surprised myself by deciding that I'd keep my iPhone! The pocket-sized iPhone is the most versatile device I own. Now that my Bluetooth keyboard can be used with it, I can type just as fast on my iPhone as on my Mac. It's hard the beat the portability, the camera, all the apps (there's an app for almost everything), the GPS, and the list goes on. However, for productivity as a school-based computing device, many of these functions are unnecessary and distracting. For what we do in school, what we assign as homework, and the projects we do collaboratively, it's very hard to beat a low-cost netbook. One day, when all of our textbook material is available as a web app, that will be even more true. You've heard it said that you should buy the computing device that will do what you want to do. That's how we decided on the netbook for our hardware platform. It does everything we want to do with it.

* * *

Why Windows-Based?

If I had had my way we would've gone with Macbook laptops. I've used Macs since 1986 and find the Mac OS superior to Windows. Why didn't I get my way, and why do I support our netbook choice? Again, the answer is simple: price. We ask our parents to spend around $300 for a device that their child will use for 4 1/2 years in grades 4-8. That averages less than $35 per semester. An 11-inch MacBook Air starts at $999 which more than triples the cost for our families. The small amount of pushback we receive from our netbook purchase requirement would most likely increase more than three-fold if we had gone this route. It's likely we would not have a 1:1 BYOD program if the hardware requirement was most costly. 

True, the Mac OS has everything we need: keyboard, a file system for the kids to learn, easy production of written content, plenty of creativity apps like iMovie and iPhoto, the same standard set of software we use on our netbooks, Flash. Plus, it's an easier OS to learn, there's less security issues or virus worries. 

However, it costs three times as much for some of the additional benefits. When you're spending, in a sense, other people's money you must aim for the best bang for the buck you're spending. The netbook wins, hands-down.

* * *

Why Not Open Up the Hardware Choice To Allow Any Device?

This question is being debated online as I write. There seems to be a movement to allow kids to bring their own devicesany devices—to school to receive their benefits for learning productively.  

I think this will happen eventually. We are already receiving requests from students and parents to allow them to bring Macs, iPod Touches, iPhones, and iPads to school to use with our WiFi infrastructure. At present we have a one device per student policy because of limits in our WiFi bandwidth. When everyone uses WiFi simultaneously to get online and to do their work our Internet "pipe" is stretched to the limit and everyone's computing experience seems to slow down. We have about 200+ students and 25-30 staff members using our WiFi infrastructure, and sometimes it gets bogged down. However, we continue to evaluate and improve our systems. Our WiFi is under regular scrutiny, too.

Another issue is support. While an iPad requires little support, there are several workarounds that must be used to get some of our assignments completed on an iPad. We have some kids who bring their Macs to school. We allow them to do this, although we encourage them to go with a netbook because that's the hardware/software system on which we've trained our staff members to give assistance. As you might imagine, some teachers are more able and willing to do this than others. When we standardized on the Windows 7 operating system on a netbook we enabled our staff, all of whom have their own netbook, to at least be moderately proficient in problem-solving on behalf of their own students. If the hardware/software platform was opened up we would potentially have a support shortfall.

As mentioned earlier, anything other than a Mac or Windows-based laptop suffers from certain shortcomings when used in our learning environment: lack of a keyboard, simplified file system, no Flash support, and the like. This is not to say that real schoolwork cannot be done on an iPhone. However, there will come a time when an assignment is given that an iPhone or iPad cannot handle. This would require flexibility on the part of our teachers and our curriculum, and a willingness to consider alternative ways of completing the requirements of the assignment and/or curriculum. This is possible, but not on our current list of goals and objectives for our 1:1 program. I do predict that we'll eventually modify our approach, however, to accommodate the many different devices children will want to bring to school with them. It's hard to say to the parent of a child who already owns an iPad, "No, you MUST bring a netbook to school and spend an additional $300 so you can do this particular project".

We've had parents of graduates from our school donate their child's netbook back to the school. Our principal seems to have an unending supply of these re-worked netbooks to loan to children when the need arises. I've sent several children whose netbooks were being repaired, and they always come back with a loaner from the principal. One student in particular, who came to school with an iPad, was offered a loaner to use for the projects that required one. She used her iPad for almost everything, but eventually came to school with her own netbook so she could participate fully in our current 1:1 curriculum. Another student I know used a loaner all year because his parents refused to buy him a netbook. Purchases in the $300 price range were not on this family's Christmas list, and the parents refused on that basis. We supported them in their parenting decision. Their child was allowed to use his family's computer at home, and used the loaner at school. It worked, and he was very productive with this arrangement.

Finally, we spend class time teaching and learning a particular file system. Those few students who don't own a netbook are somewhat at a disadvantage when we spend time practicing what we're learning. This creates a minor burden for both the student and the teacher, but we've managed to work with this in the few cases where we had no other choice. Usually, a loaner netbook solved the problem, and parents usually see the benefits of investing in a netbook for their child(ren). When they don't, or can't we work with what we have. 

All in all, our current approach with netbooks is working. We have our occasional situations where we've had to be creative, and that has worked so far. Eventually, I predict we'll open up the hardware/software platform options and emphasize what can be done on any device we may find on our campus. That's probably several years away, and we'll see it when hardware and software is improved to the point where every device available can help us realize our curriculum goals.

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