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Archive for November, 2007

Classmate PCs: A First-Hand Report

Intel is now piloting its Classmate PCs (an inexpensive laptop launched in competition with the One Laptop Per Child XO machine) in several U.S. schools.  This morning, three of us from the University of California, Irvine visited Newport Heights Elementary in Newport Beach, California.  The school was provided with 70 Classmate PCs to use in two classrooms – a sixth grade class and a fifth grade class – for a pilot study to take place from November 2007 to March 2008.  Following the pilot study in this and other schools in the U.S. and other countries, the Classmate PC will supposedly go on the market.

Intel provided 70 Classmate PCs, 2 power cords each computer (so one could be kept at school and one at the students’ homes), slim blue rubber wrap-around cases for each Classmate, and an Intel knapsack for each Classmate.  I was told that the Classmates came with a 40GB hard drive (and that a flash drive version of the Classmate had been abandoned after an earlier trial); 504k of RAM, and licenses for Microsoft Office (which was installed on the computers. It is powered by an Intel Celeron microprocessor.  The computer has no CD or DVD drive; a small, low-resolution screen; and a small keyboard.  Otherwise, it appears to be a fully functioning low-end Wintel notebook computer.  Intel reports the battery life as four hours, and the teachers told me that they had as of yet had no problems with the batteries.

During our two-hour visit to the school, we visited the two classrooms using the Classmates, spoke with the teachers and students, tried out a Classmate, and spoke with administrators and technology coordinators at the school and district.  Students at the school had been using the Classmates for about a week and had taken them home a couple of times.

I have a good deal of experience observing 1-to-1 laptop classrooms (see, e.g., my book, Laptops and Literacy), and what I observed in these classes was typical of my prior observations where students had used Mac, Dell, and Toshiba laptops.  Students in this class, like in those classes, were working busily and excitedly on their computers using MS Word, Power Point, and Internet Explorer in a variety of pedagogically meaningful activities.

When I tried the Classmate myself, it took forever to boot up and get going, but that was apparently due to the particular network configuration at the school, and the fact that the Classmate was logged in to the administrator for the first time, rather than to any feature of the Classmate itself.  I found the small keyboard very hard to work with and I made constant typing errors.  I also found the small screen (6" by 4 "; i.e., 7" diagonal) difficult on my eyes.  In other words my first impression of the machine was not very positive.

But then I observed the students working on it enthusiastically and I also took ten minutes in one of the classrooms to speak to the fifth grade students.  They were unanimous in their excitement about the Classmate PC.  When I asked specifically what they liked about, many pointed to the small keyboard as an advantage rather than a disadvantage; they found it fit their hands well.  The majority also liked the small screen (with only 1 or 2 saying it took some getting used to).  And they very much liked the small size and light weight (reportedly about 3 pounds).

The school is in a middle class neighborhood and most of the students have other computers in their house, as well as high-speed Internet access.  Yet almost all the students said that they preferred to work on the Classmate PC rather than their family computer at home, either because they felt it was theirs, or because they had sole access to it, or because it allowed them to bring their schoolwork back and forth from home to school without any hassles.

I was told by the people at the school (who did not include any direct Intel representatives) that they had been informed that the Classmate PC would be sold next year for $250.  Interestingly, I have thought for a while that $250 was a tipping point price for school laptops.  If indeed the Classmate PC is sold at that price, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a huge hit, especially for elementary and middle school students who might fit well with a mini-sized notebook.

A couple of final points.  First, I have never laid my hands on an XO, nor have I seen it in use.  None of my comments above should be taken as any comparison between the Classmate and the XO.  And secondly, one small factor that seemed to make a big difference was the inclusion of a second power cord per laptop.  The teacher, who had earlier taught with Toshiba laptops, said that unhooking the power cords, bringing them home, bringing them back, etc. had long been a headache, and many students had failed to bring their laptops to school fully charged.  The access to a second power cord—one for school and one for home—seemed to make a huge difference.  Schools that are implementing 1-to-1 laptop programs may want to investigate the possibility of purchasing a second power cord per computer, especially if that could be achieved at a reasonable price.

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