Archive for October, 2011

I have long been disappointed by a basic contradiction–my own research and that of others has shown that 1-to-1 laptop programs are very valuable educationally, but such programs have nevertheless been slow to spread in the US. For that reason I became quite interested in the potential of low-cost netbooks using open source software in US schools, because I saw such initiatives as potentially much more affordable. And our research over the last couple of years has shown the great success of one-to-one programs using low-cost open source netbooks, for example in Saugus and in Littleton.

For several years I thought that a price of $250 for an educational laptop would represent a tipping point, sending many more districts to implement 1-to-1 programs. Unfortunately, the recession intervened since I came to that conclusion, and I suspect the price point is now somewhat lower — say $200.

Some would say that OLPC’s xo represents a great $200 educational computer, but research on its use in the field suggests otherwise. Problems with its screen, keyboard, touchpad, and charger cable quickly renders many XOs unusable.  In addition, battery life degrades quickly and the laptop is underpowered. Finally, the tiny screen and keyboard may make it suitable for first grade students, but make it more difficult to use by upper elementary students who are better equipped to actually make good educational use of computers. And, in any case, as it is not available on the retail market, individual schools or districts may not even be able to buy XOs, even if they want to.

Asus has made some excellent sub-$300 netbooks suitable for schools, including the Eee PC 1011PX, which runs for about $270. However, I am particularly excited about a new Asus model, the Eee PC X101, which sells retail for $199. Jim Klein, a guru of low-cost netbooks + Linux in schools, has published a remarkably informative video comparison of the 1011PX and the X101. Much of my remaining comments are gleaned from Jim’s wonderful review.

In addition to being $70 cheaper, the X101 is actually superior to the 1011PX in two important ways.  First, it’s thinner and weighs less, always an important factor for a machine that is being carted around by children, whether within their class or back and forth to home. (Its dimensions are similar to those of a MacBook Air, and it weighs a little less, making it one of the smallest and lightest netbooks with a 10″ screen available.)  Secondly, since the X101 has a solid state drive, it turns on quickly, loads programs quickly, and for many functions performs more quickly then the 1011PX. The solid state drive also makes the X101 more durable, since it lacks moving parts.

All that being said, the 1011PX has some advantages too.  It’s 160GB spinning hard drive has much more capacity than the 8GB hard drive of the X101 (though with Google Apps for Education and other free cloud services, most schools will not find that an issue).  Its dual core processor processer handles certain demanding applications, such as high-definition video, better than the single core processor of the 101X.  Unlike the X101, the 1011PX has a video out port, allowing it to be directly connected to an external monitor or projector. And, perhaps most importantly, the 1011PX comes with the option of a 6-cell battery that will last throughout the school day.  The 101X battery–described as being 3-cell on the Asus Website and as 4-cell in Jim Klein’s YouTube–reportedly lasts about 4 hours.  Depending on how much the laptop is used, and especially after the battery has degraded a bit, it might require plugging in for recharging sometime during the school day (e.g., on a laptop cart).

I have not used either one of these netbooks and certainly can’t offer a definitive perspective. However, if I were a school or district, I would certainly want to try out the 101X to see if it passes muster. And if I represented a large district or a state, I would lobby ASUS to develop a model that combines the advantages of both of these, especially the solid state drive of the X101 and the 6-cell battery of the 1011PX. Throw in a dual core processor, and you’ve probably got the just-right $250 educational laptop–at least until something better comes along!

Oh, one more thing: the X101 and the 1011PX ship with different operating systems, the Linux-based Meego for the former and Windows 7 starter edition for the latter. I would recommend replacing both with the “Ubermix” build of Linux/Ubuntu that Klein has developed and which he generously makes available for download.


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You’ve got to hand it to the New York Times.  They always come up with provocative articles about technology in education that really get people thinking and talking. The latest one was, entitled A Silicon Valley School That Doesn’t Compute, interviewed a number of technology firm employees who choose to send their children to the private anti-tech Waldorf School. The not-too-subtle point here is that even computer scientists at Google recognize that computers don’t belong in schools.

Here are a number of contrarian thoughts about the article.

(1) The article four Silicon Valley firms: Google, Apple, Yahoo, and Hewlett Packard.  Between them, those firms have tens of thousands of employees, with tens of thousands of children.  A total of 294 children go to the Waldorf School (not all of whose parents work in high-tech industries).  Does that mean that 99% of employees in high-tech firms believe that computers do have a role in education?

(2) Interestingly, earlier then Stanford Professor Larry Cuban wrote a book, Oversold and Underused, the entire purpose of which was to document that schools in Silicon Valley are only using computers a little.  Wouldn’t that suggest that, for most parents, the motivation to put their kids in Waldorf is for different reasons than to escape technology?  Could it be the 9.5 to 1 student-teacher ratio at the Waldorf School of the Peninsula, which is less than half the state average, or the school’s focus on fostering creativity rather than teaching to standardized tests? (Unfortunately the large class sizes in public schools and the current national obsession with standardized testing make it difficult to foster creative learning in a public school environment, but effective use of technology is one way to try to do so).

(3) Waldorf Schools share the common belief that computers should not be introduced in elementary school, but they all introduce computers later on (usually somewhere between sixth and ningh grade).  As for regular public schools in the US, only a handful  provide much computer time to children in lower primary grades.  Even schools with 1-to-1 programs typically start them in 6th grade (as in Maine) or sometimes in upper elementary grades.  Differences between Waldorf and most public schools on use of technology in education are not, therefore, on “whether” but rather on “when”.

(4) I have a feeling that even the students at Waldorf in the Peninsula who are not using computers in the classroom until  the eighth grade can quickly and easily learn those for academic tasks such as finding and critically evaluating information online or writing and editing papers.  Why?  Because they are blessed with lots of other advantages in life, including very small student-teacher ratio in school and all sorts of mentoring, support, and equipment at home.  Let’s contrast that with a typical African-American or Latino student in South L.A., who goes to a school with a high student-teacher ratio, less capable peers, and a home situation with little social or economic capital.  Will that student pick up academic use of computers in high school so easily?

The bottom line: what works for a few dozen well-to-do families in an elite private school, while thought-provoking, sheds little light on what would be effective for diverse public schools across the state or country.

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