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Classroom Technology

Netbook-Laptop Debate

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — October 14, 2009 7 min read
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In the quest to achieve 1-to-1 computing in schools, a growing number of ed-tech leaders are concluding that less is more. Instead of using their limited technology dollars to purchase laptops, they are turning to smaller, cheaper netbooks to equip students and teachers with the tools they need.

A consortium of districts in Maine recently purchased 3,000 netbooks to extend the reach of the state’s laptop initiative beyond middle school and into high schools; the Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation in Southern Indiana handed out netbooks to each of the district’s 7,200 high school students at the start of this school year to jump-start its transition from print textbooks to digital materials; and in rural Armada, Mich., students were given netbooks as part of a federal study to determine if there are achievement benefits to 1-to-1 computing.

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“They are the hottest products out there,” says Thomas Greaves, the president of the Greaves Group, an Encinitas, Calif.-based education technology consulting firm. Sales of netbooks in the business and consumer worlds, he says, are growing far faster than laptops, a trend that is likely to continue. “You’re seeing so many business people and soccer moms and everybody buying netbooks. And now the schools that are starting on large-scale deployment of 1-to-1 computing are definitely going to look seriously at netbooks.”

‘Downsides and Upsides’

Their value is appealing to cash-strapped schools, but experts say decisions about purchasing the portable computers to enhance instruction should be based on multiple factors. At about half the price of laptop computers—most are in the $300 to $400 range—netbooks may be cost-effective, but the savings can be lost in their scaled-down features and limited computing power.

“Overwhelmingly, these decisions are being driven by price, but like anything else, you actually get what you pay for,” says Eileen Lento, an education strategist for the Santa Clara, Calif.-based Intel Corp., which provides processors for many brands of laptops and netbooks.

Netbooks are defined as laptop computers that are smaller than 10 inches across, have slower and less powerful processors, and limited memory, making them useful for little more than accessing the Internet. They have smaller screens and keyboards, and are not equipped with CD or DVD drives and other features included in most laptops or desktop computers. They do not have the computing power needed for some standard school computingtasks, either, such as PowerPoint presentations and spreadsheets.

Laptops, Lento says, have more functions, such as the ability to create project-based assignments that require multimedia resources, and better reflect the kinds of computing tasks students will need to master for college and the workplace.

Despite their minimalist design, however, netbooks do have wireless capability, making it easy to tap into the Internet. And given that many districts are building their stock of online instructional materials and learning-management systems, and using Web tools like wikis and protected portals for exchanging content and sharing information between students and teachers, those more modest devices might just prove sufficient, experts say.

“There are downsides and upsides to netbooks,” says Leslie Wilson, the executive director of the One-to-One Institute, a Lansing, Mich.-based group that promotes the integration of laptop computing in education. The institute is overseeing the federal study with about 100 students in Armada.

Wilson points out that netbooks are not simply a solution for districts looking to ramp up their 1-to-1 computing programs amid budget constraints. “The key to the whole thing is to look at what you’re trying to accomplish ... what are you going to use them for.”

The basic Web use they provide, for example, is often all that is needed for students in the early grades who are just learning to tap into the Internet and building their technology skills. But if schools expect students to tackle more sophisticated computing tasks in middle or high school, laptops or desktop machines may be more appropriate, Wilson suggests.

New Netbooks

The industry has responded quickly to netbooks’ new celebrity status in schools. Dell, for example, rolled out a netbook designed exclusively for schools, with an optional touch screen and fitted with a rubberized outer surface, available in vivid colors, that protects it from breakage. Microsoft has been working on its own version, a 7-inch tablet with a touch screen and stylus pen, according to reports that leaked to the media in September. Apple is expected to come out with a Mac netbook as well, to compete with the others, including Acer, Nokia, and Toshiba.

To be used successfully in the classroom, however, Wilson and others say that netbooks must be given the same kind of consideration as other technologies. Technical support, training for teachers and students, network capability, and curriculum are all still necessary investments whether using laptops, netbooks, or smaller, hand-held devices such as cellphones.

Those were all considerations for Chief Technology Officer Mike Russ,when the Evansville Vanderburgh district was deciding how to deliver the curriculum and enable teachers to integrate technology more effectively. A policy approved by the state board early this year characterizes digital curricula as textbooks, and allows districts to use state instructional-materials funding and students’ textbook-rental fees to purchase online resources and tech devices. (See “Turning the Digital Page,” this issue.)

“One of the things we try to emphasize in this district is equity, and these netbooks level the playing field for those kids who don’t have these tools,” Russ says.

The district bought the Hewlett Packard netbooks with upgraded memory and operating systems for a little more than $400 each. Students pay about $70 for textbook rentals that can be applied toward the cost of the netbook. The district plans to expand the program from high school to middle school students within a few years, and eventually down to pupils as young as the 2nd grade, according to Russ.

“Now we can have learning anytime, anywhere,” he says. “With laptops, cost-wise that would be very difficult to sustain.”

Cost-Effective Alternative

In Maine, many districts were also interested in expanding access, but found the state’s laptop program cost-prohibitive. A consortium negotiated a deal for purchasing Asus netbooks for about 20 small districts, according to Sharon Betts, the educational technology coordinator for Maine School Administrative District 52, which serves 800 students in the western part of the state. The state’s largest districts, Portland and Augusta, have been negotiating netbook purchases separately.

The state’s laptop program, Betts says, has raised the profile of school technology, as well as expectations among parents and educators alike that students should be equipped with their own computers. But the cost of laptops has made it difficult to do so.

“I think the people of Maine see the need to get ubiquitous technology into as many grade levels as we possibly can,” Betts says. “With the onset of the netbook and the price-point difference [over laptops] and the movement in open-source courseware and cloud computing, ... they’ve made the distribution of netbooks a very exciting way to solve the problem at a cost less than laptops.”

The state’s laptop initiative provides MacBooks loaded with educational applications and multimedia capability, for about $240 per student per year, according to Jeff Mao, who directs the program. That fee includes warranties, technical support, and professional development. The state is not discouraging districts from buying netbooks, Mao says, but he is advising school leaders to consider all of what they are getting, or not getting, for their money.

“We hope they ask the questions, such as ‘Does it provide the educational solution you need it to provide?’ ” Mao says. “They need to define their goals not by what the device will do, but by what they want it to do.”

In Betts’ district, they are adding in the necessary services. Teachers have been receiving additional training to incorporate more Web 2.0 strategies into learning, such as blogging and online portfolios for student monitoring and assessment. Like officials in the other districts in the Maine consortium, Betts and her colleagues needed an immediate way to supplement the state program and expand it beyond the middle grades.

“We decided that educationally the netbook is going to meet our needs,” says Betts. “It’s nice to say we have an additional 3,000 students in the state with a computer to use.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 21, 2009 edition of Digital Directions as Netbook-Laptop Debate

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