Netbooks in the Classroom


A while back, Peter McAsh posted this reply to a post that I had made.  It was in reference to the use of Netbooks.

I’d be interested in your thoughts about netbooks for students for web use rather than traditional labs of desktops..

There can be no doubt that portable computing is in the cards for education.  But, which platform?  Those of us who have been in education for a while have seen the trend getting smaller and smaller.  From mainframes for programming to the Icon computer to the desktop to the laptop, there is definitely a trend towards smaller and smaller.  Hand in hand with this trend is better and more reliable connectivity to networks.

I should also point out that I’m pre-disposed to portable computing.  There are times when a computer lab is important.  I’m thinking that Computer Science and Business Applications need the formality of a sit down full class lab scenario.  There are problems inherent in this as a full solution from K-12 though.  First, it isn’t the most efficient use of the technology.  If you have a lab of 28, what do you do with the 29th student?  Or, if you’re dealing with a class of 25, there will be three computer’s worth of resources unused.  However, properly wired, you have much faster internet access and technicians really like the one size fits all solution for application installation and network resources like printing, etc.

For other uses, though, it seems to me that a portable solution is so much more functional.  It allows you to move to the point of instruction rather than lining up to use a booked lab whether you have something to do there or not.  When students are doing research, it may be an amalgam of internet and other resources.  With the portable computer placed on the desk, it becomes part of the solution.  For the youngest and smallest of students, education spends all kinds of money to get perfectly sized desks and chairs.  Rather than going to a lab with bigger chairs where the students may not even be able to put their feet on the floor, a portable solution lets you use the regular desk or even to sit on a couch or lie on the floor.  There are a lot of good reasons to consider moving in this direction.

So, what technology provides the solution?  The full-sized notebook computer has seen many iterations to try and make it the solution.  The sign that things had to change was the installation of Pentium 4 processors and the toll that it took on batteries.  Designers have spent the past few years tweaking that fine balance between power and battery life.  Such a solution is necessary if you believe that the portable device needs to replicate what a desktop would be.  Discoverying processors can be an interesting exercise.

In this case, however, we’re looking for something even smaller and more portable.  It seems to me that there are a couple of major players in this field.  One would be the iPod/iPhone and the other would be the Netbook.  I can see a place for both but you need to have your eyes open.  The iPod/iPhone has access to easily installed applications through Apple’s App Store.  Typically, these are smaller applications that address a single purpose.  There are some great ones and I’ve listed a few of my favourites on my wiki.  These are terrific applications but there are some limitations.  First off is that you’re working with the portable version of Safari for internet research.  It doesn’t have the functionality that I use on a regular basis and only recently has the ability to even copy and paste.  I find myself using Instapaper as a bookmarking tool until I can get to a bigger computer to finish off the task.  Word processing is a challenge on this small device and even the auto-suggest sometimes gets it wrong.  Apple is selling the entry level iPod touch for $259 this morning.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/abbyladybug/ / CC BY-NC 2.0

For less than $100 more, Dell and others offer their Netbooks.  Here, you get a device that is both portable and computer like.  If you must, you can get your machine outfitted with a version of Windows.  I opted for a version of Ubuntu though.  There were a number of reasons and they evolved around product design.  First of all, you’re working with a smaller screen so toolbars taking up space was a concern. Secondly, these machines typically come with a processor designed to get the job done but battery life is also a factor.  So, an operating system that doesn’t have large requirements was importantly.  Thirdly, I really didn’t want to buy a portable CD-ROM drive for the installation of software and so things like the Synaptic Package Manager and web based installation hit the bill nicely.  I’ll never run Office 2007 on this machine but why would I have the need?  With OpenOffice 3 and Firefox, I have all the major functionality that I would use on another computer.  The ability to print and internet browse are important and this solution offers them.  Back to the original question from Peter, this is probably the functionality that would be used most for classroom research.  I’m envisioning group projects with three or four students and their desks pushed together as they work in collaboration.  It seems to me that this would be the perfect solution.  Going to a traditional lab would require everyone to use a computer at the same time for booking efficiencies at the expense of the collaboration opportunities by inviting the Netbook into your group.

I decided to take this testing a couple of steps further.  My Netbook was with me throughout the NECC Conference and notetaking was great.  So were Twittering and email when the wireless was reliable.  How about in the Computer Science classroom?  It’s probably not the choice for those big projects that Grade 12 students need to do but there are nice versions of BASIC, Pascal, and Python available from the public repositories.

As wireless becomes more readily available, I can see bigger and bigger demands for solutions that are portable and connected.  If the California experience around textbooks catches fire, these solutions are going to be very attractive.  School districts need to be on top of and experimenting so that they’re ready to make the move.  This is a technology that many of our students already have at home and it’s an area that we don’t need to be playing catch up on.

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