I've been really pleased with the way our upper primary laptop program has been going over the last month. We purchased 20 x $800 Acers that have been excellent performers and handling the wireless network extremely well in the classroom. They shipped to us with Vista so once our tech prised that OS off and re-imaged with the department's standard XP image (he also snuck a Linux alternative under the hood - Ubuntu, I think, but I'm no hands on FOSS expert) we were ready to go. We've been sharing this small fleet across 4 classrooms so timetabling equitably has been interesting to say the least. I can safely say that as the laptop carts get locked to the floor in my room means that my class gets access when other teachers pass on their timeslot. And really the more opportunity I have to use these tools with my class, the more time I want to have them there available for whenever they might be needed - not be dependent on waiting for the next timetabled slot.
$800 is a pretty cheap laptop - considering it's got all the bells and whistles of any student desktops around the place. But if the price barrier can go lower and the excess features curbed, then maybe more laptops can be there on the ready. It's probably leading eventually to a 1:1 laptop program which would be a significant step in this large government run system. I know many private schools have been down this route much earlier (my Victorian blogging colleague, Warrick Wynne says he wouldn't work in a school without one to one) but in this state, the dollars and government tech commitment haven't stretched that far. So, laptops suitable for the primary school classroom at a competitive price, stripped of unnecessary features and running open source software are what the focus should be on because even at $800, there isn't enough dollars in a typical state school budget to keep going down the regular sized laptop trail.
There's been plenty blogged about smaller, cheaper, un-bloated laptops that are surfacing on the market. Bill Kerr's blogged quite a bit about the OLPC project and recently compared it to another newcomer in the mini-laptop for education market, the Asus EEE. Interestingly, I saw one in a Myer department store catalogue for A$499.00 which I think is still too high a pricetag to be a contender. Whether a school or even an education system buying in bulk could drive that down figure would be interesting to see. Plus the word seems to be that if you're not prepared to use the standard Linux OS, the alternative XP tends to re-bloat and run slow. The other laptop mentioned is the Intel Classmate, which Bill has also analysed from a vision/marketing strategy point of view. Meeting with someone from higher up in the ICT department of our system, we had an offer to have a look at one of these machines to make a hands on assessment of its suitability. That would be worth blogging when and if it happens. I have no idea what these might cost per unit but it seems that Intel are only selling direct to government agencies so it would take a commitment from my own state system before the Classmates could be a common sight in primary school classrooms or appear as a booklist item.
One of the criticisms I've heard which will get OLPC advocates up in arms (and rightly so) is the assertion from some educators that the mini-laptops look like toys, kids won't like them and take to them because they "don't look like real computers" or because they aren't Windows based and will be a mystery to the majority of teachers trying to weave their use with their students. In a conversation I had with Peter Ruwoldt recently, he pointed out that the OS and power of the laptop will be less important than a strong pipe connection to the internet where browser base applications and storage will enable education systems to shift costs offline and onto the big web giants' servers. So, I'd take as many laptops of whatever description I could - as long as I can get them to connect to the wireless network, access whatever of the filtered web is currently allowed, my students have a better chance of just-in-time digital learning in the classroom. A good example is how much more was achieved in our Spin The Globe wiki project once we had regular laptop access. Going off to the computer lab or being IWB spectators does not compare to having the laptop on the student's desk being used as part of their regular school day.
We have a similar situation Graham with 32 laptops permanently placed in 4 upper junior classes. The permanence of the technology is such a benefit to the children and teachers – to know that you have a 8 machines to use as you see fit in any lesson where it is appropriate is a major step for us. And personally it has taken some readjustment to get in the right mindset for planning with such a resource on tap.
I agree with your point about shifting to an online – browser experience, with more and more reliability as standard with wireless networks etc it will be easier to take this step – and much cheaper.
However – consider that the opposite might be true, that by focusing on the connection and the server, you are taking functionality out of the hands of the kids. It refocuses the attention to the central system and encourages a delivery model of instruction. It would be a shame if laptops just turned into a glorified, electronic textbook and test machine, hooked to and controlled by a central server.
I think the OLPC model is exactly reversed from that. Get the connection if you can, but the real power is in the local mesh network, the ability to collaborate with others regardless of a fat pipe to the Internet, and the primary ability for the student to construct multimedia, programs and other things as they learn.
I don’t think this is an “either/or”, but a “both/and”. Like you said, if you can have a connection to a global collaborative project, it’s a great thing.
this pushed me over the edge to write a new blog:
free, lean, fast, connected
I think Sylvia has the educational perspective on the button – as a model – (keeping in mind that the OLPC is designed for third world conditions)
Interesting post Graham, particularly in the light of the $100 laptop program in the US currently, competing $300 models coming out, and machines like the Assuss EEE, which are below $500A.
Charles Wright talks about some of the specs of that machine, which is selling like hot cakes, here;
ICT in my Classroom » Laptop Project Review Meeting