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Jim Klein :: Weblog :: When Do Laptops Become School Supplies?

April 08, 2009

This last Thursday I had the opportunity to pitch the idea of parents purchasing laptops (Asus EeePCs) for our current batch of 4th grade students who are participating in the SWATTEC initiative, as they will soon be heading into the 5th grade. To be sure, this wasn't the first time I'd floated the idea, however it was the first time I believe it was perceived to be "real" to the administration team (principals and leadership), as the end of the school year is rapidly approaching and the components of the potential promotion are starting to come together. There was much insight and a lively discussion, which I believe will be tremendously valuable as we work our way through the possibilities. One comment, in particular, stood out to me, which I believe could be the greatest challenge to each of us as we move away from the model of school provided technology and into one in which students bring their own (which I believe to be inevitable). That comment was: "if we make that [the EeePC I was holding at the time] a part of the curriculum, then we must provide it to the students."

This, of course, got me thinking about exactly what part of "that" was actually part of the curriculum. And perhaps more importantly, what is "that" and how can we make it so that it does not interfere with or become the curriculum, so that the focus can be on what students do with it, rather than on the technology itself. In that sense, I think we are at a tipping point at which the fundamental components of a real technology infusion in the learning environment has the potential to become a practical reality for all of us, much more so than it ever has in the past.

To understand where I am coming from on this, one must first recognize that the primary reason technology has not reached its potential in the past is largely due to its complexity. I'm sure we all agree that every student should have a personal device, yet we understand that complex implementation requirements combined with expensive equipment running complicated, unreliable, and insecure operating systems creates an environment in which things are always broken and failure is inevitable. Massive support infrastructures larger than most school districts can ever hope to afford are a requirement for such an environment to be effective, which, when left unfulfilled, leads to ultimate abandonment in the classroom, with only the most hardy souls sticking to it, trying to make it work. Tolerance for failure among teachers is generally low.

On the flip side we have the students, who are not so "native" as some would purport, yet also not afraid to try new things. They don't generally need to be taught how to use technology, primarily because they are more than willing to try, fail, try again, ask others, and generally figure things out. What is their number one technology? Cell phones. Why? Because they are inexpensive enough that all can have one, have the battery life to make it through an entire day, and are easy to use, doing just what they need, when they need it. They rarely (if ever) fail and none need to be trained to figure out how to use them. And they bring their own - we don't provide them.

So knowing this, how do we create an environment with technology as simple, affordable, and reliable as the cell phone, yet with the power to bring truly transformative change to the classroom? I believe through the fusion of three powerful technologies: netbooks, open-source software, and web 2.0. 

Netbooks overcome nearly all of the hardware obstacles to students bringing technology into the classroom. They are low cost, typically less than half that of a traditional laptop. They provide incredible battery life which enables them to easily be on a students desk all day, ready to be used at a moment's notice, with no complex systems of spare batteries, charging stations, etc. to get in the way. They are also extremely durable, especially if one uses the flash-based models which have no moving parts. Cell phone durability and battery life can make the difference between seamless use and constant disruption in the classroom.

Open-source software is the obvious answer to achieving cell phone reliability and ease of use on a device. With Linux and open-source software on netbooks, all the complexities of typical proprietary operating systems can be stripped away, leaving elegant, cell-phone like interfaces of simple icons, with reliable and secure underpinnings that are not prone to failure, malware, or general instability. All the tools you would expect are there, along with dozens more that you wouldn't. Quick restore features can be used to empower users to reset their systems in seconds, should something go awry, leaving devices no longer needing to be "managed" to "save users from themselves," as many tech directors might put it. In short, you achieve interfaces that do not impede the use of the system, rather they enable it by empowering users through simplicity of design and freedom to explore without risk.

With the hardware and software in place, the final piece of the puzzle is this: leveraging our students' natural drive to create, share, and connect - to be social - through the use of web 2.0 tools. The use web 2.0 tools in the classroom creates a powerful, participatory learning environment. Not only does the mere production of content for an audience bring about a certain authenticity to common tasks, it also breaks down barriers, makes the classroom porous, and creates a sense of community among students, teachers, and parents. What does it mean when 2nd grade students can see the work of fourth grade students and decide to take on that task themselves in a self-directed, online activity? What happens to learning when students create content with the express intent of helping other students understand key concepts? What is the impact of teachers being able to connect with students at any hour, regardless of whether they are in their class or not? Concepts such as these shake the very foundations of 19th century learning models and bring powerful new ideas about teaching and learning in the 21st century.

When we combine these three, I believe we have the ingredients of transformation at our fingertips. Does it work? Absolutely yes, we've seen this success in the SWATTEC program. We've done nearly zero training on the laptops themselves, yet the students are using them for amazing things on a daily basis, and teachers have embraced them to the degree that they are regularly used all day, every day in the learning environment. 

So what's the magic? How do we make these into school supplies? My thoughts are as follows:

  1. Set up a purchase program for parents who wish to buy a computer for their students, with the incentive being that the students would own the laptops and be able to take them home, as well as carry the same laptop through grade level changes and the like. Their low cost places them well within reach of a typical family (most have expensive cell phones, after all.)
  2. Make as many laptops available at school as possible for those who are unable/unwilling to purchase one.
  3. Install all of the same programs that the laptops have on them on every machine on campus, and give the software to parents to install on their home computers.  All of the software can be installed on any machine running any operating system, be they classroom computers or those in a student's home, without restriction or expense, creating an environment of ubiquitous technology access.

The trick, of course, will be achieving critical mass of parent supplied netbooks. 60% probably isn't enough, unless the district has the wherewithal to provide enough backup equipment to accommodate the other 40%. But, if the parents provide 70-80%, and those who don't are provided with equipment to use at school and all the software for use at home, have we achieved our goal? When do the laptops become school supplies? If we no longer have to teach students how to use the laptops themselves, no longer have the burden of providing significant support for them or training on how to use them, and we make sure all of the tools are free and easily accessible no matter what device the student uses, does the laptop suddenly become like a calculator? One of many means to an end? Thoughts?

Keywords: 21st Century Learning, Learning Environments, Netbooks, Open Source, SWATTEC

Posted by Jim Klein | Share This


  1. Jim,

    You've identified all the key conceptual arguments.  Here's where I think the barriers are:

    1. Netbooks still too costly (over $300, mostly.)  We need them for under $200 with warranty (including battery replacement.) I think this is likely fairly soon. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/02/technology/02netbooks.html?_r=2&emc=eta1

    2. Support structure still focuses on school (if parents bought them, most would buy them through a school bulk purchase, and the school would still be involved in technical support and repairs.)  So, not like a cellphone or a TI 84+.   I think we're going to have to live with asset management for a few more years (theft, maintenance, insurance, etc.) but we can manage it.  Here in Maine we're coping with a depot style (mail-in, mail back) repair for the 7-8 one-one program.  It's a staffing issue, but it works for the most part.

    3. "Open-source software is the obvious answer to achieving cell phone reliability and ease of use on a device. With Linux and open-source software on netbooks, all the complexities of typical proprietary operating systems can be stripped away, leaving elegant, cell-phone like interfaces of simple icons, with reliable and secure underpinnings that are not prone to failure, malware, or general instability." 

    I think this is overstated, but I'd love to be convinced otherwise.  The XO certainly doesn't meet this test.  I agree with the philosophy and direction, but can't believe the day is here where that exists.  I think the mobile/cell phone/netbook OS convergence needs to mature more to make such a guarantee.  If I had to deploy today, I'd be tempted to use the XP models, less pushback from parents, etc.

    In any case, I think we are two-three years out.  (In Maine we are looking at full laptops for this round.)

    Joe Makley 


    Joe Makley on Wednesday, 8 April 2009, 10:48 PDT

  2. Thanks for your comments Joe, your insights are valuable and much appreciated. On number 3, I can see where you might come to that conclusion based on the XO. At the risk of perhaps getting too technical, let me give you an idea of how we are achieving this here with the Asus EeePCs:

    1. The interface that the EeePCs with Linux use by default is a variation on XFCE that looks like the image below:

      As you can see, there are simple tabs across the top and easy to understand collection of icons beneath, quite similar to a cell phone. An interface such as this requires almost no training to learn to use, and can be made to be non-customizable by the end user. If you want to see some of our "How-Tos" for these, look here.
    2. The "magic" of making these quick to recover is through using a filesystem called UnionFS. Essentially, the way this works is by binding two partitions together, one that is read only and contains the base configuration, and one that is read/write where all the user changes to the operating system are. You customize the read-only partition up front to meet all your local settings and app requirements. Then, if there is any sort of failure, the user simply presses a key at startup and chooses "restore to defaults", which erases the read/write partition containing any user changes. This costs them nothing, as the user documents and settings are all on a separate storage.
    3. Linux is infinitely scriptable. We set these up to automatically pull down a script from one of our web servers every time a network interface comes up, which applies any changes we want on the fly, without staff intervention.

    Push-back from parents hasn't been an issue for us. Giving them a CD with all the same applications on it that the school is using goes a long way towards helping them understand the value and capabilities of the software, and the sheer economics are hard to ignore. As for the cost of the devices, Linux based versions are running $279 on the street, which could certainly be lowered through economy of scale (we obtained significant discounts on our purchase.)

    The technology part of it absolutely works, not only are we doing it here with 1700 units but John Patten replicated it up in Sylvan Unified with 500+ units. 

    Jim Klein on Wednesday, 8 April 2009, 12:00 PDT

  3. I would go a step farther, and setup /etc and /home on an SD card. Computer need repaired? Student needs to share a computer in the classroom? They shut it down and swap SD cards. For the students without a laptop, you can provide them with an SD card that they can use with the school laptops.

    Ryan Collins on Wednesday, 8 April 2009, 12:14 PDT

  4. It so exciting to follow your continued work and progress on this, Jim. One thing you mentioned in this post but didn't include in your "three magical elements" that is also critical, it seems, is the work you've done with this Elgg-powered community learning site. Creating this shared space where teachers, students, parents, and others can come together and share, reflect, celebrate, and document journeys of learning seems pivotal. It is SO exciting that, as you point out, these interactions are now powered by open source tools.

    Like Joe, I've been underwhelmed by the XO and Sugar, but admittedly I need to spend more time "playing" in that environment both by myself as well as in collaboration with others. I would agree with the point that an open source iMovie application does not exist yet-- but the power of digital storytelling platforms like VoiceThread as well as online video editing sites like Jumpcut seems to have rapidly taken us to the tipping point for multimedia creation as well.


    I'd like to see the functionality of AudioBoo in an open source application, as well as Gabcast/Gcast on an open source platform where students can use cell phones and standard phones as audio recorders. Those functionalities and possibilities are moving much faster than our schools are in embracing Netbooks, I think. I have no doubt you're blazing the right trail, Jim, and I am so appreciative that you continue to share your learning journey with all of us.

    When I was in New Zealand at the end of January, I met Erin Freeman, and Heath Sawyer who both teach in a school with certain classrooms designated as BYOL (parent-provided, bring your own laptops.) This was the first time I'd ever heard of this anywhere. Their kids and parents actually select which classroom group they are going to be in for the year: BYOL classrooms or non-BYOL. They have been doing this for 2-3 years now I think, and are increasing the number of BYOL classrooms. The wiki for Erin and Health's preso at Learning@School09 was:

    Their twitter accounts are:

    They might be good resources to contact on this subject of transitioning a school to a model where laptops are parent provided. GOOD LUCK and keep up the GREAT work! :-)

    Wesley Fryer on Wednesday, 8 April 2009, 12:43 PDT

  5. Thanks for your kind words, insight, and the great contacts, Wes! I am definitely looking for similar programs, whether they worked or not, so that we can learn about all the things we haven't thought of yet. I'm sure the experience of the folks from New Zealand will be tremendously useful.

    As for audio programs, I think GCast going commercial was something of a wake-up call to the edtech community, causing many to ask, "who owns the data?" This is certainly a great opportunity for someone to build an open-source equivalent. In our case, the netbook/Audacity/Elgg combo meets that need rather nicely, but maybe a Griffin iTalk/iPhone combination would yield similar results in the near term. Not as easy as calling a phone number, but workable.

    Jim Klein on Wednesday, 8 April 2009, 14:08 PDT

  6. An interesting idea, Ryan - lots of possibilities there. Right now when the students want to share stuff they post it in their blog, online file store, or on the local server, but I can see where an SD card model could be pretty handy.

    Jim Klein on Wednesday, 8 April 2009, 14:12 PDT

  7. I agree 100% with you Jim ;-) 

    I think one of the big hang-ups for people with the whole netbook and Linux/Opensource is the lack of awareness of how simple this is really is to deploy, support, and use. I think your metaphor of the cell phone was dead on. In my district I can honestly say we have no cell phone technicians for students or staff <BWG>... And that is essentially how it's been for the EeePC too. The interface on the EeePC is also very cell phone like...it reminds me a lot of the old Apple AtEase but only better, no permissions to deal with :-)  This trouble free technology allows for the focus to be on the learning and not the tech.

    We're also looking at beginning to deploy netbooks to staff (school nurses, psychologists, etc). I've been using a netbook now for about 3 months. I  can Ustream from it, create and present from it, and essentially do anything I need to do that I would normally do on a laptop. Heck I was live blogging at the board meeting last night in the dark, and I made as many typos as I normally would on a full size keyboard in a lit room! (that might not be saying much, ...typos are good, my brain needs the extra thinking time while my fingers go back and correct the typos ;-) ...your hands will adapt to the interface quite nicley whether it's your phone, netbook, or full size keyboard.

    I think it's about time we have a "Did you know" video showcasing the learning, configuration, support, and advantages of this approach. What do you think?

    There is no reason why this can not duplicated over and over again spurring innovation and dropping the cost even more.

    Thanks Jim! 

    John Patten on Wednesday, 8 April 2009, 16:04 PDT

  8. Great post! And trust me, I don' t use that terminology very often. This one hits many nails on the head.

    I would classify myself as a GNU/Linux noob. Where would I go to learn about setting up a Netbook with UnionFS and forcing user data to an SD card? Where can I learn to force a script to be exectuted when a network interface comes up?

     I think many schools might struggle with this level of expertise. We can cerntainly find help with Windows and usually find help with Mac OS X but Linux technical support can be challenge.

    Any advice you can give would be most welcome.

    Congratulations! I look forward to following along as these ideas unfold.

    Kurt Paccio on Wednesday, 8 April 2009, 19:11 PDT

  9. Thanks for your comments, Kurt. The most important thing to consider before adopting any sort of open-source project is how active the community is around it. One of the reasons we selected the EeePC was for that very reason. One of the sites we used the most when getting these setup is http://eeeuser.com, where they have a great wiki and very active forums. For example, to answer your questions about:


    Startup and Network Startup Scripts:

    Auto-mount SD Card or USB Memory Stick:

    Of course, there is no substitute for some good Linux/Unix skills, so it would be well worth your while to invest in some training. A great place to start is the Linux Professionals Institute certification training, and, if you want to go really advanced, look at some of the certified engineer programs from either Red Hat or Novell (I prefer Red Hat, myself.) I have some wiki pages setup that describe how we did it all here at http://community.saugususd.org/jklein/page/Open+Technologies . Of course, there are plenty of great books out there, too, but nothing beats having an expert to ask questions of while you are learning.

    Hope this helps. Feel free to contact me any time should you need any help as you head into the open-source world. We're always happy to share.

    Jim Klein on Wednesday, 8 April 2009, 20:27 PDT

  10. I agree, John, I think we should definitely put something together. I've shot some video of our classes in action and interviewed several kids, which I plan to put together to share with parents and the community, but I think the "what we've learned" and "how to" parts could be very useful to others as well. Lets talk more about this and make a plan.

    We should also think about co-presenting at CETPA, if you are going to be able to make it this year (with budget cuts and all.) You up for it?

    Jim Klein on Wednesday, 8 April 2009, 20:44 PDT

  11. Hi Jim I would never want to dampen your enthusiasm for the Linux EeePC, as dollar for dollar you can't beat it for an easy out of the box solution but just a few words of caution from my experience with a class set last year. http://www.conectd.blogspot.com/ -EeePC label

    1) check you can upload to all the web2:0 programs you want to use

    2) appreciate you can't run some programs

    and 3) be aware that parents/principles rightfully or wrongly will have more buy in for the familiar windows based machines.

    Lesley Craven on Wednesday, 8 April 2009, 23:14 PDT

  12. Hi Jim,What did you do about learning applications such as KidPix, Jumpstart, and many other learning programs which schools currently use and have no Web 2.0 replacement?  Some teaching curriculum is base around the use of this learning software.

    Mike Van Slambrouck on Thursday, 9 April 2009, 07:34 PDT

  13. Lesley and Mike, good points all, and certainly worthy of consideration by all who consider Linux on the desktop in any flavor. I think it is important to keep in mind that we're talking about kids here and not adults, and that one thing that kids absolutely are not is emotionally attached to any one program in the same way that adults tend to be. They are much more likely to try the latest thing, to use more than one similar tool to get the same job done, and to jettison one application for another, in many cases for no particular reason. We don't see the same "attachment" issues we do with adults. Using OpenOffice instead of Microsoft is no big deal to them. What we are talking about here is skills not software. 

    With that in mind, there are plenty of open-source and web 2.0 alternatives to the proprietary solutions we all know and love (and pay gobs of money for.) And because they are free to install, use, and distribute, we have the opportunity to create a far richer and more diverse technology environment, and extend it to the homes of our students. For example, KidPix can easily be replaced by TuxPaint, Jumpstart by GCompris, Inspiration by Freemind, etc., etc. All of these and more come pre-installed on the EeePC. When was the last time you bought a Windows PC with 50+ programs pre-installed, that you didn't have to pay for. It's what it costs to own, not what it costs to buy, you see.

    There are also a surprising number of Web 2 learning applications. One of our teachers, Mrs. Desiree Spang, put together a web site categorizing hundreds of them by grade level and skill called the Spang Gang. I encourage you to check it out and share it with folks. One thing that we did to make sure that all the students and teachers are aware of these resources is we set up a custom home page for the devices in Firefox, which you can see at http://students.saugususd.org/swattec/page . Simple things like that go a long way towards raising awareness of the possibilities. 

    Of course, most of the big learning apps are also going web-based, if they haven't already, and I would expect that those that aren't will probably go the way of the do-do in the coming years. 

    All of that said, I believe it's all a matter of perspective and managing expectations. One thing we didn't actually call these when we launched the program was "laptops", we always referred to them as "devices." Right or wrong, when they are a "learning device" they aren't held to the same standard by parents as a laptop, and rightfully so. These aren't intended to be all-powerful - more of a connectivity/productivity tool. You will still need to strategically locate Macs for your high-end video production and publishing applications, and Windows machines here and there for whatever they are good for ;-) But the long and the short of it is that these are a highly effective, practical solution to providing one-to-one connectivity and diverse technology access to students in the classroom and beyond. 

    Jim Klein on Thursday, 9 April 2009, 10:17 PDT

  14. Can you run SMART Notebook 10 on the EeePC. There is version for Linux.

    Neil Johnson on Thursday, 9 April 2009, 10:27 PDT

  15. Neil, I bet you can, but haven't tried myself. We're putting Airliners in these classrooms later this year, so we'll give it a try then.

    Jim Klein on Thursday, 9 April 2009, 10:40 PDT

  16. Don't say I didn't warn you but I seriously suggest you take off your rose tinted classes and read this post.


    I so do wish it wasn't true but unfortunately it was a reality for me.

    A reality that makes me have to admit that for an extra $100 or more it's worth going with Microsoft, the operating system that is not the software.

    And you really don't know how much it hurts me to say that.

    Lesley Craven on Thursday, 9 April 2009, 17:10 PDT

  17. Thanks again for your thoughts, Lesley. Perhaps I wasn't clear, but we have had 1700 of these in the hands of 4th graders for quite some time, without any reports of the difficulties you suggest in your post - we even have Scratch installed on them. But our expectations are not that these can do anything and everything, we are realistic about them. There are several things you can't do on them, regardless of the operating system you choose. If one focuses narrowly on the few things a technology can't do, it's easy to lose sight of the broad gains that are to be had, in this case,  creating a reliable, supportable, one-to-one environment for students on a large scale. And again, it's not what it costs to buy, it's what it costs to own. 

    I'd be happy to discuss just how we did this in our environment in detail with you further, so please feel free to contact me directly should you so desire.

    Jim Klein on Thursday, 9 April 2009, 17:59 PDT

  18. Oh yes that puts a different perspective on it. I'd heard yo can get scratch for Linux now

    What wifi/internet systems are you using ? I'd love to know how those web2:0 uploading problems of mine could have been resolved.

    Because as you've probably gathered  I had to admit defeat on my Linux EeePC initiative and our school has now gone with windows based operating system machines.

    Not that I'm overly worried (Yeah Right) a computer is a computer and I'm not going to complain as long as I've got 1:1 but it does infuriate me every lesson when we have to wait 3 minutes for the windows machines to boot up.

    I dare say you probably don't have the same problems in America given your internet access and proximity to the servers as I suspect it was a timing out issues.

    But oh well - too late for us now.
    Or is it?  I'm going straight back to school now (holiday or no holiday) and check out those sites again. You never know, now we've got our new wifi and  fast fibre - it could all work perfectly.

    Fingers crossed and all  the best for the future of Linux.



    Lesley Craven on Friday, 10 April 2009, 12:33 PDT

  19. All interesting thoughts.  As we've implemented the SWATTEC project this year, I've often thought that these little laptops should replace traditional texts for every subject except reading, with all other texts accessible via internet or loaded on the computer itself, and the children taking computers home instead of books.  Seems updates to texts would be more cost effective that way.  Maybe someday...

    As a 4th grade teacher, I'd love to see my students continue to be able to take advantage of the tremendous opportunities they've had this year by using Eeepc's in the classroom for the remainder of their elementary years.  However, I see a few problems with these being parent purchased "school supplies."  We have many families who can't even afford school lunch.  A laptop is quite a jump. I would worry greatly, both academically and socially, about those children who would sit discouraged, watching other children take their laptops to and from school because their families simply could not afford a laptop.  

    We'll always have families who do not have the money.  I agree that students bringing their own technology is likely inevitable.  But I wonder how we will handle those who just can't.

    As a parent of a 4th grader, I looked into buying one of the Eeepc's for my son.  His father found a full-fledged laptop with Microsoft software for $500. Because of its durability and ease of use, the Eeepc's are ideal for the classroom.  But as parents making a major investment for our son's educational future, we felt the Eeepc with Open software was, for the price, a product that was inferior to what we wanted our son to use at home.  We wouldn't want him taking his regular laptop (or an Eeepc we'd purchased) to and from school--the possibility of theft or breakage is far too high for an item that is for our income level, a large investment.

    So, do I think every 4-6 grader should have an Eeepc?  Yes, absolutely, and probably instead of hard-copy social studies, science, and math texts.  Do I think parents should buy them?  No, I don't think that's a reasonable public school expectation, and if we go in the direction of making it "optional," we are creating an environment that puts some of our demographic at a disadvantage.

    Things to think about...  

    Cheryl Cameron on Sunday, 19 April 2009, 02:44 PDT

  20. Thanks for your comments Cheryl. I didn't mean to suggest that only some students would have technology while others wouldn't, quite the contrary. The way I am viewing the laptops in this case is in the same fashion as we view a compass or protractor. Most students bring these to school, but there are always some that don't. For those students, we provide them from a pool of available ones at the school. The school doesn't provide a protractor for everyone, just for those who need one, which reduces the monetary burden to the school. I propose the same model here. The incentive for purchasing a laptop would be that a student would be able to take it home and carry it with them throughout their academic career with the district.

    I appreciate the "more powerful laptop" perspective, however the difficulty there is in providing adequate support. If everyone brings whatever they want, a teacher would always have several class members in the state you describe - little Johnny sitting discouraged because his laptop doesn't work correctly today, or his battery is dead because his only lasts an hour on a charge, or the software we are using doesn't work on his machine, or whatever. There has to be some consistency or the environment becomes unsupportable, and the learning suffers. 

    Jim Klein on Sunday, 19 April 2009, 11:31 PDT

  21. Of course, educating students about proper use and care, as well as good policies and best-practices would be a must to minimize the risks of theft and/or breakage. These would need to be tailored to the age of the students and other risk factors, but I'm thinking that at the elementary level it would be wise to require that laptops stay in the classroom when they are at school, and that they stay in backpacks/bags when they are outside the classroom or being transferred from place to place.

    Jim Klein on Sunday, 19 April 2009, 12:32 PDT

  22. I think, too, that in a few years there will be a meeting in the middle of cheaper hardware, wider broadband access, and more numerous/diverse cloud computing apps that will, altogether, equal a very affordable, durable, and portable access point for computing. 

    The purchase model that we've envisioned for our district- that of having parents participate by purchasing their own child's laptop, is doable, perhaps, here. Districts in more impoverished areas will have a much harder time getting parents on board. There are some other concerns as well. What happens when a child's laptop (owned by that child) is accidentally bumped off his desk by another student and is broken? Many of our rules regarding equipment from home not coming to school are a product of our legal worries.

    Ultimately I see the state providing the equipment money just as they do textbook funds. With costs coming down (as I mentioned above) and potential savings of having some current costs (like textbooks) go down (if they are purchased in an electronic format) I think this is an inevitable outcome. I say inevitable because all stakeholders will benefit from students learning these highly desirable skills. How many businesses, for example, hire personnel and then have to go through the added expense of training them in computers because their proficiency is so low? I just think this is a win-win for everyone. I've seen the problem solving skills increase in my students in leaps and bounds. They're becoming proficient in so many types of programs through instruction but, more frequently, through osmosis. They're also gaining immeasurable social skills and integrating skills in the development of projects. The computer is not the only avenue for this, but it is such a handy portal to so many different tools- remember Felix-the-Cat's bag of tricks?

    As for where the parents come in, I've had several this year asking if they could purchase their child's Asus (I'm not kidding). I've pointed them to the company, but I'm thinking that if the state were to provide tech funds for netbooks, that the price and obsolescence factor (the school getting stuck with equipment that quickly is outdistanced by next year's model) could be mitigated by a purchasing program. The benefit to the parent/child is that they are already proficient with the hardware/software, everything is totally set up, and the child's work is already on the unit. Imagine if 40% of our parents bought their child's textbook at the end of the year and we could use that money for future textbook purchases. Of course, parents don't want to buy old textbooks for their child. Netbooks/laptops are different, however. Parents do see a use in their child having those items. If many of the students' textbooks were in electronic format, there is an additional advantage in not having the waste of a truckload of books everytime the district adopts a new curriculum.

    The more that I look at it, the more I can't see how this wouldn't come to pass. Not so long ago, it seemed so far-fetched that students would have their own computers. Now it seems far-fetched that they wouldn't

    David Lindsay on Sunday, 19 April 2009, 22:49 PDT

  23. Thanks for your comments, David. One of the things we have discussed is the possibility of selling the netbooks at a reduced rate to parents at the end of the 4th grade school year - for say $200 (or less). This would reduce the cost to the parents, providing further incentive for their purchase, and would help us deal with the obsolescence factor as well as reduce the district's financial burden. Each year we'd have to provide an entire grade level worth of machines and make reasonable forecasts as to the purchase rate, with the unpurchased ones going into the pool of available equipment at the schools for those who don't/can't purchase one. With careful planning, this could certainly work, the trick would be coming up with the money on the district side. A strategy such as this would be my preference, however it's hard to do when you are facing the kind of budget shortfalls we are facing now.

    Jim Klein on Monday, 20 April 2009, 10:03 PDT

  24. I think I'll be blogging about this in the next day or two at gravitysgrace.net  We definitely need to start thinking about computers as school supplies.

    I'm reminded, though, of the scenes in Orson Scott Card's book ENDER'S GAME, where each student has an electronic desk.  Ender's fellow students on Earth use it to send nasty messages to him, even as they use a messaging system Ender designed.  At Battle School, Ender designs the security system, and figures out how to create extra users to neutralize Bernard in his launchy group.

     Contrast this with the school-provided computers in Cory Doctorow's LITTLE BROTHER, where the machines are so overloaded with security software and spyware and advertising that the kids are inherently suspicious of the device and do their best to hack them as quickly as possible.

    We can't make these platforms so rigid and school-oriented that kids won't play games on them, or write novels, or use them as other tools.  A scrap paper is always handy for tic-tac-toe, and kids who aren't learning in school — for whatever reason — should be able to turn their school supplies to other purposes.

    Andrew B. Watt on Monday, 20 April 2009, 20:23 PDT

  25. Fascinating stuff!  When I first did the research for my book, Laptops and Literacy: Learning in the Wireless Classroom, a couple of years ago, I was thinking that $250 would be the tipping point for laptop programs, i.e., when laptops reached that price schools would start going to 1-to-1 en mass.  We've already just about reached that point with the Eee, and that doesn't include the cost savings from going open source.  However, most districts are not yet fully informed about the open source option, and the dip in the economy has probably brought the tipping point price down.

     As Jim points out, in well-to-do areas the implementation cost can be brought down much further by having parents bear much of the purchase price of laptops.  That won't work in other places.  In any case, once the price dips below $200, or possibly to $100, it's hard for me to believe that districts won't see the benefits of 1-to-1, especially given the positive examples from places like Saugus.

    The fact that the Intel Atom processor is going to face some stiff competition in the netbook market in the coming year or two -- from at least ARM-based processors and a new processor to be built by IBM -- plus the general development of more online application capacity (e.g., for video editing, as mentioned above), should make the prospects of district going to 1-to-1 all the more affordable and likely.

    Mark Warschauer on Monday, 20 April 2009, 22:51 PDT

  26. Whoops.  I meant to say "once the price dips below $200, or possibly to $150," not $100. 

    Mark Warschauer on Monday, 20 April 2009, 22:52 PDT

  27. I don't disagree with the idea that laptops should eventually become school supplies.  On the flipside, what is stopping them from becoming just as potentially ineffective in changing the way teaching and learning take place as say...as pencils or rulers?  My detailed thoughts to this topic as it relates to defining "21st century schools" are found here.    

    Matt T. on Thursday, 30 April 2009, 20:14 PDT

  28. Here's a link re. Amazon creating a different version of Kindle specifically for textbooks--currently to be used in college.  I wonder how long it will be before this trickles down to K-6 and a format for eeepc or similar?  




    Cheryl Cameron on Sunday, 10 May 2009, 23:08 PDT

  29. Is anyone talking about the netbook-tablets? We're looking at an initiative that would put something like the ma companion touchbooks in the hands of our 600 students. While the price & power of regular netbooks is appealing ($279 for the Acer 10" with windows xp) we find our math and science classes do so much more when the kids can write in OneNote (or EverNote), Sketchpad, etc... using a tablet interface. At $459 these units are still a bit pricey, but they are toucg & well-built and I would hope we will see prices drop in the coming year.

    Jim Kurz on Wednesday, 17 June 2009, 06:48 PDT

  30. I have read this and <i agree with much that is being said.

     There is great consideration that needs to take place, what if the students that re in need of computers are from families are receiving monies like SSI , though some parents may be receiving SSA this still doesn't guarantee that a child will be left behind. and as for those expensive cell phones, kids in the rual areas may not have such a device cause lack of service..


    I my self live in a dead Zone for quest High speed how ever we get Comcast but it is twice as expensive..So then there is a new Technology that is coming about with satlights   <but that is still expensive even for a person on a Fixed Income.


    <What needs to happen is  radical change Schools need to weigh the cost of laptops Versus Textiles .


    This makes for a great debate. We as people need to come to an agreement on something cause the technology door has been flung wide open.

    I remember well when there was a time when using a a pc for school work as a major issue..I was told that i had an unfair advantage and was told nt to use the PC (C-128) and was even disciplined for it. when <i spoke out saying a day is coming when this technology will be beyond your control, I was laughed at. I ran into one such teacher and he apologised profusely at what he did when I ws in High school..

    He stated I was right.


    The time has come for action to be taken .. Some how all kids need these devices.  Soon they will be come a job requirement.

    Oh and should another kid "steal" another kids device the punishment should be severe.And that kid should be made to buy the kid he stole from a new device.

    So along  with new technology should come new rules for protection, safety as well as fairness.


    There is  a lot to debate on still but we need to start implementing something because were gettingour buts kicked by countrys like Japan, heck they even have learning soft ware for there gaming consoles..why not here n the US . and if you want it to succeed start producing fewer kill games  and more on the educational end..



    Guest on Wednesday, 2 September 2009, 11:55 PDT

  31. I thought I'd follow up with a report on Maine one-one.  About half of our state is providing new full sized MacBooks through the well-appointed state offering,  but some could not swing the $242 per student per year price tag, which led to a small "netbook consortium" springing up.  In Maine, one-one is not controversial, though our culture (and to some extent our laws) prevent requiring parents to chip in.  We have to buy and support the infrastructure. Netbooks were seen as an alternative, and though I predicted otherwise above, we ended up choosing a netbook solution in Portland as well.  There is also a consortium working on a shared image: http://www.open1to1.org/ 


    Joe Makley on Wednesday, 16 September 2009, 10:42 PDT

  32. Thanks for the update Joe - that sounds like an exciting project! For those who are interested in our netbook image, you can find details at http://community.saugususd.org/swattec/page/Linux+on+Netbooks

    Jim Klein on Wednesday, 16 September 2009, 14:06 PDT

  33. I really enjoyed reading your blog today Jim.  It gave me a lot to think about for the remaining portion of my class.  I just received 12 Dell mini's through grant monies.  The class is completely stoked about having the opportunity to have their voices heard by the world.  We have had them two days now and their attention has been pulled toward studying famous African Americans on a web quest that was shared with me.  The key to this entire process has been the idea of passion.  Take a look at this video that was sent to me on a teacher based Ning social networking site.  Thanks again for showcasing your learning in a transparent fashion so that others like myself can grow in this exciting new age of learning. 

    Video link


    Eddie on Thursday, 21 January 2010, 03:28 PST

  34. I won't some laptops at my school . My school is called haritig acadomy

    Guest on Sunday, 21 March 2010, 12:41 PDT

  35. Great post, Jim.  I do think there's a big piece to the equity issue that many haven't entirely wrestled with yet. Especially those who are pursuing a bring your own device model. As much as some people hate the idea of standardization, I agree with you that to a large extent, that's the only way to make this thing work right now.  And we need to consider if we're letting kids bring in their own, or buy their own, what do we do with the kids who can't?  We have to come up with a plan for them.  I earnestly don't believe that an "oh well, we can't hold back the others because of them" mentality is the answer in public education.

    Ben Grey on Wednesday, 28 April 2010, 19:44 PDT

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