Oct 7, 2009
Ask any progressive educator the following question: "If you were to select just one tool to give to each student - one that you believe would have the greatest impact on their learning - what would it be?" Nine times out of ten the answer will be "a laptop." Sounds simple, right? And yet it's not. Why? Because, while we all recognize the potential of the technology to transform the learning environment, the implementation of individual student devices is fraught with complexity and impracticality. Those that have dared to tread down the path have been met with high costs, massive support requirements, and fragile hardware, all of which combine to create a toxic mix that, at best severely limits the technology's effectiveness in the classroom and, at worst leads to epic program failures that have been widely reported in the media. 

This, of course, is not intentional. When educators consider giving laptops to students at any scale, they generally do so only after careful consideration and planning. These plans typically boil down to two primary areas of focus: systems "management" and staff development. Solid staff development is key to the success of any learning initiative, but I believe our approach to "management" to be the root of the problems that plague broad deployment of individual student technology solutions.

Don't get me wrong, I completely understand that there was a great need for "management" of each device in the past. Traditional laptops, with their relatively short battery life, unreliable software, and general fragility demand a preventative approach to problem solving, as "management" is often the only way to ensure that the technology will function in a remotely reliable fashion. And yet, any honest assessment of the "managed" approach reveals that it only serves to limit the potential of the technology and its impact on student learning and to significantly drive up costs.

So what would it take to escape the vicious "management" cycle? What if it were possible to offer students a device that was reliable enough that it didn't have to be "managed" at all, allowing us instead to focus on learning objectives? I believe it is, but only if we have what I would call a "cell phone" or "device" approach to technology deployment.

To understand where I'm coming from, consider the number one technology used by students today: the cell phone. 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 are always on, always connected, and rarely (if ever) fail. And best of all, no student needs to be trained to figure out how to use one. So, if we could just recreate those key cell phone characteristics in a device that is a bit more capable of content production and requires just as much "management" (ie none), would we not have an ideal solution? Impossible? Not when you combine netbooks with open-source software.

Netbooks are essentially mini-laptops that combine the physical characteristics of a cell phone with the capabilities of a traditional laptop, overcoming nearly all of the hardware obstacles to continuous student technology use in the classroom. They are low cost, provide incredible battery life, and are ready to be used at a moment's notice, with no complex systems of spare batteries to get in the way. They are also extremely durable, especially if one chooses a flash-based model which has no moving parts. Cell phone durability and battery life can make the difference between seamless use and constant disruption in the classroom.

But hardware is only half of the picture. Open-source software is the 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." 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.

The benefits don't stop there. Through the use of free, open-source applications, students gain access to a diverse set of tools and resources for content creation, and teachers are empowered to challenge students to demonstrate subject area mastery using any one of a variety of tools and contexts. Since the software is free to distribute, students can install the same programs on any computer they have access to, creating an environment in which teachers can have a reasonable expectation that technology-based activities and assignments can be completed regardless of the student's location. And free classroom management tools enable teachers to monitor student activity, communicate privately or with groups, take control of a workstation, start a demonstration from theirs or any student's machine, and garner the attention of the class at a moment's notice, all through an easy to use interface on the teacher's workstation.

Add it all up, and you create an environment that takes the "scary" out of one-to-one in the classroom for teachers and students, and brings practical manageability to one-to-one programs. Does it work? Absolutely yes, we've seen tremendous success in our district through the SUSD SWATTEC program. We've done nearly zero training on the laptops themselves, yet 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. Is it replicable? Absolutely. All the software and every detail is available in true open-source fashion on the SUSD SWATTEC web site. Six school districts in four states (that we know of) are doing it now, with great success.

I hope that you too will consider rethinking your approach individual student devices through the use of netbooks and open-source. With realistic goals, the right mindset, and the right technology, there's no limit to the learning opportunities available to students and teachers in the 21st century classroom.


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  1. hi jim. i certainly am thinking about how i want to have access to technology in my classroom (secondary school). taking students out of the classroom environment into "the lab" isn't always desirable, and lab access is iffy at best and rarely chronological, which can make projects difficult. i've just come from uLearn09 (in new zealand, where i live), and netbooks seem like a very reasonable alternative to laptops: cheaper, more durable, and make using technology possible where it might not otherwise be.thanks for your article.

  2. Jim: I appreciate SO much your continued sharing of the 1:1 and netbook journey you continue on with others in your school district. I remain torn about hoped-for ARRA funds in Oklahoma that might be used for 1:1 projects here. Netbooks have so much promise, yet I am scared to take the plunge and recommend that our schools do on a large scale yet. I grappled a lot last weekend with my Dell Netbook, and I fear schools will need more handholding than any of our Oklahoma vendors could provide if they scale a 1:1 with netbooks and open source. Yet I think you are absolutely right, we must look to the "unmanaged" technology solutions as those which can be most viable for ALL students. In Hong Kong, touring schools, I was struck by how those relatively expensive, international schools are havens for Apple and Mac products. What about netbooks, however? Who is REALLY interested in providing educational tools and learning experiences for ALL students? I'm not sure that's vendors. There are many good ones, but their bottom line still has to be their bottom line. I think Apple's failure to enter the netbook market in a serious way is a huge mis-step for them in education.

    I am considering the path you're recommending, and I appreciate your continued thoughts along these lines which continue to shape my own thinking-- and the actions I'll be hopefully taking in upcoming months here in Oklahoma.

  3. I couldn't agree more Jim...our implementation of 512 netbooks running Linux and OpenSource tools off your image continues to run along smooth in our 5h grade classrooms. The analogy of cell phones and support is dead on. Configuration and support over the last year has been essentially configure and forget...in terms of the hardware. The real work is in helping teachers design instruction that capitalizes on the capabilities these tools bring to the classroom, but it does not take long for teachers to get creative when every student has the tool literally at their finger tips. Over the last year, the most support issues we've had (less than a dozen if I have to count them) have been handled over the phone with a simple re-image with the keyboard shortcut on restart. We have had two machines, of the 512, we had to send back for battery malfunctions and three that had damaged screens the result of over zealous little fingers. I'm just about to put the finishing touches on our next EETT ARRA grant proposal, and aside from hour of PD for our target teachers, we're planning to put in 740 more Linux netbooks! The best classroom technology, is not the kind that hangs on the wall or from the ceiling, it's the kind that's in students' hands! Keep up the good work!

  4. Your post is right on however, the third hurdle to jump is internet connectivity. That was another major issue in the 1:1 deployment I was involved in. How have you overcome that issue?

  5. Excellent point, InnovativeEdu, bandwidth will undoubtedly be an issue, although one that is manageable. We do a great deal of caching here with local proxy servers feeding from bigger central proxies in a cache hierarchy, which helps a lot. However, there is certainly a point where you will simply need more bits. That said, bandwidth is not something that requires a tremendous amount of ongoing maintenance - it's more "set it and forget it." Reinvesting some of the cost savings realized in software into short-term equipment costs, as well as strategic partnerships, taking advantage of state contracts, and E-Rate can help to reduce these bandwidth costs. Taking advantage of some of the open-source web applications (like your own "YouTube" server with OSTube or PHPMotion) and running them locally can also make a big difference.

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