Thursday, February 10, 2011

Finding the right one to one device

One to one computing is an interesting endeavor. In heading down this road things have changed a bit in the past yar or two.  The choice of devices is broader than ever and their capabilities vary significantly. Often schools choose their devices due to grants or discounts, financial restraints, one individual's preference, or specific program requirements.

In considering such a significant investment the most important factor is flexibility. The cost of this type of investment means the device must be able to meet a multitude of needs. What should a mobile computing platform be able to do?

Mobile computing for students must be able to offer a truly mobile platform to really engage students and level the playing field for all learners. This means the batteries need to last a whole school day. The device needs to be rugged enough to handle student abuse. It needs to be portable and affordable enough to give it to the students. Yep, give it to them. Take it home, make it yours, and use it.

It has to be able to be loaded with appropriate applications, documents, and books for learners. It has to be kept open enough to allow learners to fnd ther own programs without putting the whole school network at risk. It must have internet access and allow that access outside and inside of school.

More important than all of this, the device needs to allow students to create and share. It has to allow students to come up with their own ideas of what it should do and afford the capability of students to actually write progams for it. It needs to allow teachers to create learning oppotunities that they can turn kids loose on.

So... what does all of that mean? First of all it eliminates the handheld as it just doesn't have the screen real estate to meet these needs. Laptops are much cheaper than they used to be, but their batteries just don't hold up in the more affordable models. What else is there?

Tablets and netbooks are both affordable and have incredible battery life. Netbooks run standard windows software and have keyboards that allow for easy writing.  Tablets are extremely portable and their OS's pose little threat to networks compared to windows machines. Both are tough enough for our students to handle although kids will break anything no matter how tough.

Netbooks come in lots of flavors but they are all pretty similar.  They are small power sipping laptops that in their early days seemed underpowered. With new chips and some optimizations in software they are now pretty capable little computers that rival low end laptops. They usually lack an optical drive which is not as big an issue as it used to be. They can run just about any software you would run on a desktop save serious film editing and autocad. The are capable but not ideal for annotating other works, note taking, and book reading.

Conversely tablets are great readers. They excel at Internet browsing and consuming all sorts of content ad media. The iPad lacks flash but otherwise Android, Apple, Windows, and soon WebOS all have tablets available.  They are very engaging portable devices that fit nicely into the world of texting, portable gaming, and media consumption our students thrive in.

What about creation? Desktops have apps to create and share work easily. Netbooks can run most of it as well. Tablets? To a lesser degree but this post is being written on one. Tablets do make data collection, taking pictures and even movies (the iPad does noy habe a camera currently) very convenient. There is software available to do it all.

And programming? What about actually creating applications to solve problems? Can our students design their own apps? They can. All of these platforms have development tools. Google app inventor makes programing for Android accessible for anyone. Scratch runs on netbooks and soon on Android as well. The tools are there no matter which device we choose.

Netbooks and tablets, both compelling platforms.  Both much cheaper than the laptops of a couple of years ago.  Some of these aren't much more expensive than the TI graphing calculators we make many of our students purchase and then barely teach them to use.  As a matter of fact there are TI emulators for just about every platform and many are free.

Connectivity is another consideration in 1:1.  Schools are kind of strapped for bandwidth.  Most have about the same as you do at home with a cable Internet provider.  And wireless, well that's another issue entirely.  Think about the last time you went to a conference.  When hundreds of people are on the wireless network at once, how reliable is it?  Can schools provide enough to keep 400 students running at once- reliably?  They CAN, but it is expensive and short term. 

Wifi is a standard that is about to move to its next phase, wireless AC. Should we be investing hundreds of thousands into an infrastructure that will be outdated within a few years?  It is a tough call because we can't afford to wait.  How else can we get all of these devices the Internet access essential to make these devices reach their potential as learning tools?

Cellular IS an option although many discount it because of the cost.  Looking at it carefully, the costs are not as outrageous as you might think though.  Verizon will give a school a netbook for free with a $40 per month data package. 10 months of school is $400 per student.  Yes, it is a bit pricey, but the bandwidth, the device, the connectivity, are all the carriers responsibility.  They can provide filtering (required by CIPA). This has the added benefit of providing that Internet access at home, regardless of a family income and in most cases even the most rural locations with no high speed home access still get cellular coverage.  Talk about leveling the playing field, this does it very effectively!

Where does all of this leave us?  The answer is simple, there is no single solution.  The only question that needs to be asked though is "what do I want students to do?"  Once that is established the advantages and disadvantages presented here can be weighed.  Good Luck to those brave enough to make the decision and the commitment.

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