Netbooks in Schools – Survey results and reflections

About 2 weeks ago, I decided to do a survey of other schools/educators to see if anyone was using netbooks yet or if other schools were considering them for either student or faculty computing.

I didn’t receive a ton of responses (13 total), but the results gave me food for thought.

Which best describes your school/institution?

Public school 4 31%
School district 2 15%
Independent or parochial school 5 38%
Charter school 0 0%
University 0 0%
Online school 0 0%
Other 2 15%

If you are using netbook(s), which model(s) are you using?
Note – none mentioned the Dell Inspiron Mini

Are you considering purchase of netbooks for student use?

Yes 11 85%
No 2 15%

Do you anticipate having netbooks attach to your network?

Yes, network access would be necessary 4 33%
No, netbooks would only access school wireless 5 42%
Other 3 25%
Note: For some tools, such as OneNote 2007, students would either need access to a school network or Sharepoint server in order to fully take advantage of the notebook sharing.  As we move toward more “cloud” computing, accessing school networks is less and less essential.  However, as many 1-1 schools use little paper and move toward “paperless” or reduced paper classrooms, it’s essential to have a plan for efficient electronic document exchange between students and their teachers (and student to student).

What operating system(s) would you plan to use on the netbooks?

WindowsXP, Vista, Linux  – Note: No one mentioned Apple as a possibility.

What price range would make a netbook worthy of your consideration?

$800-$1000 0 0%
$600-$800 1 8%
$400-$600 8 62%
Under $400 4 31%
Of course, hindsight is 20/20.  I should have asked what is currently being spent on student machines.  My school is using tablets with kids; quality tablets range in price, but durable models are often $1500+.  If a school currently provides only desktop labs for student use, an $800 laptop may not seem like a good deal.  However, if a school is providing (or asking families to provide) a higher-end laptop with full3+ year warranty, $800 may sound like a bargain.

Describe how you use and/or intend to use netbooks at your school?

Quite a range of responses:
  • They would replace current systems on carts and may potentially replace tablets in 1-1 program for middle school.
  • Not sure yet. Would need to learn more about them.
  • Collaboration; writing for wider audience; problem solving, Library checkout, for student use.
  • Currently have 100 Asus Eee PC 1000H & 20 OLPC XO-1 netbooks deployed in CoWs (Computers on Wheels) carts for in-classroom use by students.
  • Use in library media center for Internet research.  also use for some production work such as animoto, voicethread, etc.  Students cannot save on the school server as IT dept will not connect them to the network.  They also can’t print.
  • Several possibilities:  1.  for purchase in the school store by students  2.  for long term student check-outs  3.  for loaner check-outs to students when their laptops die  4.  mobile computer labs
  • Lower School daily use
  • We are building a computer-on-wheels cart of them to replace the heavy laptop carts that are too unwieldy to push around in our schools. We also have a science set, one for each lab table, to use for collection of data.  We will be using them pre going to the computer labs for “final production”.
  • This would be a low-cost alternative for laptop purchases in lieu of the current economy. Full laptops would also be used, both Macs and Windows units. We will add the 3-year warranty to these which does raise the cost. We would be using only the Lenovo S10E.
  • Our intention is not clear as yet. We have ordered one each of 5 different netbooks and are testing them with the Tech team, teachers and students.
  • For students, as part of 1:1 Laptop program. Basically for everything, to encourage more advanced forms of collaboration, greater use of multimedia in the assignments, greater ICT proficiency…

Do you CURRENTLY use netbooks at your school for:

Students 3 25%
Teachers 1 8%
Administrators 0 0%
Technical/support staff 0 0%
Not using netbooks yet 9 75%
People may select more than one checkbox, so percentages may add up to more than 100%.

Rate your level of concern about durability of netbooks.

Not concerned
Extremely concerned
1 -
Not concerned
2 15%
2 4 31%
3 3 23%
4 3 23%
5 -
Extremely concerned
1 8%

If a tablet netbook were available in a similar price range to other netbooks, would you consider a purchase?

Yes 12 92%
No 1 8%
What’s a tablet? 0 0%

Check your three top concerns about netbook implementation for your institution.

Durability of hardware 6 46%
Responsiveness/speed 5 38%
Data storage on netbook 3 23%
Network access 1 8%
Start-up cost 1 8%
Support if significant hardware is purchased 2 15%
Professional development for teachers 2 15%
Student training 0 0%
Sustaining the initiative 3 23%
Software purchase/licensing 0 0%
Webspeed/bandwidth of wireless 1 8%
Lifespan of hardware 4 31%
Misuse by students 3 23%
Battery life 3 23%
Other 3 23%
People may select more than one checkbox, so percentages may add up to more than 100%.

Overall, it sounds like many of us have the same concerns about netbooks.

  1. How durable will a sub $600 laptop be in the hands of kids? They’re billed as machines for the casual user or a second machine for a heavy user.  Most of us with experience in 1-1 schools or with laptops on carts know kids are heavy users.  Yes, some kids are more clumsy or even reckless than adults, but I’ve seen VERY conscientious users experience hardware failure.  Sometimes it’s the level of use, not the carelessness of the user, that kills the hardware.  Will netbooks prove durable enough for kids 1-1?  On carts?  In a thriving 1-1, they’ll be in use at least 2-3 hours per day @ school and 1+ hours @home.  Can a netbook handle this?
  2. Will a machine in this price range, with a relatively new processor (most use the Intel Atom), be able to handle what we need it to for instructional use? That’s going to depend on the uses we see.  At my school, typical student use frequently includes:
  • Word processing for independent writing, collaborative writing, and  peer editing of documents
  • OneNote and shared notebooks for classroom notes, lab notes, math practice, and research documentation
  • Spreadsheet creation/data entry, primarily for science
  • Accessing websites for practice (Quia, Conjuguemos, textbook sites), research, collaboration, and publication
  • Audio recording (usually with Audacity)Powerpoint for creating presentations
  • Flashcard tools
  • Limited video editing (Movie Maker)

I would anticipate the Atom processor, based on reviews thus far, would handle all of the above.

3.  How long should a machine in this price range last?  It’s really too soon to tell.  It’s going to depend on hardware durability, level of use, and maintenance.  Most of the warranties seem to be 1 year; few have extended warranties available.  Perhaps the real question is whether or not current school support structures can support the hardware.  A number of schools with 1-1 are having students do tier 1 support.   This might be a more viable option with netbooks.

Some hopeful thoughts…

  • Obviously, they’re more affordable.  At the very least, this will contribute to an overall decrease in hardware price and, ideally, increased efficiency of future hardware.
  • Netbooks, especially those with the Atom processor, are very energy-friendly.  The small screen and lack of unnecessary goodies under the hood combined with lighter operating systems can really extend battery life and decrease charging time.
  • They come in many configurations, colors, etc.  There are more options available than with traditionally affordable hardware.
  • 1-1 programs have often struggled with misuse by students for gaming; this processor isn’t built for the heavier popular games.  Most serious gamers won’t want to use this as a gaming system.
  • These aren’t that different from other computers previously used by schools.  Most will run familiar operating systems.  As such, special professional development shouldn’t be required for most users.

Other concerns:

  • Will a compact size encourage theft or might it make the computer less valuable (less likely to be stolen) and easier to hide?
  • Will the low cost make users less careful?
  • Will the compact size make them difficult for some students to use?
  • How much multimedia creation can they handle?  We may still need a traditional lab for video editing, both for screen size and processor capability.
  • 2GB RAM would be nice if the system is using Windows, especially if multimedia content will be created.

One place to look for support if you’re really considering netbooks for your school may be the Illinois Low Cost Computing Initiative.  They’ve set up a Google Group for schools using netbooks and similar hardware for instruction.  They’ve also created a fabulous matrix of various hardware options that will prove valuable as you compare different models available.  Any other resources/thoughts/concerns to share?

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