When the idea of introducing computer labs on wheels hit an unexpected rough patch in nine schools of the Vancouver, Wash., School District, Terry Allan, the district’s resource coordinator for technology, was able to shift gears in a hurry and keep the pilot program on track.

The idea for the rolling labs began as the district was narrowing the scope of its application for a ComTech grant, a state-matched funding program that uses federal technology dollars.

The plan was two-fold: The district wanted to bring mobile computers to its elementary and middle-school classrooms to ease the scheduling problems that go with traditional fixed labs, and it also wanted students without computers at home to be able to sign out the laptops overnight.

Together with three other area districts, the Vancouver School District secured the ComTech grant last spring and was set to purchase several hundred eMate laptops from Apple. Soon after, however, Apple discontinued the product, leaving the districts with a lot of money but nothing to buy.

Working with Washington State University and Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, the districts embarked on an evaluation of some 13 products, which eventually pointed them to Brother Corp.’s PN9000 laptop.

‘Blessing in disguise’

“Losing the eMate option proved to be a blessing in disguise,” said Allan. “The fact is, Brother had a better unit and at a better price.”

Even beyond its low cost (he got the machine at $240 per unit, though it retails for $399), Allan says the PN9000 had a leg up on other units in terms of its durability, comparatively long battery life (4-6 hours), screen size (24 lines, 80-character width), and built-in floppy drive for file transfers to other computers.

Because the units were to be used specifically for the district’s introduction to word processing and keyboarding courses, Allan said the evaluation looked carefully at those two functions. Compared to other laptops, the Brother unit again proved superior in Allan’s estimation.

The built-in word processor, Allan said, is comparable to others that students would come across in school or at home. An added bonus is the PN9000’s built-in spreadsheet, which allows for the machines to be used for some math instruction.

Brother even threw in an extra battery for every unit and a laser printer for each cart, Allen said. There are 20 machines per cart.

A second cart holds the teachers’ GeoBook laptops, which are more powerful and have built-in modems for internet access, and a plug-in projector for classroom displays.

Take-home program

The rolling labs were distributed to the nine pilot schools based on applications submitted by teachers in groups of four. Each group was awarded two student carts and two instructor carts.

As for the take-home program, the district is using a teacher check-out system. Parents sign a consent form allowing their child to bring a laptop home, though this does not make them responsible for the machines.

Students check out the units overnight, with teachers providing instruction sheets for home use.

The laptop program will continue as a pilot for the life of the ComTech grant, when the district will then consider bringing in more schools and more machines. Two schools now under construction may use the cart system, too, Allen said.

Vancouver School District

http://www.vannet.k12.wa.us

Washington State University

http://www.wsu.edu

Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory

http://www.nwrel.org

Brother Corp.

http://www.brother.com