Research indicates that students who have access to technology on a regular basis show a significant improvement in their learning skills over students who do not. With this in mind, the Barbers Hill Independent School District (BHISD) near Houston, Texas, recently implemented a wireless laptop initiative to provide students and teachers with high-quality technology resources to open up a whole new world of learning.

The district, with five campuses and more than 4,000 students, initiated the program at the beginning of the 2004-2005 school year. The initiative is being deployed in phases, starting with all seventh and eighth graders (approximately 600 students), with plans to equip all students from third through 12th grades with laptops over the next several years. Students were issued laptop computers to use as part of the education curriculum, providing immediate access to online resources, local network resources, and online or CD-ROM-based textbooks.

The vision to enable students to use portable computers and have anytime, anywhere wireless access is not without its challenges. First, BHISD had to install a wireless infrastructure. The district then needed to ensure that textbook manufacturers had the appropriate electronic textbooks, allowing savings on the cost of books by using laptops, CDs, and the internet. Additionally, teachers had to develop curricula that leveraged this wireless technology so both teachers and students could excel in a world driven by information. And, finally, every participating student needed a laptop with enough power to last throughout the school day.

Portability, often sited as the No. 1 benefit of wireless and mobile computing, was key to the success of this effort. The students’ laptops needed to be mobile–which meant they needed a cordless power source that would last more than just the two to three hours of battery life that came with our Gateway laptops. The challenge for BHISD was to find a cost-effective and reliable solution that allowed students to completely untether the machines, with enough power to use their laptops from class to class without needing to recharge.

BHISD found an easy and cost-effective solution in the N-Charge Power System, a portable power system from Valence Technology Inc. The Valence batteries allowed students to use their laptops and other wireless devices the whole day without a recharge.

The N-Charge Power System is a universal, external battery for notebook computers, with the capability to also power mobile devices such as PDAs, mobile phones, and digital cameras. It provides two to three times the battery life of an internal notebook battery and supports a wide variety of notebook brands, including most models of Apple, Compaq, Gateway, Dell, HP, IBM, Sony, and Toshiba laptops. (A constantly updated compatibility list can be found at the following web site: http://www.valence.com/pdffiles/Compatibility _Guide_N2.pdf.) The base pack ($149) can yield up to five hours of use, in addition to the internal battery.

BHISD assessed the feasibility of providing spare batteries to each student in its initial group of 600 middle school students. However, the life expectancy of a second battery was low, and replacement costs were high. As budgets for schools are a very critical issue, the cost to provide students with two or more spare batteries a year was prohibitive–not to mention an environmentally unfriendly solution.

BHISD has been happy with the performance and the functionality of Valence’s products, with the batteries performing as expected and proving to be extremely reliable. In some cases, the N-Charge system did not need a recharge for two days.

Safety is always an overriding concern for BHISD. The N-Charge system uses patented Saphion technology. The cathode material used in Saphion technology replaces toxic heavy metals with phosphates, creating batteries that reportedly are more chemically stable, safer, and more environmentally friendly than traditional oxide-based Lithium-ion. Valence’s battery chemistry yields a much safer battery that is not only environmentally friendly, but retains all the lithium-ion advantages with a longer life cycle.

Portable power technology has been a key factor in the success of our initiative. Providing continuous laptop run time is essential in ensuring our students are technologically savvy and in making the computer a ubiquitous tool for our teachers and students.

James Banks is the director of technology for the Barbers Hill Independent School District in Texas.

Links:

Barbers Hill Independent School District
http://www.barbershill.isd.esc4.net

Valence Technology Inc.
http://www.valence.com