For 2006, industry insiders and educators agree that light, mobile computers designed to facilitate interoperability among other devices are smart picks for the classroom. And if you intend to make any hardware purchases this year, experts also recommend that you plan for next-generation operating systems and wireless capabilities that are coming soon.

Don Knezek, chief executive officer of the International Society for Technology in Education, said he believes total, largely wireless convergence of hardware, peripherals, and technologies not traditionally associated with education–such as cell phones, MP3 players, and even Sony PlayStation Portable (PSP) devices–will become increasingly important for schools. He suggested that technology should be purchased in a way that looks to this increasing trend toward convergence and makes room for the ability of school-age children to rapidly assimilate different technologies–something that might defy the career educator’s typical resistance to change.

“We’re on the verge of a classroom environment that is highly customizable and adaptive. You’re seeing a combination of converging technologies and also devices that are less general-purpose technology [than a laptop computer],” Knezek said. “MP3 players, cell phones, and other everyday handheld devices have more and more computing and wireless capabilities; printers and other peripheral devices are enabled with BlueTooth [and similar wireless technologies], no longer requiring a plug-in. Also, students don’t necessarily need a full Windows environment anymore. School-age kids are happy to operate in multiple operating environments; they are not intimidated. They can, for instance, pick up a buddy’s cell phone and operate it almost intuitively. Compare that to the way we are.”

Even if a complete Windows environment is no longer necessary to students, Kathy Thomas, manager of education strategy for Dell Inc., says her company already is seeing requests for proposals asking for classroom computers that are ready for an upgrade to Microsoft Vista, the updated version of Windows that is tentatively slated for release in late 2006.

Schools will want to make sure they are ready to upgrade their PCs to Vista with any upcoming PC purchases,” said Thomas. “They’ll want to make sure they’re prepared to make the move when they’re ready.”

Thomas said she’s witnessed a big change in K-12 education over the past two years. She said she believes technology decision makers in the K-12 environment are becoming savvier in terms of their purchase and use of technology.

“People [in education] weren’t as forward-thinking,” Thomas said. “K-12 schools tended to be later adopters of technology [rather than] early adopters. They waited for products that were tried and true, and they often waited past when they should have to make a technology purchase. Ed-tech leaders in K-12 now seem more concerned that [the equipment] they’re paying for is going to pay off, no matter when that’s going to happen.”

Besides preparing for a possible migration to Vista, Thomas said educators will want any new PCs they buy to be compatible with the upcoming 802.11n wireless standard, a new high-speed standard expected within the year from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE; see story: news/showstory.cfm?ArticleID=6063). The term 802.11 refers to a family of wireless specifications set by IEEE; the final 802.11n specs are expected to increase Wi-Fi speeds to those comparable to a wired network.

Many companies, including Dell, are designing much of their current hardware to be easily upgradeable to 802.11n once the standard becomes available. But Thomas said educators need to make certain that any new devices they purchase can meet the specification’s demands.

Thomas also said educators are looking for notebook computers that have fast-charging batteries that last a long time, as well as rugged notebooks. She said Dell’s Latitude 510 notebook features shock absorbers, a metal chassis, ExpressCharge battery charging that allows for batteries to be recharged in less than an hour, and a technology called D/Port Advanced Port Replicator, which Dell says maximizes compatibility with other resources by offering inputs that are interchangeable among many peripherals. The machine is designed to be easily upgradeable to the new wireless standard and Vista OS expected later this year.

Dell’s solution to the need for convergence among hardware and peripheral devices is to sell a complete classroom set-up, called the Dell Intelligent Classroom, that combines computers and other compatible instructional technologies with content and professional development to transform classrooms into integrated teaching and learning environments. “Our customers today want to make sure they’re buying things that will integrate well,” said Thomas. “Our Intelligent Classrooms offer an integrated solution for the classroom, rather than putting something together piecemeal. By choosing piecemeal solutions, you’re not allowing yourself the peace of mind you have when you purchase solutions that are part of the Intelligent Classroom, because, with Dell, you know things are going to work together. Educators can engage students in the learning process, involve students in a hands-on, collaborative learning environment, and engage in ongoing assessment in the classroom.”

Dell’s Intelligent Classrooms include computers, projectors, VCR/DVD devices, speakers and sound systems, and Promethean ACTIVboard interactive whiteboards and ACTIVote student response devices. They are available with content geared toward either math and science or language arts and social sciences. The math and science classrooms also include probeware such as sensors and data loggers from Fourier Systems Inc., a provider of educational data logging devices and accessories.

Kathy Martin, a spokeswoman for Hewlett-Packard Co., said two new notebook series from her company–the HP Compaq 9400 and 6300 Notebook PC series–are meant to boost mobile performance in the classroom by offering a mobile PC with an extended battery life.

“The ultra-capacity battery in these new notebook lines includes a 12-cell lithium battery, which extends the battery life of the machine to run up to 10 hours,” Martin said. “It helps solve the issue of interrupted pedagogy, by making it so the battery does not need to be charged in the middle of a lesson.”

The new 9400 series is also thinner and lighter–35 percent thinner and 17 percent lighter than current HP desktop replacement notebooks, according to the company’s web site. The greater mobility of the series is one feature Martin said she finds increasingly important in a time when notebook PCs are being used to present curricular materials to students not only as a tool, but also as either a supplement or a replacement for textbooks.

She said some PCs in the 6400 series also feature Intel dual-core processor technology, a feature that permits students to run multiple, large applications, such as global imaging or computer-aided design applications, at the same time. New security features safeguard sensitive information with layers of security protection, such as fingerprint scans and internet-tracking software from Absolute Software Inc., a provider of computer security solutions. The Computrace software from Absolute is hidden on the hard drive and silently communicates the location of a stolen computer, any time the machine is connected to the internet. The solution captures the name and IP address of the user with the stolen machine and contacts local law enforcement.

“Some sophisticated thieves might have gotten around the earlier implementations [of the Computrace software], but with the new ones, it’s no longer possible,” Martin said.

Ray Sawall, product manager of the professional notebook line for Gateway Inc., noted his education customers list security among their highest concerns and said all Gateway computers also feature the Computrace software.

All Gateway ports are standardized, Sawall said, allowing for maximum usage with third-party peripheral solutions. They also feature Intel’s dual-core processor and “one of the best battery lives in the industry.” Sawall said all computers offered by his company will be upgradeable to the 802.11n wireless standard when it becomes available, pointing out what the logistics of such an upgrade would entail.

“The MIMO [multiple-input, multiple-output] is what will really set the .11n standard apart from current wireless capabilities,” Sawall said. “You will basically need to add an additional antenna for receiving and transmitting data.”

Gateway M2-80 Tablet PCs, Sawell said, are among the most versatile, durable, and least expensive in the industry. The convertible notebook is a full desktop replacement with pen-and-ink capability, which makes students more productive, Sawell said. He said Gateway has managed to bring the difference in price points between standard and convertible notebooks from between $400 and $500 to between $200 and $280.

He also touted the durability of Gateway’s M2-80, which he said Gateway engineers have worked hard to refine.

“If you had X-ray vision, what you would see is the entire base pan of this machine has a magnesium frame,” he said. “It adds more integrity to the product, taking the reinforced hinge, bolting it to a magnesium frame, and mounting it onto the chassis.”