Nearly everyone involved in educational technology has heard by now of the XO computer, the $188 laptop specially designed for kids in developing nations. But there are other low-cost, ultra-portable computing devices that schools should be aware of, too, said participants in a Nov. 14 webcast hosted by the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN).

Like bargain-hunters at a sale, ed-tech leaders came together to compare ultra-portable devices and talk about affordable one-to-one computing options during the webcast, titled “Ultra Light Portable Devices in K-12: The Quest for a $100 Device.” Presenters discussed various options for ultra-portable computers (UPCs), and one district—California’s Lemon Grove School District—described a successful UPC project.

“Investing in a UPC takes a lot of consideration,” said Bob Tinker, chief executive officer for the Concord Consortium, a nonprofit ed-tech research and development organization based in Concord, Mass. “The first thing you have to do before you purchase is stop thinking about what you don’t want—and start making a list of what you do want.”

Tinker believes there are six pivotal UPC capabilities that each school or district needs to take into consideration before buying. Should the UPC be able to: (1) Browse the internet? (2) Browse the internet and run Flash? (3) Run some unusual, creative software? (4) Use productivity software packages? (5) Execute Java applications? (6) Run probeware applications?

Jim Rapoza, technology analyst for eWeek, said educators also must remember that the focus “shouldn’t be the price. The technology is the real difference maker.”

Tinker and Rapoza described three existing UPC models. The first was the XO computer, from the nonprofit One Laptop Per Child initiative.

What sets this device apart from the competition is its unique design. According to tests conducted by Rapoza, the XO’s innovative screen can be viewed in direct sunlight or in the dark equally well. The XO also can run on very low power, about one-tenth that of other laptops its size. Users can generate this power via solar energy or a pull cord.

The XO also contains built-in wireless mesh networking that connects multiple laptops to each other and to a central network through a connection that hops from laptop to laptop. This mesh network allows for powerful collaboration and teamwork.

The device runs on a customized version of the Linux operating system, called Sugar, and includes time-based file and task management. It comes with a wide range of programming and open learning tools.

“There’s a built-in webcam, a 256 megabyte DRAM, and a 1 gigabyte flash disk,” explained Tinker.

Installed applications include open-source music, browser, multimedia, authoring, graphics, and gaming software. The device also runs TEEMSS—the Technology Enhanced Elementary and Middle School Science project, developed by the Concord Consortium and funded by the National Science Foundation. The project allows students in grades 3-8 to collect real-time science data, work in groups, and share results.

Drawbacks to the XO include its small drive size, its lack of support for commercial eLearning and classroom management tools, and its limited availability in the United States.

“The XO has just been pushed into full production in the last few weeks,” said Rapoza. “It’s only being deployed in developing countries right now.”

The One Laptop Per Child organization has opened up sales of the XO computer to U.S. residents for a limited time only, until Nov. 26. But U.S. residents must pay $400 for the devices, with the extra money paying for a computer for a child in a developing country.

The second UPC option Tinker mentioned was the Intel Classmate, which runs Windows XP or Linux. It has a 1- or 2-gigabyte flash drive capacity and can run Microsoft Office or Open Office applications.

The third option he discussed was the less well-known Nova5000 tablet computer from Fourier Systems, which runs on Windows CE software. Applications for this device include productivity, drawing, handwriting recognition, and probe software—though probeware comes only on a more expensive version.

“Hardware has a mind of its own, so it’s good to recognize a UPC’s personality,” said Tinker. “Think of the XO as a constructivist, the Classmate as a teacher, and the Nova5000 as an experimental scientist. Once you know these personalities, you can choose one that best suits your schools’ needs.” Schools need to match their purchases with their preferred educational goals, he added.

Even though the XO is not available yet in the United States (the limited-time “Give One, Get One” program notwithstanding), it already has had a huge impact on the marketplace, webcast speakers said.

“With new technology like the XO comes the possibility of even more creative design in the future,” said Rapoza. The XO “has [spurred], and will continue to spur, competition and growth in low-cost systems.”

A customized solution

Taking a different approach to implementing a UPC solution, the Lemon Grove School District in California—with 15,000 students of diverse backgrounds—has designed its own UPC model, called the e-pad.

“We wanted to have a learning environment that was personalized, engaging, data-driven, and featured online assessment,” said Darryl LaGace, director of information services for Lemon Grove.

The district has provided access for all students, with a 2-to-1 student-to-computer ratio in grades K-5, and a 1-to-1 ratio for grades 6-8. All students and teachers are issued a wireless e-pad in these middle grades, and students are given broadband internet access at home.

Including the e-pad devices and broadband access, the cost is just under $300 per student, per year, over a five-year acquisition cycle.

So far, the district reportedly has experienced improved student and teacher attitudes toward technology and an increase in student motivation. Attendance has increased, too, which, according to LaGace, has resulted in $100,000 in additional state funding for average daily attendance. Language-arts scores also have increased.

The e-pad is a web-based thin client with no hard drive. Because it doesn’t have a hard drive, it can be ruggedized—meaning it can withstand a hard impact, such as a fall of four to six feet. Students experience a simplified interface, as well as textbooks embedded on the chip.

With textbooks on the e-pad, students can view animation and links, and they can read and hear in both English and Spanish. However, because of the need to view textbooks on the devices, Lemon Grove spent a little extra to have e-pads with a 10.4-inch screen.

The district worked with Interlink Electronics to develop its customized solution.

“We think customizing your UPC for your specific district’s needs is worth the little extras you might have to spend,” LaGace concluded.

Links:

Consortium for School Networking

Concord Consortium

One Laptop Per Child

Intel’s Classmate PC

Fourier Systems’ Nova5000

Lemon Grove School District’s e-pad