The nearly 10,000 HP mini-laptops headed for the Fresno Unified School District (FUSD) in California this fall confirm the trend: K-12 schools are eager to put technology into the hands of every student, and a growing number of schools are bypassing full-sized–and more expensive–laptop computers in favor of scaled-down, low-cost machines designed specifically for kids.

Advocates of the trend say these "mini" notebook computers are the only genuinely affordable, and sustainable, one-to-one computing option for schools, especially now when weak property taxes and soaring fuel prices are putting the squeeze on school budgets from northern California to southern Florida, and all points in between.

Just last month, fourth-graders at the Redlands Christian Migrant Association Community School in Immokalee, Fla., received XO computers from the nonprofit One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative. It was part of a 10-week pilot program that began June 1.

Redlands joins South Carolina’s Marion County School District and the Birmingham, Ala., school system in deploying low-cost ($200) XO laptops to students in the United States. Just this week, the Birmingham school board voted to accept the remaining 14,000 pre-purchased XO laptops from the city to give to elementary students after a pilot project with the first 1,000 laptops proved encouraging.

And in the latest example of the mini-laptop trend, FUSD is deploying nearly 10,000 Mini-Note PCs from Hewlett-Packard Co. to students in grades two through 12 this fall.

HP introduced its Mini-Note PC in April, joining a burgeoning market of miniaturized laptops that already included products from Intel Corp., the world’s largest semiconductor company, and Asustek Computers Inc., the world’s largest maker of computer motherboards, as well as OLPC and others. (See "HP unveils small laptop for students.") Dell reportedly is getting set to launch its own line of mini-laptops for students, too.

"HP believes in providing each student with an affordable, creative, multimedia tool like the HP Mini-Note that will better prepare [students] to live, learn, and work in an information-rich society," said Jeri Callaway, vice president and general manager of HP’s Personal Systems Group.

Says Kurt Madden, chief technology officer for FUSD: "We wanted to have the ability for students to access technology content at anytime while they were in the classroom." But traditional laptops were too expensive, he said–and they were also too big to fit onto a desk that already had large textbooks on it. Students would have to have either the laptop or their textbook book on the desk, but not both, Madden said.

For these reasons, FUSD developed specifications for a small-footprint laptop back in January 2007.

In addition to the HP Mini-Note, FUSD looked at other options, such as the Nova5000 from Fourier Systems, the ASUS eeePC from Asustek, the Samsung Q1 Ultra, and an early version of the Intel Classmate PC. The district had just completed a pilot project with the ASUS eeePC, which it liked, but students and educators said the keyboard and screen were too small for middle and high school students.

"The larger screen and keyboard, Bluetooth, 120-gigabyte hard drive, HP engineering and product design, Windows capability, and extended power supply were compelling reasons for our selection of the Mini-Note for our deployment in the fall," says Madden.

FUSD already has purchased nearly 8,000 laptops that it will deploy in the fall, and the district expects to purchase an additional 2,000 within the first few weeks of the new school year. HP gave FUSD a discount for its volume purchase of the Windows-based version of the Mini-Note, keeping the price at $500 per laptop.

Madden says FUSD chose to run Windows XP, Microsoft Office, OneNote, SharePoint 2007, and many other interrelated applications, because they allow for a safe environment where students and staff have authenticated sign-ins and are protected, and where information is accessible and backed up. Management, monitoring, and tracking tasks are also automated. "Our low cost per student for this effective system is similar to what the costs are from a single educational online content provider," says Madden.

Teachers who want to use the laptops in their classrooms must fill out an application, which will be reviewed by a Technology Advisory Committee made up of teachers, administrators, and staff.

The laptops will remain district property and will stay in the classrooms, meaning that students will not carry them from class to class. "We want the laptop in the classroom in order to provide access to laptops throughout the day and not be dependent upon whether a student brought it to school or not," says Madden. But HP is working with FUSD to provide special pricing for students who would like to have their own laptop. Teachers also will be able to check out a laptop for the evening or weekend.

Elementary and middle schools will have one laptop for every two students–which, during a pilot program with 1,000 laptops, showed an increase in collaboration and a reduction in costs. In most high school classrooms, the ratio of students to laptops will be one to one, because it’s harder to share laptops at that level owing to the configuration of desks and higher-level work requirements.

For FUSD, the two key applications on the Mini-Notes will be access to the internet and the Microsoft SharePoint environment, which provides each student with a web-accessible, security-controlled "MySite."

"Their MySite stays with them throughout their years with FUSD and will not only contain their best work, but will also allow them to creatively express themselves, collaborate with their teachers and fellow students, and capture their life at school in a safe, monitored environment," explains Madden.

Madden says his district hopes the laptops will improve student achievement, digital literacy, and communication among teachers, students, administrators, parents, and other education stakeholders.

After the pilot was completed, teachers and students listed improvements they’d like to see, such as having more power strips in the classroom, better training for both teachers and students, easier wireless internet access, longer battery life, and more online curriculum. Madden says these issues are being addressed.

"The teacher feedback from the pilot was a lot more positive than we expected, considering the technical challenges of putting 1,000 small wireless laptops in 57 different classrooms," says Madden. "The creative ways our teachers and students took advantage of the computers at every grade level in every subject was absolutely amazing. At the end of the pilot, our teachers wouldn’t give up the laptops when we collected them for refurbishment, unless they were assured that they would be returned in the fall."

(Editor’s note: For more information about low-cost, ultra-portable computing options for schools, see "Webcast highlights low-cost computing options.")

Links:

Fresno Unified School District

HP Mini-Note

Birmingham City Schools

South Carolina’s XO project