More than just a fad

While my spell-checker might not recognize the word "netbook," when a quick web search turns up some 36 million hits, I think it’s clear that this latest entry into the highly portable computer market should not be dismissed. For K-12 schools, the netbook can give students a level of information and communications technology (ICT) access that only relatively few have enjoyed so far.

Just about three months ago, I was nearing the conclusion of a two-decade-long career as a chief technology officer in a K-12 school district. Excited about the potential of the netbook, I spent a lot of time evaluating this category of computer and thinking about how it could benefit students.

But let’s start with what a netbook is not. It is not a CADD workstation. Nor is it intended to be a high-end multimedia workstation. (At least not today.) During my many years in K-12 education, I often heard how important it was for all computers to have these high-end capabilities–yet when you come right down to it, this is important for less than 10 percent of our classroom computing devices.

What students need day in and day out is a highly portable computer that gives them access to a wide range of browser-based resources and applications. Those may be located on a server in the district or anywhere on the web. While much of this can be accomplished with a mere smart-phone device, a nearly full-sized keyboard and 10-inch display takes usability to a different level. Toss in basic office productivity software and web-based eMail, and the student has a tool that will meet the vast majority of his or her ICT needs.

From a teacher’s or administrator’s perspective, the netbook not only can give more students better access to valuable curriculum resources and learning tools, but also is an affordable way to take advantage of online assessments, both formative and summative. With assessments being taken online, data can be returned to teachers immediately so that adjustments in instruction can take place in an informed, timely manner and have a meaningful impact on student learning.

For IT staffs that are already struggling to keep pace with demands, the netbook can be a breath of fresh air. Some netbooks can be managed just like any other enterprise-class computer. And as more software becomes server and "cloud" based, this further reduces the impact on IT. In addition, the netbook can become the all-in-one device that can allow the district to reduce the amount of technology devices, such as "clickers," by installing virtual clicker software on the netbook.

And the best thing about today’s netbooks might be that we’re just getting started. Not only will they continue to get better, but the cost today is so low, there is no reason to wait.

A former school district chief technology officer, Bob Moore is now K-12 Education Practice Executive for Dell Inc.


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