Marvell announced a pilot program for its Moby tablet in partnership with Washington, D.C., Public Schools.
In a development that it claims will be a game-changer in education, technology company Marvell has announced the prototype of a $99 tablet computer that students can use to surf the web, interact with electronic textbooks and other digital media, and collaborate with each other around the globe.
Educators familiar with Marvell’s announcement said they were intrigued by the possibilities of such a device for teaching and learning but would wait to pass judgment until the product comes to market.
If the device works as advertised, they said, its price point could make it a very attractive option for putting technology into the hands of every student. But one potential hurdle could be the kind of applications it runs and whether these match with users’ expectations.
Marvell last week announced the prototype of its Moby Tablet, which the company describes as a “bold new education initiative” that delivers “always-on, high performance multimedia” and features “live, real-time content, 1080 full HD and 3-D media, and full Flash internet.”
The Moby Tablet could “eliminate the need for students to buy and carry bound textbooks and an array of other tools,” said the company in a statement.
The Moby is powered by the Marvell ARMADA 600 series of processors. It features gigahertz-class processor speed, Wi-Fi/Bluetooth/FM/GPS connectivity, high performance 3-D graphics capability, and support for multiple software standards, according to the company—including Adobe and Windows Mobile.
Marvell hasn’t said when the Moby would ship, and it has not yet released a full spec sheet. The company did not return an eSchool News reporter’s messages requesting more information.
In announcing the Moby during a keynote speech to publishers at the Future of Publishing conference in New York City, Marvell Co-Founder Weili Dai said that “Marvell can help propel education into the 21st century with an all-in-one device that gives students access to the best live content, information, and resources the world has to offer—from books and online resources, [to] text, video, news, music, data expression, or any medium.”
She continued: “With Moby Tablet, students can conduct primary research, reach out directly to the world’s leading subject experts, and even collaborate with one another around the globe. Best of all, the device is highly affordable.”
Dai said the device would address three important issues in education:
1. Printed textbooks are not current. Electronic versions of textbooks on the tablet can be updated and refreshed continuously, she said.
2. Textbook costs are soaring. According to Marvell, downloadable electronic versions of textbooks for the tablet could sell for a fraction of the bound versions.
3. School bags are too heavy for students. The actual size and weight of the Moby will vary by configuration, Dai said, but the tablet in its ultra-thin and light versions is expected to hold a full year’s worth of books but weigh less than half of a typical textbook.
Marvell also announced a pilot program in partnership with the Washington, D.C., Public Schools, in which the company will donate a Moby tablet to every child in an at-risk school as part of a multi-year program in new media and learning.
Marvell said it would announce more details about this program at a future date.
What educators are saying
Even with its low price point, the device is not guaranteed to succeed, some education technology experts warned.
To sell for $99, the Moby tablet would have to run on a version of Linux, speculated ZDNet blogger Christopher Dawson, technology director for the Athol-Royalston School District in northern Massachusetts. That could be a problem for some educators who have not fully embraced the open-source operating system.
“Ubuntu will be the only way that these little tablets will be able to run on the Marvell chipset, and the only way to hit that $99 price point,” Dawson wrote. “The Flash implementation … rules out Windows 7 Mobile as well. So Linux it is.”
According to Dawson, the problem with running Linux is that teachers might be “put off” by using a system they’re not familiar with—and development efforts in interactive textbooks are favoring Apple’s iPad and the several Windows-based tablets that are available, not Linux-based devices.
“I’m not saying that the product is doomed,” Dawson blogged. “However, I think that this particular device may have a tougher battle to break into the mainstream than its price alone would suggest. When we can get review units in hand, the features, usability, and price will all need to be compelling.”
Jim Hirsch, associate superintendent for technology in Texas’s Plano Independent School District, had a different concern.
“Unfortunately this device, like so many others, will be expected to provide more application use than it was designed for—so an operating system that supports legacy applications will be a requirement,” Hirsch told eSchool News.
He explained that this kind of expectation is what happened in the netbook market and resulted in increased costs and slower operating experiences.
“The negative comments follow quickly when the software applications operate slowly, or not at all, on a device that was never designed to run those applications. That will happen to this device, as well as the iPad, unless user expectations are properly set by technology leaders whose job it is to provide that level of understanding,” he said.
As for replacing textbooks, Hirsch said that once educators can ensure that every student has access to a device that appropriately displays learning resources required by state or local education agencies, “then yes, it can replace textbooks. Until that time, students need to have access to required learning resources that often are print-based.”
Marc Liebman, superintendent of the Berryessa Union School District in San Jose, Calif., was cautiously optimistic about the Moby and its potential for education.
“I do see this as an option if we can get general consensus to digitize textbooks,” Liebman said. “[And] I like the idea of easy access outside of the classroom to other kinds of information and data. However, the secret is the added features of note taking, highlighting, and all of the other things we do when using textbooks to help us learn.”
Though observers are wary about yet another portable reading device with computing capabilities, all agree the $99 price tag would be too cheap to ignore.
“The plans are a possible setback to tablet makers like Apple and HP,” said Electronista, a technology news and product review web site.
“Their platforms have potentially stronger software but will cost multiple times more, possibly excluding them out of those schools where cost is a key worry. Distribution and format support are Marvell’s key problems, as the company is relatively new to making complete products and doesn’t have the sales experience that should help both the iPad and the future HP slate.”
Hirsch said an influx of similar devices isn’t a bad thing.
“It’s always good news for us in education to have manufacturers provide new options for devices that give access to learning resources. Of course, in a case such as this, where the price is less than the cost of a graphing calculator, and the feature list contains much of what anyone could hope to have in a portable device, the proof is in a working concept,” he said.
“Until that concept is available, the conversation is strictly speculative. It’s easy enough to say that if these features can be delivered at the $100 price with good reliability, then yes, absolutely, this has a great shot at large implementation.”
Christopher Dawson on ZDNet
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