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Doug Johnson's Tech Proof

Netbooks and
Computing In the Clouds


Two years ago this month, I wrote in the column Disappointed Again, there still isn't a device available that's right for kids and schools," and listed a set of features a computer would need to have for my district to even consider one-to-one computing.

Gulp! That device might be here. Or maybe I should say that species of device might be here -- the netbook.

A netbook according to Wikipedia is a category of small-sized, low-cost, light weight, lean function subnotebooks optimized for Internet access and core computing functions (e.g., word processing) -- either directly from applications installed on the netbook itself or indirectly via cloud computing.

In October 2008, eight of the ten best-selling computers on Amazon were netbooks. The ones I am familiar with are Dells Inspiron Mini 9, HPs 2133, the Asus Eee, Intels Classmate, and the Acer Aspire. (Apple really doesnt have a horse in this race unless you consider the iPod Touch. Its a marvelous device, but not a true netbook.) More models from more manufactures are on the horizon. Negropontes OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) project gave the development of this product urgency for commercial manufacturers. The OLPC XO itself will be commercially available soon, according to the OLPC web site.

Most netbooks share these characteristics:

  • light weight -- 2-4 pounds
  • small screen -- 7-9 inches
  • static memory instead of a hard drive
  • mechanical keyboard, usually smaller than full-sized
  • wireless Internet connectivity
  • web-cam, microphone, and speaker
  • USB ports and memory card slot
  • price less than $400

Although some of these netbooks run Windows, most come with some flavor of the open-source operating system Linux. They also often come bundled with an open source productivity suite like Open Office and a web browser like Firefox.

The devices will allow students to work offline writing papers, using spreadsheets, and designing slideshow presentations, however they are designed to be used in a cloud computing" environment. With cloud computing, most of ones work is produced, saved, and shared on the Internet or on a schools intranet.

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Given an Internet connection, a netbook user already can write, create spreadsheets, design presentations, and edit audio, photos, and video using web-based products. E-mail and web site hosting is now done by an ASP (Application Service Provider). Online file storage is cheap and plentiful. Many of the services are free -- or at least monetarily free -- supported by advertising you pay for with your attention and clicks.

Ive asked before in this column if Educational Climate Change is ahead. Its timelier now than ever to consider the impact of these devices on our classrooms, libraries, and school systems. At $350 per machine, Id bet dollars to doughnuts that even in these tough economic times, quite a number of students will be getting a netbook as a gift this holiday season.

Now is the time to consider:

  • Does your school have a policy about student-owned devices? (Parents will not allow a simple ban on them, anymore than they allowed schools to ban cell phones.)
  • Does your school have the reliable, adequate, and secure wireless infrastructure to support dozens, if not hundreds, of student-owned netbooks?
  • Will your teachers have the training, resources, and strategies to use netbooks to improve student learning?

If those questions arent enough, lets add one. Some schools in South American countries are not directly providing Internet access to student, but instead working out individual access for each student using cell-phone signals for a small sum each month. (EVDO access is available in the United States, but at a premium price.)

So what happens when students not only dont need schools to provide them with computers, but with Internet access either?

I believe the term being used is disruptive technology." Google it.

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Article by Doug Johnson
Education World®
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