K-12 School Computer Networking/Chapter 30

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Over the last few years, companies like Acer and Asus have dominated the netbook market, but with new entry models from dell and HP, and startups like Cherrypal, the netbook craze is expected to skyrocket.[1] With the proliferation of these low-cost options, netbooks are already showing up in our classrooms. The question is whether school technology infrastructure, teachers and administrators are ready for this shift.

The Upside of Netbooks[edit]

Netbooks tout many features that would be attractive to schools aside from price. First, they are designed to be small and lightweight. This is important when considering that a child or teenager would be adding it to the multitudinous books already inhabiting their book bags. Netbooks also have small keyboards that are more appropriate for students’ hands than adults even though some, like the HP Mini 1035NR, have close to a full-size keyboard and a 10-inch screen. As netbooks have developed, their hardware has come more in line with what consumers expect of laptops. Battery life and time between charges is getting better and longer as well.

Pedagogically speaking, most of the work educators currently assign on laptops can be done on most netbooks. Newer netbooks like the Asus eee PC, Dell Inspiron Mini 9, HP Mini 1035NR and others which boast internal microphones and webcams can easily handle internet research, podcasting, and blogging. But while they have these capabilities, netbooks are designed to be part of a world where users do not download and store everything on their computers, they trust the Internet to host files and share data. This concept is called “cloud computing” and incorporates infrastructure as a service (IaaS), platform as a service (PaaS) and software as a service (SaaS) as well as Web 2.0 and other recent technology trends that have the common theme of reliance on the Internet for satisfying the computing needs of the users. Some examples of cloud computing would be GoogleDocs, PodOmatic, VoiceThread, YouTube, and other Web Applications which allow some semblance of multimedia data hosting on their servers.

This should be a coup for school network administrators and technology directors who would no longer have to maintain or purchase expensive servers to host school data. First, they could rid themselves of the servers that are required to host data. Then, they could drop Microsoft Office that would cancel the expense of Microsoft licensing fees by gaining Google Education accounts. Google offers free hosting of email (with filters) and applications that include calendars and video (http://www.google.com/a/help/intl/en/edu/).

While some schools have begun to move to off-site hosting of data, many might take issue with their students’ work being shared and broadcast around the world. This is why it would be important to become part of a cloud computing service that safeguards information and is password protected. It is evident, therefore, that if education intends on capitalizing on these low cost options, the field will have to become more creative with its ideas about technology.

The Downside of Netbooks[edit]

Netbooks do not have the hard drive space or processing speeds to meet the demands of "heavy users". This should be less of a problem because many education technologists over the past five years have shifted to purchasing subscription services to web applications. These web applications should be able to run on netbooks, thereby minimizing the need for downloaded programs in the first place.

In addition, traditional uses of laptop hard drives to download files will not translate to netbooks. Even though some of the more recent models like the Asus eee pc 904h offers more RAM and hard drive space than previously offered, they tend to overheat when running too many programs because they do not have space within the system to include a cooling fan.

Also, many schools buy laptops from companies that can offer schools deals on extended comprehensive warranties. This is an attractive feature of bulk laptop buys in the form of a 1:1 program or a laptop cart because of the potential for breakage that is almost a certainty when working with kids. Because netbooks are relatively new, companies may not have had enough time to create comprehensive warranty programs. Also, warranties offered by smaller and more specialized companies like Asus and Acer may not compare with options from companies like Dell that can offer more comprehensive warranty services.

Moreover, while many netbooks offer to run the Windows XP Operating System, they run the Home edition as opposed to XP Professional. This means that a netbook cannot connect to school servers to allow for individual user access. Individual log user access is a cornerstone of computer use in schools. Without this connection, students cannot authenticate to the school network cancelling access to personal network space or network printers. Many teachers and administrators might bristle at the loss of network printing capabilities because they have come to rely upon it for many reasons. Also, without individual network log ons, website blocking programs (ex: Websense) cannot pinpoint which user might attempt to log onto inappropriate websites. Thus, minimizing the effectiveness of the program. This means there is potential for students to inadvertently download viruses and infect the schools’ technological infrastructure.

Where to go from here[edit]

The trend in the netbook industry is turning away from emulating laptops with larger hard drives to run programs and Windows XP Professional, but rather towards cell phones with speedy communication options (NYT article). The idea is to move away from Intel’s Atom chip which runs many of the current netbooks, to cell phone ARM technology that is cheaper, “consumes far less power and combines many functions onto a single piece of silicon” (NYT article).

The major drawback to the ARM chip is that it runs the Linux operating system. It cannot run Windows XP. Therefore, manufacturers planning to use the ARM chip are looking to use Google’s Android operating system, possibly expanding the cloud computing options already available. If the future of netbooks rests in the hands of cell phone technology, then it would be a logical next step for cell phone companies to get involved in netbook proliferation. Recently, ATT announced a promotion whereby customers could get a netbook for $50 with the purchase of certain ATT phones.[2] Currently, ATT is offering Acer Aspire One, Dell Inspiron Mini 9, Dell Inspiron Mini 12 and LG Xenia netbooks in this limited promotion. However, the potential for future cross-promotional tie-ins, creation of an ATT netbook and/or cell phone service to other netbook companies is seemingly endless (NYT article).

If cloud computing and cell phone technology is the future of low cost netbooks, then it is evident that the education field (including parents, teachers, educational technologists and administrators) will have to become more open to innovative ideas about technology in the classroom.

Potential uses of Netbooks in the Classroom[edit]

In order for a netbook program to succeed, schools must first figure out how they want to use them. While some schools may use netbooks as an extension of their computing program and others would make it the cornerstone. Will they be used as a virtual replacement for laptops in a 1:1 program? Will they be used almost as handheld devices that would be used only during specific assignments (like a science lab or a podcast)? Would they be part of a netbook cart that would be available to entire classes to enjoy at a time? Would the parents purchase individual netbooks for the children and the school would provide technical support?

These are all potential possibilities for how netbooks could be used in schools. However, the most important issue is how teachers would utilize netbooks to integrate technology into their curricula. So often, educational technologists forget that a cool new tool can gather dust just like an old slide projector if a teacher has no desire to use it. No matter which way a school decides to implement a netbook program, if the teachers are not using them to further student understanding of the material, or to show student mastery, then the program will fail.

However, if teachers pick up on the usability of netbooks and become excited about the possibility they present to their students, then the program can succeed because it was started from the ground-up. Teacher buy-in is often ignored, but it is one of the most important aspects to any new initiative in schools. This is not to say that a technologist should just had over a netbook to a teacher and ask, “Do you think this could help” but rather begin to get a feel for teacher needs from the very beginning. One could ask what teachers wish for in terms of technology in their classrooms. One could also ask what material teachers would be covering over the year and then help them connect material to potential technological tools. In essence, a background in the human resource model of understanding employees is necessary before plopping technology upon them.

As discussed earlier, netbooks would not be able to log onto a school network and would therefore not be scanned for inappropriate use of websites (if the network is running a web blocking program). This means that if netbooks were to be used in classrooms, then education of students about acceptable web searches would need to take place. It is my contention that most student abuse of computers in classrooms occurs from lack of supervision. If teachers are brought in to the process of netbook implementation, then they would have a much more intrinsic motivation to not only learn how to use the netbook effectively in their lessons, but would also feel confident in their knowledge of the machine to keep a vigilant eye on student use in the classroom.

Therefore, through bringing teachers into the netbook implementation process, an educational technologist would increase teacher buy-in, thus boosting the possibilities for successful implementation in the classroom and minimize potential security headaches that occur when students are given technology and are not properly supervised while in use.

References[edit]

  1. Light and Cheap, Netbooks Are Poised to Reshape PC Industry The New York Times, Technology, April 2, 2009.
  2. AT&T Unveils $49.99 Netbook Offer The Wall Street Journal, Digits, April 1, 2009.