Saturday, April 4, 2009

A Very Brief Look at Netbooks and Their Potential Place in K-12 Education

Here's a quick overview of netbooks that I wrote up last week for one of my GWU courses:

What is a netbook?
The sudden popularity of netbooks (lightweight, low-processing-power, low-storage-capacity, and LOW PRICED portable computers) is something of a surprise to those of us who have watched the notebook computer market over the last decade, as the trend toward ever more high-powered and high-capacity machines seemed inexorable. Instead, the new inexorable trajectory seems to be in the demand for these little netbooks, with most major computer manufacturers getting into the game of providing their versions of these gadgets, many for under $500. And the price tag can approach as little as $200 (update, April 2, 2009: the NY Times now reports netbook prices below $100) if you don’t mind running Linux on your netbook instead of Windows.

The chief rationale for the average person to use a netbook is that a more powerfully equipped computer is simply not needed for things like e-mailing and web-surfing, which account for the majority of a lot of people’s computing activities. With web-based services like google apps now offering remotely-based versions of traditional “office” applications (like word processing and spreadsheets), there is even greater incentive for a user to dump a heavier notebook computer and instead tote along a small, lightweight netbook, which needs to be equipped with little more than a good web browser to do its job (Wikipedia, 2009; Ars Technica, 2009).

Given that much of the students’ computing activities at my K-12 international school take place solely within the browsers of the traditional Dell desktop computers in the computer labs, I am intrigued by the possibility that these cumbersome and expensive machines might be replaced with a fleet of inexpensive netbooks on carts. This tantalizing prospect is what led me to this week’s research topic.

The current push for netbooks in education
The biggest noise on the Internet regarding prospects for netbooks in schools is currently coming from vendors, each vying with the others to gain a toehold in what is assumed will be a rapidly expanding market. Education Week reported last May that a number of computer makers have initiated vigorous marketing campaigns targeted at primary and secondary schools. One of the vendors, Hewlett Packard, claimed to have involved educators in the design of one of its netbook offerings, resulting in enhanced multi-media features and some beefing up to make it better able to withstand rough handling (Trotter, 2008).

Speaking of design features, blogger Christopher Dawson makes the interesting point that the slightly smaller keyboard of most netbooks, considered by some to be a problematic trait, are actually “perfectly appropriate for little hands” (Dawson, 2008). Dawson is a self-professed fan of Macbooks, but he pragmatically points out that he could purchase 75 netbooks for the price of 30 Macbooks, making it tougher to justify keeping the Macs around. In this time of tight budgets, we can bet that netbooks will be getting serious consideration by primary and secondary schools in their upcoming rounds of computer acquisitions.

With that said, hardware acquisition decisions cannot be made in a vacuum, and must take into consideration existing curriculum, which might currently be tied to locally-installed computer software which may not be executable on a new netbook (particularly one equipped with a potentially incompatible operating system like Linux, or with a slightly-retooled version of Googles' new Android operating system). Bringing in new netbooks with a potentially different operating system might also require some retraining of faculty and staff. But for a school that does the proper planning upfront, netbooks are looking like they could prove to be a very worthwhile investment.

Ars Technica website (2009, January 11). Five reasons to seriously consider buying a netbook. Retrieve March 29, 2009 from:

Dawson, Christopher (2008, December 7). I can buy a lot of netbooks for $30k. Retrieved March 29, 2009 from:
Dawson, Christopher (2009, March 18). Realistic netbook expectations. Retrieved March 29, 2009 from:
Lenovo website (2008, October 28). Lenovo Brings “e” Education Netbook PC to the Classroom and Campus. Retrieved March 29, 2009 from:
School Buyers Online website (2009, February 10). Schools Embrace Acer’s K-12 Seed Unit Program. Retrieved March 29, 2009 from:
Trotter, Andrew (2008, April 23). Companies Targeting Low-Cost ‘Netbooks’ Directly at Education. Retrieved March 29, 2009 from Education Week website:
Wikipedia website (2009). Netbook. Retrieved March 29, 2009 from:

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