Monday, November 19, 2012

Advice on computer acquisitions for the upper elementary grades

Recently, the upper elementary teachers (grades 3 through 5) at a nearby international school asked me for some technical advice regarding their plans for educational technology acquisitions, with a particular focus on their classroom computers.  It occurs to me that my reply to them, while it deals with details quite specific to their curricular, technological, and budget situation, might be useful to teachers and administrators in institutions elsewhere.  So, with some minor changes (out of respect for anonymity), here is the text of my e-mailed advice:

Hey folks,

I like what I see in your classroom-computer planning so far:  it comes across as ultimately curriculum-driven and not gadget-driven, which is the decidedly right place to be.  I’ll do my best here to give you the feedback you asked for in an intelligible format, but there is actually a lot to talk about.  I’ll just start at the top of the pyramid (with the big ideas) and work my way down to some details.

Long term strategy:
A big goal I would recommend is this:  to achieve and maintain vendor-independence, OS-independence, and form-factor-independence*.In plain talk, you want to keep your options as open as possible regarding the hardware and software media by which you open up your classroom to educational technology resources.  (But that’s just, like, my opinion, man.)

* form-factor-independence = you can use any kind of device you want (a.k.a. BYOD -- “bring your own device”)

Short to medium term strategy:
Based on what I read in your e-mail, you are looking at (for now) sticking with traditional computer hardware that includes an integrated physical keyboard.  This allows you to (without disruption) continue using those PC-based and web-based resources that you are currently using, and the keyboard is especially pertinent to those resources which require extensive textual input from the student.  It also keeps you on track in the direction of the long term strategy that I recommend (see above), since the current tablet offerings (from Apple, Google, and the new stuff being launched by Microsoft) are highly proprietary – designed from the ground up to lock you into one vendor’s ecosystem.  [Side note:  the understandable reliance on keyboard technology prompts the question as to whether keyboarding should be formally made part of the grade 3-5 curriculum, a question I’ll not get into here.]

In looking at some of your desired specifications for new computers, I see a couple of items that are performance related:  “fast processor” and “solid state hard drive”, to which you might add “sufficient RAM”.  I have no doubt that an urgent focus on performance is prompted by the dire state of your current crop of notebook computers.  I have shared in the painful experience of waiting 10 minutes (often longer) for those computers to merely boot up, and at the end of the lesson waiting at least 5 minutes for them to shut down, not to mention the achingly slow performance of the machines in those brief moments afforded between start-up and shut-down.  There is at least one additional thing that could markedly improve the performance of a new crop of Windows-based computers:  dump the Symantec anti-virus (which not only costs money, but is a notorious performance-hog if not carefully calibrated) and replace it with the freely available Microsoft Security Essentials (which runs with a nice small footprint [i.e., small usage of CPU resources]).

List of software
Your list of applications strongly suggests that notebooks running Windows 7 are what is called for.  (And please, if you go Windows, go Windows 7.  Let other early adopters with deep pockets and a devil-may-care attitude play around with Windows 8 for now.)  Regardless of the choice of operating system (which I’ll address in more detail shortly), I would encourage you to take this list and do three things:
(1) prioritize the list into at least two groups – “must have” and “would like to have”;
(2) if a particular application is not free, look to see whether you can find a free alternative that is acceptable for the curricular need being filled;
(3) if a particular application requires local installation on the PC, look to see whether you can find a web-based version of the application or an alternative web-based application that is acceptable for the curricular need being filled.
This third action would serve to put you onto a path of OS (operating system) independence, so that in the next iteration of computer purchases (three years from now?), you are more likely to have the option to shift away from Windows to another operating system (Ubuntu?  Mac?  Chrome?  Something else?), which you might especially want to do if Windows 8 proves to be a total piece of crap.  Besides offering OS-independence, each web-based resource is also something that can be accessed by students from home (for those of you who are into the whole “homework” thing).

What is a netbook?  The concept has become considerably blurred since netbooks were first introduced a few years back.  But it looks like those machines that are still marketed as “netbooks” are very stripped down machines that only run Ubuntu (an open-source Linux derivative operating system that I don’t really currently recommend).  Bottom line -- the least expensive Windows-based machines are going to cost at least 500 dollars (barring any educational or bulk discount you might get), and will not have a solid-state drive.
However, a potential alternative has just popped up on the market this very week.  Samsung announced the availability of its third-generation Chrome-based netbook with not only some nice performance and feature improvements, but also with a potentially game-changing price-tag of $249.  Lora and I have been keeping an eye on these Chromebooks (Google’s term for a Chrome-based netbook) for some time, but were always turned away by the then-prevailing price of at least $450 to $500.
If you’re not familiar with it, Google’s Chrome is a very stripped-down operating system that does little else besides run a browser, with which you can access any web-site or web-based application.  It reportedly boots up in less than 10 seconds, and shuts down even more quickly.
But crucially for you folks – no applications can be installed locally, so if you wanted to immediately go with a Chromebook strategy, you would have to successfully complete step 3 in my recommended action items above (i.e., find workable web-based alternatives for all your vital applications).  However, the strategy might be worth at least considering, because besides making boot-up nightmares a thing of the past, it would allow you to purchase perhaps three times as many Chromebooks as you could Windows-based notebooks.  That was the game-changer offered by Samsung this week – it seems to offer the potential for fiscally feasible one-on-one computing in each of the grade 3, 4, and 5 classrooms.

Here is your current list of applications, with some possible web-based alternatives:
1. Reading counts --> ??
2. Microsoft office - Word, excel, PowerPoint -->> Microsoft offers web-based version of these via subscription; Google offers free alternatives to Word and Excel.
3. Movie-maker -->> One True Media, YouTube editing tools
4. Comic Life -->> Pixton
5. Kidspiration -->> Webspiration (offered by the same vendor)
6. SRI/scholastic -->> ??
7. Logo-paths -->> ?? (This looks like another company that Pearson bought and buried in its vaults somewhere – my Google searches for it were not fruitful.)

Given the low price tag, Lora and I might consider buying one of Samsung’s new line of Chromebooks for her to use as an extra classroom computing resource.  In any case, I strongly recommend that you get your hands on one and give it a pretty extensive shake-down before even seriously considering the purchase of a cartload (or three cartloads!) of them.

Or, if you don’t have time to consider any of this stuff, the more conservative option of going with a single cartload of Windows 7 notebooks is not a bad one (but I'm pretty sure you would have to forego the solid-state drives).



After I sent the above e-mail to the upper elementary teaching team, I received a follow-up query, which I answered as follows:
Hey folks,

You asked: important do you think a solid-state drive is?

With regard to a solid state drive (SSD), it would seem that you're currently in a position only to strongly desire it (for the sake of ruggedness and speed) and not to insist upon it.

But if you have narrowed things down to taking one of two paths, either getting Windows 7 equipped notebooks or Chromebooks, then the question of drive type is largely out of bounds for your consideration, anyway.

If you go with Windows 7 notebooks, then you will need sufficient storage not only for any applications to be installed, but also simply for the care-and-feeding of the operating system.  This means that an affordable small-capacity SSD is not a feasible option for a Windows 7 machine.  So if you get Win 7 machines, you will almost assuredly be getting machines with traditional standard spinning disk drives.

And if you go with Chromebooks, you automatically get 16GB SSDs - a spinning disk drive is not an option there.

So you only have to worry about the question of drive-type if you open up consideration to some option other than Win 7 machines or Chomebooks.

(Side note:  There is a whole other category of machines, called Ultrabooks, some of which have a hybrid setup -- SSD for quick boot-up AND a standard disk-drive for apps and files; but these generally cost upwards of a thousand dollars, so at the moment would seem to be out of consideration.)

Have a good weekend!!


No comments:

Post a Comment