Ditching the laptops

Okay so I’m working hard at trying to get closer to one to one computing. I’d also like to see teachers making better use of the desktops in their classrooms. So when I read this, I’m a little taken back.

We are abandoning the mobile laptop lab/cart paradigm and going back to a regular wired lab. Some of the reasons are:

  1. Slow connectivity speed.
  2. Class time is wasted handing out computers and collecting.
  3. Laptops are more difficult and time consuming to image (you have to set the lab up in order to re-image).
  4. They are more expensive for the same quality machine.
  5. Greater risk for theft.
  6. Poor utilization. Typically a laptop lab will be checked out to only a single teacher for a day, while a separate wired lab is used by multiple teacher throughout the day.

Dr. James Beal Director of Technology Somonauk Community Unit School District #432 Somonauk, IL 60552

I can’t speak to this from experience so those of you with some background (Wes, Cheryl,Will, Dan) maybe you could respond. This seems like a step backwards possibly as a result of some poor planning and support. But I really don’t know. I realize this may not be a true one to one environment but it seems to be closer to a reality of one computer for every child.

Keep your laptops at home

If we continue to cave to the challenges of technology, where will we be in 5 years when kids start bringing their own computers?

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  • My former school has gone in the same direction. It isn’t really a commentary on 1-to-1 computing, but of the cart paradigm. Carts are nice when you have a very small number of them, but they are expensive, wear out quickly, etc. To change that isn’t just a matter of planning and training, but a *huge* amount of time and attention (which, of course, equals money). There isn’t any way to use carts as a transition to 1-to-1 computing, as far as I’m concerned.

    And don’t be too sanguine about kids bringing their own laptops in five years. If they aren’t now, why will they five years from now? Apple’s cheapest laptop has gone UP in price.

  • shareski

    A couple of questions:

    Is a pure 1 to 1 less expensive? What about wireless networking as opposed to access points? Our techs have concerns about providing a true wireless environment (security, speed, ubiquity) the access point seems like a cheaper solution.What do you mean by time?

    The number of students with cellphones are increasing as are there computing abilities. That tells us something about their desire for access. While Apple may be a bit pricey, there are many other PC alternatives for under $700, including this.

    I could be wrong but if we consider the increase in home internet access…wireless hotspots….it seems reasonable to assume this trend will push kids to want take advantage.

    Plus it’s nice to have when you have to look up words like sanguine

  • Hi Dean.

    I suppose you’re actually paying more per unit if you get carts, but of course you’re paying a lot less overall if you’re buying 1/3rd the number of computers, which is why people do it.

    I’m not exactly sure what you mean in terms of “wireless networking” vs. access points.

    Basically any service on laptop carts takes extra time. There are a lot more things that break (power cords, hinges, batteries die…). Physically taking 24 laptops out and setting them up to service them takes a long time (if each one takes one minute to set up and 1 minute to shut down, that’s a man/hour there). They have to be inspected regularly, I’d say once a week if you’re doing it right.

    Carts are just the kind of strategy that have us all stuck at 1-to-4 or 1-to-3 instead of 1 to 1.

    I do think there is a decent chance that we’ll have a lot more laptops in schools in five years, but if it happens it will be a direct or indirect result of the OLPC initiative.

    I think I missed “sanguine” on my GRE’s so I have to get some use out of it.

  • We’ve had excellent luck with these in the Faculty of Education, and our preservice teachers. These work well in both Graduate and undergraduate classes. Our cart is in very high demand and works as both a teaching tool, and one that models good practice.

    We do also utilize our labs quite a bit, but I find the portable machines really find their way into classrooms that were never utilizing technology at all. And of course, our professors don’t have to do much with the undergraduate students … they just figure out how to use them. It’s not always like that in our Graduate courses.

    I don’t buy all of those points listed … I think it may be more bad planning, utilization or awareness.

  • You can’t really compare 1 cart with post-secondary students to many carts in a primary or secondary school. You don’t run into problems with carts until you’re responsible for, say, five of them.

  • Point taken, that’s why I never made assumptions about highschool use and kept it to my own experience. Certainly, the cultures are very different.

  • shareski

    Interesting to hear these two perspectives.


    You mentioned that trouble comes when you are managing 5 carts? Is that what you believe is the tipping point?

    Also in regards to networking. We converted one small school to totally wireless and apparently the cost for this was over $30,000. I don’t the details but when I raise the issue of 1 to 1 they tell me this is the big cost.

    You talk about the issues with the cart. Even if it’s not mobile I there’s still storage issues which I’m not sure can’t be avoided. I don’t know you’d get around this cost.

  • Dean,

    It is hard to say exactly where the tipping point would be, depending on any number of local circumstances, but that’s where it became unmanagable for us (school = 370 kids, 1.5 tech people).

    I haven’t kept up with the issues involved in permanently setting up wireless in a school, which is more common now than it was when I was doing this stuff four years ago, but I think the cost comes from setting up lots of low power transmitters to give you uniform coverage without overlapping too many of the access points, which causes interference. In particular, there are 11(?) or so channels, and adjacent access points have to be so many channels away from each other, which in a 3-dimensional school becomes a geometry problem.

    Anyhow, the thing is, once you reach a certain density of carts with mobile access points, you can’t control that interference and overlapping. So at that point you need fixed wireless anyhow.

    In reflecting on all this, the biggest limit on density of carts you can get away with is the organization of the school. If you’ve got 1 cart per floor, or wing, or team, or grade, it is pretty easy to keep it straight. But if the ownership/responsibility for the carts gets vague, they don’t get maintained as well. Carts work well, but only up to a point.

  • My perception is that people advocating “ubiquitous computing” which can involve computers in labs and/or carts are often not on a continuum with those advocating for 1:1 laptop projects and true “immersion.” In other words, having computers on carts does not necessarily mean the organization is paving the way for 1:1 computing. 1:1 is a huge jump, but it can be a transformative jump. When students have access to the technology all the time, teachers can assign tasks differently. The students have more time with their technology, so the need for the teachers to teach about the technology can decline. Mike Muir has written and blogged about this a bit I think.

    That said, I think reports like this should get our attention. Technology offers no panacea, and we need to learn from those who have “failed” and gone down an unsuccessful road as much as we need to learn from those who have or are being successful. I’d love to see a university research group study and report on what happened in the district you describe.

  • Balance, not once did I see the words motivating, engaging, collaborating in the above piece or comments. We need balance. Yes, students need to have access to technology. Technology labs are stationary, I work in one. It is great, kids come to the computer lab when they need a fix, like going to the dentist.Oh, too bad they have to wait 5-8 days for a return visit. What is the message there?
    Computer carts are moveable, they move from teacher to teacher, class to class and there is no ownership. There isn’t intentional damage or misuse, but after the laptop is used for a bit, it is returned to the cart. The return is only as good as the teacher in that classroom. Will that teacher check, or have a student check to see that all the cords are in order and lids shut etc? However, the benefit is, that the cart is available more often than once every 5-8 days. The cart supports what the classroom teacher and students are doing, engaging, motivating instruction and learning.
    1-1 computing, well, there is ownership, there is still damage and misuse, but if you look at the State of Maine statistics, last I knew it was less than 5% of the total number of laptops.(Damage is highly correlated to teacher buy-in and support of the laptop program.) Maybe that has changed in the past 2 years and maybe Mike Muir can comment. However, the opportunity for collaborating, engaging learning to happen is 24/7. Just last night a high school student was at our elementary school working the lights for a musical production, he brought out his school laptop where he had been taking notes and set that up in order that he was prepared for the show. Could he have done that with paper and pencil? Would he have been able to view it during the show without a flashlight? Is he a 21st Century digital native, using the tools at his disposal?
    At our elementary school I like the combined offering of the computer lab, carts, and next year we will be using 10 “old” MLTI laptops in each of our 3rd and 4th grade classrooms. Our school has 1-1 laptops from grade 7-10. The rest of our students have the same combinations available. I do believe more students in our community will begin bringing their own laptops to school, just as most of our high school students have cell phones, I think laptops will not be far behind in student ownership. Unless, we can figure out how to use these technologies and manage the support, our students will leave us behind.

  • Jeez Cheryl, can’t we talk about whether a given mode of deployment is efficient and sustainable without inserting boilerplate about motivation, etc? We share the same goals. What we need to talk about is what actually works for getting there.

    The fact of the matter is that some technologies work better in schools than others. The original quote implies that the school was trying to go with an all-cart paradigm. My experience is that this is a bad idea. Something like what your school does, with a few carts, a few computers in each classroom, and a lab or two is more managable. Is there something wrong with stating that plainly?

  • I know I’m coming in late on this, but I really wanted to drop in a few thoughts here. I’m going to respond to the list itself.
    1. Slow connectivity speed.
    This can be a real issue. To have a solid and secure wireless system is a challenge. It’s not that difficult, however.
    2. Class time is wasted handing out computers and collecting.
    Class time is also wasted packing up books and materials and trooping down to the lab and back.
    3. Laptops are more difficult and time consuming to image (you have to set the lab up in order to re-image).
    That’s true. How often do you need to do this, however? Spread over the span of a year, how much time does this really come out to be?
    4. They are more expensive for the same quality machine.
    This is true. And they’re more difficult to maintain.
    5. Greater risk for theft.
    This is a hypothetical statement. I have worked with a lot of buildings and districts using laptops, and everyone worries about this. And nobody ever has ever had a problem.
    6. Poor utilization. Typically a laptop lab will be checked out to only a single teacher for a day, while a separate wired lab is used by multiple teacher throughout the day.
    This is a meaningless comment. What is the measure here? How many people touch the computers, or how well they’re used?

    In the end, that’s the problem with everything listed here. Nothing in the list of reasons deals with the educational use or impact of the equipment. Even if it is more expensive to use a laptop cart, what if it’s significantly more educationally effective? More to the point, a lab may be less expensive, but what if is of lower educational value? Until those issues are addressed, the decisions are based on the wrong criteria.