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Which Low-Cost Laptop is Best for Education?

Wayan Vota

low cost laptops

Over the last 5 years, several low-cost laptops were introduced expressly for educational systems of the developing world. Starting with the XO-1 laptop from One Laptop Per Child, and expanding to include the ClassmatePC, these computers then spawned consumer netbooks like the Asus Eee-PC, which could also be used for education. Now we have tablet computers like the Amazon Kindle and the Apple iPad that also can be used in educational settings. In fact, there is a whole plethora of low-cost ICT device options for educators.

So which one of these computing platforms is the best for education? Which form factor can help students learn better and allow teachers to reach greater educational outcomes in the classroom and across school systems? Is there a single laptop that works better than the rest?

Let us first learn more about the four main types of low-cost computers that are widely used in education

XO-1 Laptop
In 2006, the One Laptop Per Child organization introduced the XO-1 laptop as a purpose-build computer for education. It’s features, from a sunlight-readable screen to a rugged design, custom Open Source software, and a low cost, created much excitement in the technology and education communities. Marketed as the “$100 laptop” it allowed Ministries of Education to actually consider introducing technology to their students on a per-child basis.

Since the XO’s introduction, OLPC has released several new updates to the hardware and software, and several countries (Uruguay, Peru, Rwanda) have widely distributed these computers in their primary education schools.

ClassmatePC
In 2007, Intel introduced the Classmate PC as a competitor to the XO-1 as an alternate education-specific laptop for education. The Classmate PC was part of the Intel World Ahead program to expand the use of ICT in the developing world and often bundled with the Intel Teach program to train teachers on its use in the classroom.

The Classmate PC has several updates and versions and several countries (Portugal, Brazil, Venezuela) have widely distributed these laptops to their primary and secondary schools.

Netbooks
In 2007, the Asus Eee PC was the first consumer netbook – a small low-cost laptop designed around price as the over-riding factor. The Eee PC was not designed or marketed as an education device, yet it’s very low cost and ubiquity made it and other netbooks an alternative, easy-to-obtain laptop for education.

The Asus Eee PC was an instant hit with general consumers and quickly spawned many imitators, which collectively formed the netbook category. Netbooks grew to over 20% of the PC market at their peak sales. Several school districts in the USA and other developed countries have distributed these consumer netbooks to their students.

Tablets
In 2007, Amazon.com introduced the Kindle and in 2010, Apple introduced the iPad as consumer devices. The Kindle is specifically designed as an eBook reader and the iPad touch screen, coupled with iTunes, was a revolution in the ease of use for consumers. Neither device was designed for education, yet their intuitive user interfaces have made educators wonder what is the potential impact of tablet computers in education?

Both the Kindle and the iPad were great commercial successes for their respective companies and have generated imitators as they expand the tablet market. There are limited trials of both devices in several schools districts around the world.

Which one is the best?

This is a great loaded question as there isn’t any one device that is best for every situation. In fact, experts in ICT for education (ICT4E) deployments have come up with six success criteria for educational ICT projects that should be considered long before choosing the hardware:

  1. Infrastructure:
    ICT4E projects require a significant infrastructure in order to run effectively. This infrastructure need doesn’t just include technical aspects such as the availability of electricity and Internet access but also logistical aspects such as how to efficiently and reliably distribute hundreds of thousands of laptops in some of the remotest regions of the world.
  2. Maintenance:
    Regardless of how robust an ICT device or software solution is there will always be issues with a certain percentage of them. This is especially true when computers are deployed in rugged environments, which are dusty, hot, and humid, and the main users are young children. As a result processes and solutions need to be developed to address how to repair broken equipment.
  3. Content and curriculum:
    One of the core requirements for ICT4E projects is appropriate e-content and e-curriculum that enable the technology to be used as a tool for learning. Simply scanning in existing books and making them available digitally doesn’t come close to utilizing the full potential of a digital and connected device such as a laptop or mobile phone. Hence interactive learning content the supports the local curriculum, and supplemental materials such as digital multimedia libraries, need to be developed to effect learning, regardless of the hardware chosen.
  4. Community inclusion:
    One component that often seems to be underestimated in ICT4E projects is the importance of community inclusion and the buy-in from key stakeholders such as teachers, parents, principals and administrators. Grassroots support is the main requirement for enabling initial adoption, daily project support, and long-term sustainability.
  5. Teacher training:
    Using a new tool and approach is always hard, particularly when we’re talking about something as complex as learning and education. Therefore it is vital that teachers receive adequate training on how to efficiently and effectively use ICT such as laptops as a tool for education. Training people is both very resource-intensive and complex, yet without it ICT4E projects are very likely to fail.
  6. Evaluation:
    Last but not least, evaluating the impact that ICT4E has on learning, and the broader society, is a key criterion. Unfortunately, appropriate baseline data is difficult to acquire in many cases, hampering the project evaluation process. Evaluation is often an afterthought that only receives attention once technology implementation has started. This is too late to gather baseline data. Ideally, evaluation is started in early project stages as well as a continually used toolset to refine and improve a project.

Recommendation to policy makers

Note what is not listed in the six criteria for success: the actual hardware form factor or its unit cost. In fact, research on the cost of ICT interventions in education by Vital Wave Consulting found that hardware was not the main cost in ICT4E activities:

Governments need to consider the entire cost of school computing solutions, rather than merely the initial expenses. A total cost of ownership model takes into account recurrent and hidden costs such as teacher training, support and maintenance, and the cost of replacing hardware over a five-year period.

Support and training are recurrent costs that constitute two of the three largest costs in the total cost of ownership model. They are greater than hardware costs and much higher than software fees.

So it is my continuous recommendation to policy makers to focus on the educational ecosystem, and support the change management that is required when introducing a new tool. Because no matter if it’s a “$100 laptop” or a magical iPad, the success (or failure) of ICT interventions in education is directly related to the supporting investments in teachers, administrators, community leaders – people not devices.

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8 Responses to “Which Low-Cost Laptop is Best for Education?”

  1. There is another low-cost laptop marketed to developing countries that should be mentioned, the EduBook by Xcore http://www.xcore86.com/site/ The EduBook has many unique features for the developing world. These include:

    1. Upgradeable —

    The CPU module and RAM can be replaced. The EduBook is now shipping with the second generation CPU which increases performance by 70%.

    2. Fanless–

    A fanless computer draws less energy, is quieter and doesn’t suck in dirt into the computer.

    3. Replaceable AA Rechargeable batteries.

    Eventually, all rechargeable batteries have to be replaced. LiIon batteries have a 3 year shelf life. All other laptops are sold with expensive proprietary battery packs. These battery packs are generally only available from the manufacturer and might not be available in the future.

    The EduBook uses low cost AA rechargeable batteries. These can be easily sourced. Also, NiMH batteries have a longer shelf life (important if computers are transported by ship) and they don’t explode like LiIon batteries.

    4. The EduBook doesn’t need an exteranl power adapter which can be easily lost and is expensive to replace. The EduBook’s power supply is built inside the unit.

    5. The EduBook can be shipped in kit for so that they can be locally assembled.

    There are no $100 laptops on the market today. The OLPC was originally advertised to be a $100 laptop but the sales price was closer to $200.00 and there were additional costs ffor installation and warranty.l

    The EduBook can be sold as a kit and a company can assemble and resell the EduBook for about $165.00 and still make a profit.

    • Andrew J Dupree

      It should probably be noted that OLPC's XO 1.75 is in the works. It's based on new low-power system-on-a-chip application processor technology. I believe the cost is around $70, meaning they should get pretty close to that $100 goal once you tack on additional costs. It's also low-power enough that the hand-crank battery recharger is finally feasible.

  2. Michael, this sounds like a good product. Would it also take AA non-rechargeable batteries?

    • It is premature to speak definitively of specific features of the OLPC 1.75 or its price, both of which are evolving as design options appear along with new parts pricing.

      Pricing will also depend on projected volume, which in turn depends on both promises from and legislation in various countries. Previous failed projections include an election in Nigeria, a coup in Thailand, and the utter flakiness of Muammar Qaddafi's Libya. On the other side, the multitude of new fiber optic cables reaching all of Africa (even landlocked countries such as Rwanda) and the movement to free digital materials replacing printed textbooks
      http://wiki.sugarlabs.org/go/Replacing_Textbooks

      suggest a possible large increase in effective demand.

      The XO-1.75 is intended to use an ARM processor and to run at 2 watts, compared with about 8W at full power for an XO-1. It is hoped that a multi-touch screen will prove practical.

      Here is the original announcement.
      http://lists.laptop.org/pipermail/devel/2010-July

      On the page
      http://wiki.laptop.org/go/XO-1.75

      we find

      * Armada processor
      * 1G DDR-3 RAM
      * 4G flash storage
      * Unspecified number of USB ports
      * Wireless LAN
      * camera
      * accelerometer
      * magnetometer
      * security processor
      * audio
      * Red Hat Fedora Linux 13 or later
      * Sugar 0.86 or later

      There is a photo of a prototype motherboard at
      http://wiki.laptop.org/go/XO_1.75_A3#Documentatio

      The design would also draw on features of the XO-1, such as non-use of toxic metals, design for total recycling, ruggedness, easy repair by children, easy carrying and so on, with a wide range of power inputs accepted.

  3. I have commented on this question a number of times in the past, and my answer has not changed.

    * Which laptop is best depends on the purpose it is intended to fulfill.

    * If your idea of education is to teach currently popular commercial software (which was designed for adult learning and use, and will be obsolete long before the children graduate) you get one set of answers and one set of costs.

    * If you ask how to provide the most bang for the buck for ending poverty, you are irresistibly drawn to Free Software, notably Sugar education software; Creative Commons content, particularly Open Education Resources, or OERs; extreme low power; a wireless local area network (WLAN); easy repair by children; environmental friendliness; and the rest of the OLPC XO family design criteria and actual features.

    I would like to see us create a table of proposed desiderata, with answers for each of the candidates suggested.

  4. What about small tablets like the ipod touch even in a cheaper version. Tata was supposed to come up with a $35 version if the ipad

  5. I think the approach of providing technology and expecting it to solve education is the biggest mistake we are making. There is barely any follow up with the stakeholders to create content which suits them the best. For example we are working with local teachers in mongolia to see how we an try and put better content for them.

    Before i put up some of the solution we have been implementing , check this http://www.penn-olson.com/2011/06/17/india-35-tab

    1: The hardware like Wayan Pointed out is pointless, we have been taking 10 year old computers with Intel Celeron chip and getting more usability than the OLPCs.
    2: 90% of the computers in schools here are in good condition to run programs that we want , but you cannot get school administration to let the students use it unless its one of the computer classes.
    3: Not enough usage of currently successful tools , so there is no point in developing newer ones cause no one know how to use it.

    Education hotspots :

    Our Solution with teachaclass.org , Keeping it simple

    We dont want to reinvent the wheel , we want to use it to its maximum potential . That entails taking what works best out there and teaching the masses how to use it and exposing those education resources to them without relying on internet infrastructure.

    Our Goals :

    Leverage the large volume of open and free educational courseware and libraries available online and make them accessible to Emerging Countries communities with no Internet access or very limited bandwidth. Empower these small communities by deploying a pre-packaged, self-contained, scalable and highly mobile Educational Hotspot Solution that can be accessed by basic wireless laptops (OLPC type) or wired PCs.

    SOLUTION

    Ultra-mobile, self-contained, pre-packaged solutions (Server, Courseware, router, switch, wireless access point).
    - The whole solution can fit in a school backpack.
    - It addresses worst-case scenario of locations with no available Internet access. Just a power outlet required.
    - If Internet connectivity is available with a minimum bandwidth the Server will make available links to complementary internet resources also.
    – No large capacity storage required in students computers. Or no storage at all. Upgradeable. New educational packages or courseware can be added/updated by CDs and/or USB drives.
    – All material is accessible via a web browser on a student computer connected (wirelessly or wired) to the Server.
    – The Educational Web Portal is the main point of entry to all educational content.
    Ideal for self-paced learning.
    – More of a Mobile Public Library than a formal school program.
    Initial Focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) disciplines courseware.
    Other content: World literature classics, Encyclopedias.

    Current Deployments in Orphanages :
    With our http://www.teachaclass.org program we have installed couple of hotspot in orphanages in Indonesia and Mongolia.

    Why will this work ?

    We realize that implementation of education concepts is where the need is right now , instead of creating our own base of implementors which would take years and a lot more resources in terms of manpower and money , we came up with a better solution.
    Tap into the current worldwide volunteer networks AKA Peace Corps
    Currently in mongolia we are partnering with the US peace corps who have over 100 ESL teachers in remote towns which have no internet access .
    These volunteers are skilled and can easily be trained to setup a hotspot in their community.
    This gives Peace Corps volunteers to contribute more during their 2 years in that postion.
    There is always new volunteers coming into the country , this will ensure maintenance and sustainability of the program.

    The KEY is though we need to take the input from local teachers and implementors about what suits them best .

  6. I fix computers for a living. I have to say that Apple has done a good job. However they are expensive. Apple computers are easy to use as the Operating System is simplistic. Remember they originated the 1 button mouse. However, for reliable and stable laptops, a $1,000 ASUS laptop is the best bet if you go with PC. Asus' do not break often, they are stable. The most laptops I receive are Toshiba and Dell, although they are more popular brands, I highly recommend ASUS to any people needing a laptop.
    Thanks for your time on this post.

InfoDev UNESCO

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