Which Low-Cost Laptop is Best for Education?
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
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.