One Laptop for Every Student Finally an Affordable Option

The digital divide isn’t a new concept to any of us. We all know how important technology literacy is going to be for our students to be successful. And those of us teaching in low-income areas are acutely aware of how far behind many of our students are when it comes to technology use.

In my mind, the best way to give our kids a level playing field is to ensure that each one of them has a computer at home. One-to-one programs are by no means a new concept. The state of Maine went one-to-one in all of its middle schools in 2002 and followed suit in every public high school in 2009. As a result, they’ve seen growth in writing and math scores, specifically where teachers were well-trained on technology integration.

But for the past several years, though the need for one-to-one computing was clear, the cost was extremely prohibitive. Even with educational discounts, Macbooks run $900 apiece and cheaper laptops are more than $600 each (not to mention the costs of additional software, like Photoshop and Kidspiration).

So I was blown away in October, when I went to the annual CETPA conference in San Diego. I heard Jim Klein explain how his southern California district has gone one-to-one for only $300 per student, with no added software costs and only minimal training expenses. Just think — for the price of a textbook, a student could have their own personal computer.

The Saugus Union School District funded the project with a writing grant and recorded amazing success. After going one-to-one with fourth-graders for a single year, their writing scores increased from 55% efficient/advanced to 79% efficient/advanced!

The Hardware

The computers that Saugus used were the ASUS 901 eeePCs. I know what you’re thinking — netbooks? But netbooks… suck. Five months ago, that’s what I thought, too. In fact, I was adamantly fighting not to buy them for students because I saw them as glorified cell phones. From what I had seen, they could surf the Web and do little more.

For student computers, we needed machines that could record and edit audio and video; handle PowerPoint, Excel, and Word documents; sustain drops from desks and the occasional spilled water; AND surf the Web. I hadn’t seen an affordable netbook that could do even half of that.

That’s why hearing Jim Klein’s presentation was such an eye-opener. He had figured out the right combination of technical specifications and software to turn netbooks into the high-functioning computers we need in classrooms. And he did it with ASUS eeePCs. Unfortunately, ASUS has since stopped producing the 901 model. But there are several other similar netbooks available for a comparable price.

The basic components most schools need for a high-functioning one-to-one netbook are these:

Solid state memory (at least 16GB) With kids, you’re going to need extremely durable netbooks that can withstand the occasional drop or a bit of moisture. Solid state memory offers this increased durability. A hard-drive will give you a lot more memory, but it’s also much more susceptible to breaking, and with the set-up described under “software,” extra memory is unnecessary.
6-cell battery You want the netbooks to be used in classrooms as much as possible. This means they must be able to remain running, on a single battery charge, for an entire school day (6 to 8 hours).
Wireless-N card (preferably not Broadcom, if possible) In the classroom, there might be 30 netbooks online in a single room with a single access point, so you will need a high-performance wireless card. (The Broadcom cards require an extra driver when used with the Ubuntu software described below. They’re also a bit slower to re-connect, so they aren’t preferred, but they will work.)
Ubuntu Linux operating system This is the key to keeping your costs as low as possible. Linux provides free, open source software alternatives to Photoshop, iMovie and several other high-cost software programs. It’s also almost impossible to crash and extremely easy to restore to the custom image at year’s end. Additionally, the Linux operating system takes up a ton less memory than other systems, like Windows, so you’re able to install and run A LOT more programs.
9- to 10-inch screen To ensure that the netbooks are used as much as possible, you’ll want to have them out, on student desks, as long as possible. Larger netbooks wouldn’t fit on a desk with other school items, such as textbooks or notebooks, but 9- to 10-inch screens give users a large enough screen while still being small enough to fit on a desk, next to a book. They’re also slightly lighter, which is nice for carrying them in a backpack from class to class.
Embedded webcam Web cameras are the easiest way for students and teachers to record videos, take photos and speak to experts/distant students via Skype.
2 GB RAM (or more), if possible When using the netbooks for audio and video editing, more RAM is desired (but not required). Plus, added RAM on any computer will ensure its sustainability.

Jim Klein outlined the netbook models that Saugus is investigating on his blog. Here at the aquarium, we’re considering going one-to-one in one of our high school programs using a customized version of the Dell Inspiron Mini 10v. With the specifications above, they cost about $400 each, but there are substantial education discounts available for schools.

The Software

This is one place where schools have serious problems – finding the right software for the job and then finding a way to pay for it. Saugus found a solution in open-source software. Open-source software is basically software created through the collaboration of several programmers and put on the Web for anyone to use for free.

Saugus decided to use the Ubuntu operating system, which is a version of Linux. I’ll be writing a lot more about Ubuntu in the future, but it’s an operating system that looks a lot like Windows or Mac.



When I first heard about Ubuntu, frightening images of DOS popped into my head. But it’s really nothing like that. Ubuntu is extremely user-friendly, and in the rare case that you run into problems, there are millions of Web sites and forums set up to help its users.

What sold me on Ubuntu, aside from the ease of use, is that all of its programs are free. There are open-source versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Kidspiration, Photoshop, Garageband, iMovie – the list goes on and on. Not only that, but the free Ubuntu versions of these programs are compatible with the more mainstream versions. So you can open a document created on your Windows PC using the Ubuntu software, and vice versa.

iTalc Screenshot

iTalc Screenshot

There’s also an Ubuntu program called iTALC that allows teachers to pull up live screenshots of all the netbooks in their classroom at one time to monitor students’ activity. From his/her computer, the teacher can take control of any netbook in the classroom using this program. The teacher can also choose any netbook to display full-screen for a class demo. And teachers can use the program to take a date/time-stamped screenshot of any netbook in case it’s necessary for something like a discipline hearing.

It was about this time that I started to get a little overwhelmed. These programs seem amazing, as does Ubuntu, but how could I – a person with zero Linux experience – find all the educational programs our students would need and then create an image to install on all of these netbooks?

Again, Jim Klein came to the rescue. The image he created for his district’s netbooks is available for download, along with detailed instructions on how to customize and install it. All I had to do was follow his directions and, within a couple hours, I had all the appropriate educational software installed on our first netbook.

If you’re still not sold on the Linux operating system, check out Jim Klein’s reasoning – it’s pretty convincing.

You’ve spent the money. Now what?

In my view, there are four keys to making a one-to-one program successful.

1. Teacher buy-in

One thing that Saugus USD did beautifully was to give teachers a choice. They piloted their one-to-one program in the fourth grade only and allowed teachers to switch grade levels if they didn’t feel comfortable with the technology.

Millions of studies and facts prove that today’s students need to be successful with technology in order to be successful in life. Schools must move toward full integration, and we must do it quickly. But many teachers don’t yet feel comfortable with what we’re asking of them, and we need to create environments where that’s okay… for a time.

One thing that, too often, isn’t communicated to these teachers is that it’s okay not to know everything. I mean, especially for those of us in elementary schools, we’re used to having all the answers before the lesson even begins. With technology, though, this is impossible. Teachers have to understand, above all else, that it’s okay to say, “I don’t know how to do that, kid. Can you figure it out and show the class?”

When I had my fourth-graders create podcasts, I did little more than show them a sample podcast and explain to them how to open Garageband. After that, they were pretty much on their own. And they did great!

We also need to provide teachers with regular internal training opportunities. Many districts today are set up similarly to the district where I taught in Phoenix. There, every school had at least one teacher who was also the school’s technology specialist. We tech specialists met once a month, under the lead of the district’s full-time tech director, for advanced professional development. We were paid a stipend and expected to somehow bring that knowledge back to the teachers on our sites.

At my school, I did that by organizing weekly tech integration sessions after school. I polled teachers on subjects they wanted to learn about and created a schedule of hour-long classes (some more complex subjects were broken up over two or three sessions). Teachers could come to one, two, or all of the sessions that interested them in exchange for professional development hours. No one was required to attend, but more and more teachers began to. The key to the sessions’ success wasn’t always what I was teaching – it was also giving teachers a cohort of peers with whom they could discuss, vent, and plan tech integration lessons.

One of the things I learned from these sessions was that teachers felt frustrated when things didn’t work during class, and there was no one they could call for help. Our district couldn’t afford any school tech-help desks, and although I was a resource, I was usually teaching when teachers needed immediate help.

Because this was a major barrier to technology integration, the district tech director started planning a club similar to GenYES. The idea was that we would train students alongside teachers on the technologies in our district (in our case, we started with Promethean Activboard training), and then use those students as a pseudo tech-help desk for the school.

2. Give the kids a place to shine

One of the most jaw-dropping aspects of the Saugus USD project is their online community, which they created using open-source (free) ELGG software. The district basically created an internal Facebook, where every teacher and student has their own interconnected page.

Teachers were able to post assignments on their pages, and kids could turn in their projects by uploading them. But what the district found was that this environment was effectively extending the school day for many students. At home, fourth-graders would check out a sixth-grade teacher’s blog and complete her assignment on top of their own work, just because it sounded fun.

Not to mention that the site is public, so students aren’t just creating content for their teachers anymore. They’re not even creating content just for their classmates or schoolmates. They’re creating content for a global community. And that motivates them.

3. Student choice

At CETPA, Jim Klein shared that one of the most remarkable outcomes of giving each child a netbook was the effect it had on teacher assignments. Rather than, say, assigning students to write a report on the California Gold Rush, teachers would give students a rubric and tell them they had to create some sort of project that met the goals. Some kids would create podcasts, others would make movies while still others wrote blogs. Talk about differentiation!

Of course, you’d still want every student to learn to write a research paper, make a podcast, and create a movie. If you make every assignment’s medium a choice, what’s to stop little Jose from making a podcast for everything and never learning to write a blog?

If I were in a one-to-one classroom, though, I would want students to feel like they always had a choice (we all know that good classroom management is just old-fashioned psychological manipulation). So I’d probably create an assignment table, detailing that throughout the quarter there would be a total of 10 large assignments. Of those, at least two would have to be podcasts, two would have to be movies, and two would have to be research papers published on paper or in a blog. Aside from those requirements, though, students could choose any medium they’d like.

4. Send the computers home

True one-to-one programs give students the computers, to treat as their own personal property, for the entirety of the school year. That means bringing the computers home every night and back to school each morning. A lot of educators are wary about sending expensive hardware home with kids, but I heard an Apple one-to-one spokesman speak in 2006, and he said that less than 5% of their one-to-one Macbooks were broken. And of those, almost all were broken by teachers.

Unlike Macbooks, netbooks are fairly cheap to fix — replacing a screen can run just $80. Still, before rolling out a one-to-one program, schools have to create their own policies to handle the possibility of lost or broken netbooks — the answer might lie in parent contracts or rules that students who treat netbooks recklessly will be placed on a netbook suspension. The best deterrent of all is forcing a kid to sit in a one-to-one class as the one student without a computer. Just the threat of this is enough to keep most students treating their netbooks like gold. (And for the ones who don’t, often two weeks in a classroom without a computer will instill respect for the technology.)

Sending netbooks home might be a little more of a headache, but it really is necessary. Students need time to play with this technology in order to become proficient. Too often, with everything we have to squeeze in, school days simply aren’t set up for exploration time. Using netbooks for in-class assignments is great, but kids need the time to explore the software that most interests them in order to truly gain expertise. And think of how netbooks could revolutionize your homework assignments.

On top of that, especially in low-income areas, sending a computer home doesn’t just impact your one student. You’ve given a computer to their family. You’ve impacted their younger brothers and sisters, their parents, their grandparents. And your student is the one teaching everyone how to use it – imagine the motivation in that.

At least one school district – Richgrove in central California – found at-home Internet access so important to its mission that it used Title 1 funds to install community-wide public wifi.

The moral of this (net)book

Just giving a computer to a kid isn’t going to bump scores 40 percent. But you can stack the odds. If you allow kids to explore educational software, if you create Web content that encourages students to continue their learning after school, and if you train teachers to integrate technology as often and as seamlessly as they would integrate paper and pencil, quality learning is bound to happen.

For more information, all of the work that Saugus has done on the one-to-one front is documented on their project wiki, SWATTEC. You can also access Jim Klein’s blog directly, where his e-mail address and work phone number are listed. (He’s been extremely helpful as I work through the process of going one-to-one in some of our programs.)

Katy Scott

I spent 5 years teaching in low-income districts in Phoenix, where most of my students were English-language learners. There, I taught 3rd- and 4th-grade self-contained classes, as well as 7th-grade resource. I spent a year teaching 5th- and 6th-grade science in an inner-city KIPP school in New Orleans. I did double-duty as a technology integration specialist for the last four years of my teaching career. I am now the Digital Learning Manager at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, where I work to help PreK-12 teachers and students utilize technology to better understand science. I'm a maker, a snorkeler, and a certified Google Education Trainer.

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2 Responses

  1. Tanya says:

    This post is all about the affordable cheap laptops.Thank you for providing all the awesome tips.

  1. August 3, 2012

    […] it to behave like they wanted it to without lots of help from me. In the past, we’ve used sets of Ubuntu netbooks in our programs. I love these little powerhouses, and we will continue to use them. But in my […]

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