Education has seen massive growth in interest in netbooks over the past 12 months and hundreds of UK schools have started using them to replace desktop PCs. Many see the potential for devices for all students and have started rolling out netbooks to year groups. Are netbooks evolving into standard student devices?
As those in charge of school purse strings head for BETT 2010, Mike Herrity, assistant headteacher of Twynham School, Christchurch, considers the pitfalls and challenges of netbook purchase faced by his own school and others across the UK.
What are netbooks?
Netbooks are small, lightweight and low-cost machines which emerged in the gap between handheld devices and laptops. The first netbook was launched late in 2007 by Asus, a pioneer with its Eee PC, a 7-inch machine weighing less than 1 kilo with a small, solid-state hard drive and open source operating system (Linux, which cut Microsoft licence fees). The Eee PC captured the public’s imagination, enjoying instant success and sales.
Throughout 2008, and possibly driven by the recession, the netbook market grew rapidly with consumers predominately purchasing netbooks as a second machine for greater mobility and low-power tasks such as web browsing and communication. Thousands were sold into schools.
Last year came a massive explosion in the variety of netbooks on the market. Every major supplier produced a range. At the same time the market evolved to a point where new machines bore little resemblance to the original Asus Eee PC. One of the biggest changes was screen size. By the start of 2009 the standard screen size was 9 inches, with a number of 10-inch models emerging.
Although this seemed to go against the initial mobile appeal of the original 7-inch netbooks, the increase was inevitable. Showing 8 and 9-inch machines to students in late 2008, I found while they instantly loved their compactness, when they used them for a whole day it became clear that screen size was an issue for reading.
Given that most secondary age students have better eyesight than adults, the trend of increasing screen size was inevitable. Indeed some manufacturers are now producing netbooks with 11 to 12-inch screens although this move has been somewhat stifled by chip-maker Intel who fear the loss of the more lucrative laptop market. And Microsoft's Windows appears to have squashed the emergence of open source.
As well as an increase in screen size, netbooks have become more powerful. The first ones were good only for basic web browsing and simple software applications. As the internet continues to rapidly evolve we are now able to edit video online and watch high-definition video through YouTube and other sites, and Intel has continued to evolve its Atom chip which powers almost all netbooks.
The latest release (Intel Atom N450) promises both greater power while supporting 5-6 hours of battery life (in some cases more). Despite this, netbooks have struggled to live up to consumer expectations and can rarely manage more than two or three tasks at once. The major limitation is graphics and processing capability but 2010 will see further innovation which may overcome this.
How are they likely to evolve in 2010?
At the end of 2009 a handful of new netbooks were aimed at those who wanted the convenience of a light and highly mobile device with long battery life but at the same time were demanding greater functionality and power. These added a separate graphics chip from Nvidia and are called Ion netbooks. This makes a huge difference to their capability. They can now play high-definition videos and complete more complex and powerful tasks such as desktop video editing. This is crucial for our next step in the roll-out of netbooks at Twynham School.
In September 2010 we are looking at providing them for all Year 7 students, with parents contributing towards the cost. Our initial feedback from parents suggests they are very positive about their children starting school with their own machine. The one stumbling block is that it should be able to do all the other things beyond learning that teenagers want to do – and we know this include watching high-definition videos on YouTube as well as gaming.
So is there such a thing as a netbook any more?
The current changes towards more powerful, ‘can do anything’ devices has led some commentators to suggest there is no such thing as a netbook anymore (see BBC story "Netbooks are dead"). The argument is that current models have become so far removed from the initial low-power concept that they are now simply another form of standard notebooks.
Add to this the emergence this year at the CES event in Las Vegas of even lighter devices, known as smartbooks, which use non-Intel chips (including ARM from the UK), and you realise there is a danger of being sidetracked by fast-moving trends and excitable tech talk. And later this month, we are told, Apple will launch its new tablet which will compete with the new range of PC tablets that also emerged at Las Vegas. You should be able to get to see some of these devices at BETT 2010.
However, netbooks evolved for one reason – simple consumer demand. While companies including Microsoft and Intel fear loss of revenue through netbooks, consumers simply want their perfect device. One that can do everything they want, that is light, highly mobile and with a battery that can last all day. So while some pundits reckon they will disappear in 2010, I think we are now arriving at possibly the perfect netbook for education. We just have to keep our eye on the ball – learning.
A perfect netbook for education?
Education is considered a unique environment for ICT. How many business environments have up to 800 machines simultaneously logging on and off on one site six times a day as we do at Twynham School? During these six sessions in the day more than 1,600 students will move over miles of crowded corridors. If batteries run out it will be almost impossible for more than one or two students out of 28 in a class to recharge. With these demands in place, a perfect netbook for education should have the following specifications:
- A 12-inch screen to ensure comfortable reading throughout the day;
- A robust build to cope with the physical demands of teenagers;
- A 120 Gb solid state drive instead of a hard drive to prevent any data loss when netbooks get dropped, as they inevitably will:
- 2 Gb of memory (Ram);
- Full-size keyboard;
- Eight hours of battery life (to last a full school day).
While current netbooks are not quite there, the promise of 2010 is that they will certainly evolve to this standard.
The pitfalls of netbooks in education include robustness – and your wifi
Although I am a big fan of netbooks, it would be irresponsible not to point out the aspects which make these devices a bigger risk than desktops. The most obvious one is robustness. Many bloggers, including The Angry Technician (http://angrytechnician.wordpress.com/), have commented on various weak spots including keys and hinges which have started to fail after three months. The key here is purchasing a high-quality, robust device. From my own experiences, Samsung and Dell are perhaps the best.
The other major consideration is the strength of the wifi service within the school. The quality of your wifi will dictate login speed, web browsing speed and access to your learning platform and users' "home drives". While this may be considered another cost, I would encourage any school to make sure they have made a significant investment in wifi before purchasing any netbooks. As a guide, a typical secondary school is likely to make a £20,000 investment in a high-quality wireless system (N standard) which can cope with more than 1,000 devices.
The best netbooks on the market?
The question I get asked more than any other is which netbook you use at Twynham and which would you recommend. At Twynham School we have purchased one of the latest from Samsung, the N510. This has an 11.6-inch screen and is an ION netbook so can handle high-definition video.
My other recommendations would include the three other ION netbooks currently on the market: Asus EEE PC 120N, Lenovo IdeaPad S12 and the HP Mini 311. Laptop Magazine and Engadget have both recently reviewed these four ION machines and both rated the Asus EEE PC 120N highest (see Gerald Haigh's account of the Asus Eee PC 1005HA).
It also makes sense to look out for companies who have launched new devices – like smartbooks and 'slates' – at the world’s biggest technology fair (CES in Las Vegas) and which could also be the talk of the world's biggest educational technology fair, BETT 2010. But in your need to keep abreast of the technology, never lose sight of your own criteria, based on what you want to do with them – learning and teaching.
Mike Herrity is assistant headteacher of Twynham School, a large 11-18 school with more than 1,600 pupils, in Christchurch, Dorset. It is an international leader in the use of Microsoft's SharePoint as a virtual learning environment, and Mike Herrity runs a blog detailing new developments, as well as a Twitter feed (http://twitter.com/mikeherrity). Twynham School recently won the BECTA ICT Excellence Award for Learning Beyond the Classroom and works with more than 400 schools internationally.
See also Gerald Haigh's article on sizing up a netbook for touchtyping
January 13-16, Olympia, London
Information on netbooks will be available from many sources at BETT. The stands listed below will be able to help.
Netbooks @ BETT
More information from:
Microsoft – Stand D40
Intel – Stand E40
Samsung – Stands M45, K28
DELL – Stand B20
Toshiba – Stand L30
RM – Stand C60
Viglen – Stand B70
Vye Computers - Stand F80
Hewlett Packard – E70
Becta – Stand J40
Open Source Schools/Cafe – Stand L20