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Which Low-Cost Laptop is Best for ICT4Eeducation Programs?

By Wayan Vota on August 1, 2011

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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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks and is the Digital Health Director at IntraHealth International. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of IntraHealth International or other ICTWorks sponsors.
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One Comment to “Which Low-Cost Laptop is Best for ICT4Eeducation Programs?”

  1. The most important factor in the success of any project is knowing what questions to ask. The easiest way to guarantee failure is to refuse to ask, and to refuse to allow others to ask. But we cannot know all of the important questions. That means that we must ask others, and actually listen to the answers. The six criteria discussed above are indeed necessary questions, but not a sufficient set.

    The parable of the blind men and the elephant illustrates the difficulty of this task, and it is well to remember that we are all in that state. That is, we might have some experience that gives us some good questions and some useful facts, but we are all blind to the other possibilities all the time. I know I am. I can tell because people keep telling me about more of them.

    The experts cited by Wayan have asked some good questions, but missed others. Here are a few, with partial answers. We need more of the answers, too.

    * Total cost of ownership has to include cost of electricity, or of electricity-generating equipment such as solar panels or windmills. Electricity over the lifetime of common electronic devices usually costs more than the device. This leads to the question, how much power does a laptop consume? OLPC XOs consume between 0.7 Watt at idle (no backlight, static page on display) to 8 W (light on, playing sound, rapidly varying display, 100% processor use). I don’t have data for the other current candidates, but I know that the XO-1 was by a wide margin the lowest-power laptop available when it came out. The XO-1.75 is running on about half that power.

    * Is the software being offered written specifically for children, and even more specifically for educating children? This is true for the Sugar software on XOs, and for some software in the Edubuntu Linux distribution. What about Windows and Macintosh?

    * Is the software based on the traditional models of individual achievement and the Right Answer, or on collaboration and discovery? Guess which is the starting point for Sugar. We intend to allow up to a billion children at a time (all of them) to network together for education, friendship, and forming partnerships for later ventures in business, civil society, the arts, or whatever else they find worth doing. Countries are rather nervous about giving children unrestricted access even to each other, but we’ll get there.

    * How much does the educational software cost? Do we have to keep buying new software every year? Free Software is actually Free, not only in cost, but in Freedom to modify it and distribute the changed version. For example,

    * Are we allowed to translate the software to the languages of the students, and adapt it to their circumstances? For commercial software and Freeware (zero cost but rights reserved) the answer is, No. For Free/Open Source software, the answer is, Yes. See http://translate.sugarlabs.org/ for the dozens of languages that volunteers are translating Sugar to, and the Web sites of the Linux distributions for everything else being translated. There is not a lot of software, and there is often quite limited content, for particular countries and populations, but see the next question.

    * Is the software integrated with the curriculum? So far, the answer is, No, no matter what computer you use, with rare exceptions such as the Epaati software from OLPC Nepal and Open Learning Exchange (OLE) Nepal. But Sugar Labs and Squeakland are among the organizations working on it.

    * Do we have Free e-learning resources ? There are many thousands of them, many licensed so that they can be translated, adapted, improved, and reshared. To the shame of the rest of the world, in my opinion, Bangladesh has taken the lead in digitizing its textbooks and making them freely available over the Internet. South Africa and the US state of California have gone partway, starting with high school textbook replacements. South Korea and Uruguay have announced plans that are intended to lead to complete suites of e-learning materials in the next few years.

    * How do we educate children in war zones, or otherwise subjected to unacceptable risks to life, health, and so on? UNRWA is putting OLPC XOs into Palestinian refugee camp schools, starting in Gaza, with a plan to reach them all.

    * Are there other questions that I don’t know about? Certainly. Can I tell you what they are? What, without knowing? Have you heard of Known Unknowns and Unknown Unknowns? Can you tell me?

    [Mokurai is Program Manager for Replacing Textbooks at Sugar Labs.]