• Author:Tom Andrew
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Netbooks: A Post Mortem – A Story of Hopes, Dreams and Replacement

By: Tolbxela

The humble Netbook, what did it ever do to anyone? Okay It didn’t have the best performance, screen, keyboard, trackpad, wifi, connectivity or battery life…  However it was small and plucky and best of all for educational organisations, cheap and flexible. Netbooks were (and still are) available at low cost, I found on a recent trip to my local supermarket Netbooks being offered at knock down prices, on a low dusty shelf. At eye level is the iPad, the Android Tablet which draw much more attention. So why did the Netbook fall out of favour and why are Schools and Colleges looking to move away from them?

The Netbook’s origins are far away from their current position and date back to the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project. The OLPC’s project aimed to develop devices which could be used by children in parts of the world where access to such technology was impossible due to infrastructure, opportunity and poverty. This noble endeavour resulted in the production of the project’s first (of many) devices the XO-1 Laptop. The laptop was designed to work in challenging environments with a rugged shell and low power use (due to flash memory). The laptop even made use of a hand crank charger to help boost it’s battery. The operating system was bespoke and made use of open source architecture and applications. The laptop later became known as “The $100 Laptop” and started a revolution.

Src- http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:LaptopOLPC_a.jpg

At the time of launch (December 2005) Intel’s Chairman Craig Barret shared his opinion on the future of the $100 device and the form factor in general.

“I think a more realistic title should be ‘the $100 gadget’. The problem is that gadgets have not been successful…It turns out what people are looking for is something that has the full functionality of a PC. Reprogrammable to run all the applications of a grown up PC… not dependent on servers in the sky to deliver content and capability to them” (1).

The news of a low cost laptop solution spread and other commercial manufacturers were watching.  The OLPC project had no plans to produce the laptops as a commercial product but were being asked to. This left an opportunity for the likes of Acer, Asus, Dell and later even Intel to produce devices in this form factor but running Microsoft Windows. The devices did cost more but promised the familiar Window’s experience at a fraction of the cost of a full size laptop.

It seems many educational organisations across the world discovered the Netbook and saw them as the ILT solution they had been waiting for. Schools and Colleges have limited IT facilities with buildings being designed at the time computers were the preserve of science fiction. The growth in ILT has been unprecedented and initially Schools transformed regular classrooms into Computer Labs. However there comes a point when there is simply no more room left. This lack of space coupled with the need for ILT to be embedded in every curriculum meant the technology needed to be portable. A Netbook was a perfect fit, cost effective and portable, it even ran Windows too!

Seven years ago when Netbooks first appeared in my organisation they were brilliant. They allowed staff to bring technology into workshops and classrooms which have traditionally had very little access. They were well received and became one of the most used assets with over 200 in circulation in near constant use. However expectations change and the Netbooks remained the same. The Netbooks always represented a compromise but were seen first as “a decent alternative to a PC” then “Good for web browsing and research” and finally “Better than nothing at all”. It was even reported that students were opting to use their iPhones in preference. Some key criticisms were that;

The Keyboard –  Too small, which made typing difficult especially for adult hands.
Poor Performance – Slow and often unresponsive.
The Screen Size – Too small, which made webpages difficult to navigate.
Storage – Problematic, Students had to use memory sticks to save their work (which they would frequently lose or corrupt)

So what did we do? Well following extended trials and research we moved to Chromebooks. Chromebook’s represent excellent value (around the price of Netbooks) but run ChromeOS a slimmed down operating system. They have excellent battery life (12 hours), a full size keyboard, use Flash memory and do a lot of processing in the Cloud. Students sign into their Google Account (managed by the school) and then all their work is automatically saved and moved from device to device with them. I made sure Google Drive was integrated into our VLE (Moodle) so students can for example;

Start writing their essay in Google Docs on a chromebook in class. Log onto our VLE at home and continue writing on Docs in any web browser. Open up their essay on their smartphone to make a quick edit on the Bus. Then submit their essay digitally to their Teacher.

During this process the student has not needed any paid software of any kind. They have not downloaded anything, it was all done in the Cloud from start to finish.

Src – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:PVUSD_student_using_GoogleApps.jpg

That day in December 2005 was not one Craig Barret from Intel would want to remember. As predictions go, it wasn’t a good one.  It seems users are not always looking for is a full blown PC experience and are happy to use servers in “the sky”. Everything is about convenience, it should “just work” as a certain Apple CEO once said. Students expect educational technology to be cutting edge and why shouldn’t they? A Chromebook and Google apps are just that, and they are taking the Education world by storm. They are what the Netbook should have been. Will Chromebooks be the saviour of Educational Technology? That’s not a prediction I would want to make, but things are looking good.

(1. – Intel executive dismisses US$100 laptop as a cheap “gadget – http://arstechnica.com/uncategorized/2005/12/5735-2/)