As computing and networking technologies increasingly pervade the infrastructure of the adult world, they are spilling over into the world of education. The idea of computers in the public school system often conjures up an image of children working on Apple desktop machines in a classroom or a computer lab. But with recent technological advancements in personal computers and network communications, and the proliferation of handheld devices, educators can take advantage of many new systems and discover new strategies for effectively using computing and networking in the classroom.
Desktop models are still the predominant computer type in schools. Since Wintel machines dominate the consumer market, students are more likely to use Windows-based PCs at home, providing an incentive for schools to use the same platform. Yet, despite inroads by Wintel systems, Apple still leads the education market. A recent study by the market research firm International Data Corp. (Framingham, Mass.) indicates that Apple's market share in classroom computing was the highest during the first quarter of this year, at 26 percent in the U.S. and 14 percent worldwide, even though its share of the total worldwide PC market is far less significant. Key components of Apple's success have been ease of use, educational software and its own marketing efforts.
But desktop and even portable PCs have their limitations: They require knowledgeable teachers, ongoing maintenance and periodic upgrades. More importantly, educators must consider whether general-purpose, one-size-fits-all machines are the best choice for all students.
One of the first steps in applying new technologies to the education marketplace is to segment the student market. For example, an eight-year-old studying arithmetic has different needs than a high-school senior working on advanced-placement calculus problems. The student population, like any target market, can be segmented by age, grade level, curriculum and learning ability.
Other factors that determine the selection of computing and networking systems may include available budgets, availability of administrative staff dedicated to maintenance and upgrades, level of teacher training in computer usage, classroom site potential for networking and connectivity installation and upgrades, and the particular needs of individual facilities.
A host of alternative platforms and system configurations are now available as well as connectivity options that educators might not have considered previously when thinking in terms of desktop PCs. Some of those platforms derive from existing commercial applications and are easily adaptable to educational needs. But educators must decide whether new systems being evaluated for classroom usage should be equipped with storage, printing capabilities and wired or wireless connectivity, as well as whether they come in ruggedized childproof packages. In fact, computers and computer-based systems must be chosen like textbooks: the right one for the student and for the coursework. Increasingly, they must also be chosen for their networking and internetworking capabilities.
There is still a place for full-blown desktop computers in primary and secondary education. In many schools, younger children use iMac, Macintosh or even Apple II desktops in the classroom. Desktop machines are relatively less expensive and easier to maintain than many full-featured mobile or networked devices, although many schools cannot afford to upgrade older machines. The prevalence of desktops is also due to historical reasons, such as Apple's early focus on educational software development, which was fortified with third-party educational software for the Apple platform.
A future replacement for complete desktop PCs may be thin clients running either Windows or Windows CE operating systems. It has been demonstrated in enterprise environments (such as banks or insurance companies) that running a Windows-based terminal environment is far more cost-effective than networked personal computers. In addition, Windows-based terminals can also provide a higher level of security than simple desktop PCs because school administrators can centrally manage them, since applications reside on the server.
Increasingly, some high school and college students are willing to spend more for notebook computers. Still, full-blown notebook and laptop computers have some of the same maintenance and upgrade problems that make desktop PCs problematic. And, at least in Asia, portable systems that look like notebooks but often have fewer functions are being aimed at younger students.
But the systems targeted at younger audiences are usually simpler machines, often without a full operating system, or missing a printer port. For example, Hong Kong-based Hanzawa Ltd.'s Super Notebook features personal data storage, a digital organizer and a meeting alarm to keep kids on time. Several of these notebook, subnotebook or even PDA-sized devices have word processors and talking dictionaries and could be used as electronic workbooks for grammar and math drills. Others, featuring talking language translators, data banks and talking calculators, are marketed to business people as well as students. Many cost less than $50.
Small Palm-type or PocketPC-type handheld devices are becoming ubiquitous and are often used by mobile professionals and in a variety of vertical commercial applications such as inventory management and data entry and tracking. These can be adapted to the more specific requirements of education and used as spellers, book readers, enhanced calculators, daytimers and talking dictionaries simply by changing software.
Finally, there are dedicated electronic book devices, such as the Rocket eBook or Softbook, which, with only 16 Mbytes of storage, can hold hundreds of titles. New texts can be loaded onto them by downloading manuscripts from a modem, a PC or a school's central server. In the future, Microsoft's ClearType technology will improve the legibility of on-screen characters. On the downside, they tend to be expensive because they are new. In addition, they have LCD displays, which tend to be more expensive than traditional ones.
There are a few technologies from commercial and home use that could be candidates for schools, but only after any standards issues are resolved and implementation costs plunge with the availability of proven, inexpensive products. Those technologies can be divided into the 10-Mbit/second-plus speeds of the IEEE 802.11b high-rate wireless specification and the Home Phoneline Networking Alliance (HomePNA) 2.0 standard, vs. the original 1- to 2-Mbit/s 802.11 spec, along with wireless HomeRF and Bluetooth technologies. The Bluetooth specification has the potential to cost the least, since it was created as a low-power replacement technology for cables, not as a wireless LAN.
Once schools have decided on the particular mix of technologies and configurations they require, a big step will have been taken in making those electronic systems more ubiquitous and the networked infrastructure will have been extended even further.
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TOM WONG IS GENERAL MANAGER AT BSQUARE SILICON VALLEY CORP. (SUNNYVALE, CALIF.).