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Laptops make for a real class act

Buckman students test ‘netbooks’ that many districts may adopt
by: L.E. BASKOW, Students in Michael Scott’s Buckman Elementary School third-grade class are one of two groups testing small laptop computers called the 2go PC.

First thing in the morning, the third-graders in Michael Scott’s class at Buckman Elementary slide into their desks and open up their own laptop computers. They begin their morning grammar lessons online, filling in sentences and working on spelling. Later in the day they’ll use the laptops to research bridges around the world, create spreadsheets and charts with the information, and compare them with bridges in Portland. Many children in Portland Public Schools have access to laptops nowadays, but they’re kept in their school computer labs or along the perimeter of the classroom, where they’re shared by many students. Scott’s classroom, and another third-grade class at Buckman, are part of a national pilot program that provides each student with his or her own laptop — one that’s built specifically for little hands. “They’re about the size of a piece of paper,” said Scott, a 21-year teaching veteran who also trains other teachers nationwide in using technology in their classrooms. “They leave them on their desks all day.” After 18 months in development with Intel Corp., Computer Technology Link, a Northwest Portland-based personal computer manufacturer, released its so-called 2go PC to the public this week in the highly competitive market of “netbooks”: fully functional laptops that are small, lightweight and affordable. “It’s a hot category,” said Erik Stromquist, CTL’s executive vice president. “The demand will outstrip supply.” This particular model is nearly kidproof, made durable with rugged plastic, a vinyl protection sleeve, carrying handle, spillproof keyboard and shock-resistant hard drive. “It’s designed to be banged around a little bit; they say you can even drop it, but I wouldn’t recommend it,” said John Tucker, CTL’s product manager for the netbook division. At 8.7 by 7.3 by 1.5 inches and with a 9-inch screen, the 2go is about the size of a trade paperback and weighs less than 3 pounds. It has a three-and-a-half-hour battery and 512 megabytes of memory, and comes with all the standard utilities: two USB ports, a memory card reader, headphone jack and microphone input jack, as well as wireless access or broadband capability. It will sell to the public starting at around $400. The machine is compatible with Windows XP or Linux systems as well as educational software that enables teachers to go into “demo” mode and project the same image onto everyone’s screen during a lesson or collaborative project. “There’s nothing in the market that does what it does for educational computing for this price,” said Tucker, noting that the company expects to announce a debut of a business-class netbook in the next two weeks or so. “It’s designed primarily for education, but we think it’ll have mass-market appeal, too.” CTL, which has been in Oregon for 19 years and plans to move to another area in Northwest Portland next month to triple its size, doesn’t advertise but relies on trade shows and word-of-mouth. That’s why the general public probably is more familiar with Apple’s MacBook Air, for example, marketed as the “world’s thinnest notebook.” It sells for $1,800. Tucker said that while there’s some buzz on technology blogs and within school communities, the general public doesn’t know much about the 2go yet because it just debuted publicly this week for presale at Amazon .com. School districts in Portland, Texas and California have been testing its predecessor, the “Classmate,” in the meantime, and other districts will be lining up to purchase the new version. Among them are the Crook County School District in Central Oregon, which is on track to outfit its 750 middle school students with minilaptops districtwide, one grade level per year. “Now, all of our middle schools have more traditional laptops,” said Crook County Superintendent Steve Swisher. “But for sustainability, we’re very much looking at these (smaller) machines.” Swisher said the netbooks’ portability makes it easier for students to carry them from classroom to classroom, the machine has all the computing power they need, and the cost is dramatically lower: under $400 per machine, compared with around $1,000 for traditional models. “That’s where technology’s going,” he said. “Cheaper, faster and better.” Web access can be an issue Rachel Wente-Chaney, who helps schools in the Crook County area coordinate their literacy and technology efforts, said one of the biggest challenges in equipping each child with a laptop has been the limited Internet access in some rural outlying areas. In the county’s school buildings, the computers run on Wi-Fi. However, about half the families in the area don’t have an Internet connection at home, she noted, so allowing seventh-graders to bring the computers home isn’t as much of a boon to families as it could be. As far as Portland Public Schools goes, the lure of purchasing cheaper, smaller laptops for students is a big one but not yet a reality, said Portland Public Schools’ Chief Financial Officer Cathy Mincberg. “One of our goals is to deal with the obsolescence issue,” she said. “We have a lot of PCs out there that are old. Right now I don’t see that we have the funds to equip 44,000 students at a modest price, but we’d certainly look, if we have some money coming up in the relatively short future.” The board still hasn’t decided whether it will float a districtwide bond measure in November to pay for facility and technology upgrades. In the meantime, Mincberg and others say they’re constantly watching to see what new technological innovations are on the horizon. No child left unwired Leslie Golden, operations manager at the Willamette Education Service District, has helped school districts around the state partner with Intel to test laptop computers and get them in the hands of each child. “I have no question that in five to 10 years, by virtue of cheap laptops, that’s where we’ll be,” she said. Even more important, she said, is that districts make sure their teachers are receiving the proper training to be able to use the laptops to improve their instruction. Pamela Kreutz, who has two third-graders at Buckman, said her children have enjoyed the laptops immensely even though they have a computer at home. “It becomes a daily tool,” she said. “They’re able to pull them out, start them up at a pace that works for them. … It allows them to be a little more independent.” Kreutz said the laptop has especially helped to level the playing field for her daughter, a special-needs child, because keyboarding is easier than handwriting for her. “It really helps bring confidence,” she said. “It brings a commonality of language.” Her son, she said, also is a big fan. “He really doesn’t like to hand-write, but likes to type,” Kreutz said. “I hear, ‘I like to write stories because I can use my computer.’ … He didn’t say that last school year.” This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.