Monday, June 16, 2008

ASUS EeePC pilot project update

After writing about our ASUS EeePC pilot project, I've been contacted by a few other schools who are considering using ASUS EeePCs or similar devices to provide more computer access to students. This post is primarily for them, but also a way to record my findings so far. I have observed several classes using the EeePCs in various ways, all successfully. This post will share the successes and some of the challenges.

We don't plan to allow students to access home directories or shared drives. This is part of a long-term shift toward not even having home directories for students. This is because I think we are at the point where "the network" no longer means school LAN or WAN, but the entire Internet. Also, the original reasons for us providing storage for students are becoming irrelevant. Brief tangent to explain: In our case, and I assume most others, we provided server space because we wanted students to be able to access their data from anywhere in the district, and not all students could afford portable storage, or portable storage was unreliable. We are now faced with a different need- provide access to their data from not just in the district, but at home and everywhere else. Students already just email themselves all their documents, because we don't have a sharepoint server or similar. As for storage, a 1GB flash drive now costs around $7, and they are pretty reliable.
So instead of the district spending lots of money and time making server-based resources available at home, we are starting to require students to purchase a flash drive as part of their back-to-school expenses.

Anyway, we are planning to do away with home directories, so we don't plan on making them available. We are not planning to install Windows at this time, for the following reasons:

  1. we don't see a pressing need
  2. we are adjusting people's expectations that these units are niche devices, not do-everything computers
  3. no Windows license fees
  4. slower performance using XP than the Linux OS, from what I've read (haven't verified myself)
  5. perception of greater security risks associated with Windows
The one big thing that we need, which could convince us to install Windows or an alternative Linux distro, is a way to centrally manage the EeePCs via the network. As long as we are deploying them out of the box, it isn't a big deal, but just yesterday I had somebody say they were writing a grant to buy 200 of them for our high school, and that made my head spin. I realized that with so many, we would need some kind of management system, so we are starting to research that.
So far, the teachers who have used them have loved them. I have observed several classes and asked students how they like them. In a high school class that worked with them in small groups, all the students but one could touch type on the small keyboards. The one who didn't was a big guy. He knew how to touch type, but the keyboard was too small, so he used the two finger method, but was still surprisingly quick.
The other challenge we need to figure out is repair. We have had one unit get a cracked screen when something was in it when closed. The screen is still usable, except for one inch on the left side. As far as I know, there is no warranty available for accidental damage. I'm thinking of buying 10% overage for replacements and using broken ones for salvaged parts. Experience at a previous job where we did a 1-to-1 laptop program for students has taught me that the breakage rate is much higher than one would expect, even when students and parents know they are financially liable for repairs. (We had planned a 5% extra pool as spares while broken ones were sent in for repair, and that was not enough.)

A number of teachers have run with the idea of using EeePCs to increase the availability of technology in their classrooms. Some have allocated building funds to purchase them for their classrooms. From the experiences of other teachers, they have decided that it is valuable for them. Although that is not a formal study of the implementation, it is a good indicator that they are working in the classrooms. I have seen enough initiatives fail to grow based on the experiences of a few teachers to be convinced that grassroots adoption of a technology is a strong signal of success.

Perhaps in the future I will write up a case study or perform some additional action research. For now, I will say that the pilot project was a success, that teachers find it successful in their classrooms, and that it is gaining momentum.

4 comments:

  1. Hi there--

    I'm writing from Littleton, CO, representing Littleton Public Schools. Last January, we jumped into the eeePc game with a cart of 35 which were piloted at one of our high schools. Results were stellar--far fewer issues than our Windows laptops. Faster bootup time means more time on task. Like yourself, we did not join them to the domain, instead encouraging email storage (hard to compete with 5 free GB from Google), flashdrives, and Google Docs.

    Any software issues we had we dealt with the self-imaging feature, which was used once or twice. By the way, we put stickers on the laptops giving students instructions on how do do this.

    Yet, like yourself, we need a solution to manage the devices better--just updating flash code is a pain. Keep us in the loop, we'll do the same.

    Mike Porter
    mporter at lps.k12.co.us

    ps--the school that received the pilot cart has since purchased three more carts of 30+ machines.

    Our pilot card is heading to the 5th grade!

    pps f11 is helpful while web browsing on the small screen

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  2. We've also been experimenting with the eeePC for the last several months. We purchased eight of them and passed them around to a number of teachers, students, and administrators to see where they fit in. You made a couple really important points, including the fact that these aren't a replacement for a general-purpose computer. Still, most of our student computing needs center around Internet access (both for research and instructional applications) and word processing. The eeePC does both of these pretty well, at a cost that allows you to get 2- or 3- times as many machines into kids' hands.

    One point about accidental damage coverage: it is available, usually through the resellers. In our case, the cost was prohibitively expensive (something like half the cost of the device or more). I agree with the approach of buying a few spares.

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  3. The ISTE standards are not met by what you can do on the EEEPC. They are also a horrible machine when it comes to meeting federal laws for special needs students. You would be wiser and further ahead to invest in technology of the future like ipod touch for each child and then have a lab of Macbooks to share among 3 classrooms. Your costs would be similar and success would be higher.

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  4. In response to Brad, we did actually consider purchasing iPod Touches [?] to meet the same niche of a web-research and word processing machine. There were a few things that made me choose to pilot the EeePCs instead.
    1. Lack of keyboarding apps on iPod touch. Though the new iPhone 2.0 software has alleviated this, it was not an option at the time. iPhone-optimized Google Docs, for example, were read-only (and I think still are).
    2. Keyboard. The iPod Touch is a great little machine, but the lack of a true keyboard keeps it from being usable by most special needs students. I think this goes counter to your argument, so I would be interested in hearing your experiences that lead you to conclude that a tiny screen-based keyboard is somehow better for special needs students than a larger (though still small) physical keyboard.
    3. Peripherals. The EeePC has three, USB 2.0 ports and an external VGA connector. Connecting to a large monitor and regular external keyboard is easy, and costs only the amount of those devices. The iPod Touch requires a $30 cable to connect to an external monitor, and does not display the external monitor except in media mode. (i.e., It does not show Safari or web apps on the external monitor.) As far as I know, there is no external keyboard available for the iPod touch at all. This could change once it gets Bluetooth. Let me know if there is such a thing already.
    4. Groupwork. The EeePCs are more usable by a group of students than an iPod Touch. Decent speakers (the iPod Touch has only the chirp speaker) allow students to view multimedia content as a group. The larger screen allows more viewers.
    This brings up a philosophical difference. I am not a proponent of 1-to-1 computing. I led the charge for it at a previous school, and was surprised by the pitfalls. There is some research by Tom Snyder (which I can't find right now, and should probably have its own post dedicated to it) that most brain activity among students using computers occurs when the students talk to each other about what they are doing. This is encouraged in groupwork and discourages in a 1-to-1 environment. Other research shows that 1-to-1 laptop programs have under-reported problems, under pressure from sponsoring vendors and administration who didn't want to admit poor results of a costly tax-funded initiative.
    But I digress.
    As far as ISTE standards, I think the EeePCs do allow us to meet some of them. Keep in mind that we are using them as niche products, not entire replacements for desktops or full-featured notebooks. I would be interested to know what ISTE NETS•S you have found difficult to meet using an EeePC.
    Thanks for the comments. Let's keep the dialogue going!

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Keep it clean and on-topic, folks. Or if not on topic, make it visionary and inspiring. Or at least entertaining. Funny gets you bonus points.