Buying Netbooks for Students - Where to Begin?

How to decide which netbooks to buy. When it comes to netbooks it seems that every computer manufacturer is getting in on the action. All the big players such as Acer, Asus, Dell, HP and Intel are now making netbooks, which explains why netbooks are one of the top selling computers.  The specifications on these netbooks from these different companies and the differences between models can make it very confusing for the average teacher or school to pick the netbook that is right for their students. The following items are some things to consider to help you choose the best netbook for your school or classroom.

Netbooks vs Notebook

There are some people who argue that with the cost of some netbooks being around $350 that schools should just buy a full-size notebook computer for about $100 more. However, price isn’t the only criteria to consider when buying a netbook. Size of the netbook is a critical component of success in the classroom. Smaller sized elementary students seem to fit the netbooks a lot better than a full-sized laptop. An additional plus for the smaller sized netbooks is that the netbook fits on student desks with greater ease. With a netbook on a desk there is still plenty of room for a textbook, but if you have a full-size notebook computer, there is really only room for the computer and nothing else.

Windows vs Linux

Netbooks that we tested usually came in two flavors: Windows or Linux operating systems. We chose the Windows system for two major reasons: compatibility with existing software and the current Wi-Fi system. One aspect to consider is how many educational software titles exist within each operating system.

Keyboards

All netbooks have smaller keyboards than regular sized laptop computers however, this doesn’t mean that all netbook keyboards are the same. For example, the Asus models have very small keys with some of the keys in different locations and different sizes than a traditional keyboard. On one Asus model, the right shift key was about half the size compared to what it traditionally would be, plus the keys were so small that a regular-sized adult hand could not effectively type on this size of keyboard. These netbooks were designed for young students, who by the way, get used to the small keyboard quite quickly. Within a week or two, elementary students didn’t even notice the size of the keys and this smaller size did not affect their typing speed. If you are considering netbooks for an elementary school, small keyboard size might not be an issue.   However, if you are looking at netbooks for a middle school, this would definitely be an area of concern since there are several students in the eighth grade that are just as big as an adult and have adult-sized hands. In our opinion, the best keyboards for larger middle-school sized hands were the Dell, Intel, Acer, and HP models with a slight preference for HP. I even found myself easily adjusting to the slightly smaller keyboards of these models and students were not even phased when coming from a full-size keyboard to a netbook keyboard on these models.

Size

The size of netbooks vary a little from manufacturer to manufacturer and from model to model. Basically there are 7 inch netbooks, 9 inch netbooks, and 10 inch netbooks. The sizes refer to the diagonal measurement of the screen of the netbook. The best size netbooks for schools are the 10 inch models. Keep in mind, the actual total size of one 10 inch screen netbook may be different from another 10 inch screen netbook. For example, the 10 inch Acer Netbook is about an inch wider than the Asus. So even though both models might be 10 inches diagonally at the screen, the Acer netbook is bigger. A larger sized netbook means that you have a larger keyboard which in turn makes all the difference in the world when you compare these two models.

Screen Resolution

When choosing netbook software, one important aspect to remember is that almost every netbook has the screen resolution of 1024 by 600. There are some software programs that simply will not work on these smaller sized screens. Double check before buying any software.

Processors, Hard Drives and Memory

Processors are the speed at which your Netbook performs. I would not recommend that you buy a netbook that has a processor speed less than a 1.6 GHz. When we have tested models with processors speeds at less than 1.6 GHz’s, they were simply not worth the savings in money. However, netbooks that operated at 1.6 GHz seemed to be acceptable. We tested the 1.6 GHz Intel Atom processor and the netbook literally operated at the same speed as most laptops. Most adult testers didn’t notice a speed difference between their regular laptops and the test netbooks.

Since netbooks were supposed to be "network notebooks," many early manufacturers only put small solid state drives (SSD) in their netbooks instead of a real hard drive (HD). This was done to save money and because it was thought that netbooks would only be used to perform online tasks. While SSDs are fast and great for holding an operating system, they do not provide much room for anything else. In many instances, you may want to put more things on your netbook, including Google Earth and some photos for a project. Because of this need, I recommend selecting an HD that is at least 100 GB. By having this much space, students can temporarily store photos, music and videos on the netbook HD and transfer them to Adrive or a server when they are done.

Batteries

The question to answer when asking which batteries to buy is how will the netbooks be used on a daily basis within the classroom? There are two basic types of batteries; the three cell battery and the six cell battery. The three cell battery will give you about 2 and a half hours of operating time and the six cell battery will give you nearly 6 hours. Since most schools are open for six hours a day people tend to think that they need the six cell battery. However, students will rarely need to use their netbooks continually for six hours during the day. With just a little planning, most schools can operate using the three cell battery with no impact on instruction. To clarify this rationale, refer back to the typical netbook day to see how many times the netbooks were returned to their chargers during the day. By purchasing the three cell model instead of the six cell model, schools will save money on the overall price per netbook resulting in substantial saving. This means that school could purchase more netbooks with the savings.

Applications

Typically, most districts will not allow teachers or principals to buy netbooks personally and bring them directly into the classrooms to be used. Instead, netbooks will probably have to be taken to your IT department where they will make an "image" of the perfect netbook computer. This image is then copied to all the rest of the netbooks for your school. Teachers will want to think carefully about what they want included on that image. The image includes everything from installed software to the settings in Windows. Each school and district is a little different so teachers will have to spend some time considering this. Preplanning will be critical at this stage since if your school has already paid for a license to a particular math program, you will want that program installed on the original image. Remember, netbooks do not have a CD drive.

Installing Applications

Installing applications on a netbook can be rather tricky since it does not have a CD drive. The easiest solution is to just buy an external USB CD drive to use for installations. Another option is to just buy the digital downloadable version of an application instead of the CD version. This way you just download the install file to the netbook and continue with the install process. Some IT techs install directly from a district server and others install from USB flash drives that they have copied the application install file to. Installing applications is usually something that needs to be pre-approved through most IT departments so check before continuing with this activity.

Subscriptions

Having the right subscription with your netbooks increases their value exponentially. I know that is a bold statement but there is incredible curriculum subscriptions for netbooks that has changed our way of viewing netbooks as student's tools for learning. Here is an example of one subscription services that was critical to the success of our netbooks within classrooms.

Atomic Learning provides video step-by-step tutorials for just in time training. Imagine being a teacher who has now been thrown into the world of netbooks computers and is having to be a part-time tech teacher to all their netbook students. Many questions can arise such as “How do you make a graph in Excel?”, “How do you make a bullet point list in Word?” and “How do I save this document in a different format?”

With Atomic Learning, all we had to do is log in and then find the short video tutorial (usually under 3 minutes) to show exactly what to do. We could even display the video up on the LCD projector for our students to follow along. Atomic Learning has literally thousands upon thousands of video tutorials. The video tutorials can be “assigned” to students, so that they can learn at their own time and pace.

Atomic Learning also provides something called Lesson Accelerators which are pre-made lessons about using technology in the classroom. Teachers that were wanting to accelerated their students’ 21st Century Skills assigned these lessons to students to increase their capacity. Atomic Learning has also recently added an entire section dedicated to teaching and embedding 21st Century Skills in the classroom.

Online Applications

The concept of a netbook is that you use it online -- all the time. Which means that many applications that used to be installed on our computers now live online in the “cloud.” This is why Google Docs is used so much in a netbook classroom, but what about other applications? Let’s says, for example that you need to edit a photo. Just go to a free photo editing website like www.Picnik.com and upload your photo, edit it, and then download it back to your netbook, done. That is cloud computing, see my website link at the end of this book for more examples of this.

Optimizing a Netbook

There are a few tricks to optimize your netbook to meet the needs of students. Regarding the track pad on the netbooks, we disabled the tap feature that allows students to tap their track pad rather than clicking the button. We found that tapping the track pad was very confusing to elementary school students so we disabled it. We also slowed down the speed of the pointer and the double-click speed. We made changes to the Internet Explorer so that it had minimal menus as screen real estate is such a premium on a netbook you do not need to waste it on things like a Google bar or tabs. As a bonus, the new Internet Explorer does have a full screen option (F11) which allows students to see a lot more of a website by going to full screen mode. It also includes a zoom feature, so if students need to they can zoom out to see the entire web page. Mind you, on a netbook screen, the text will now appear very tiny. Another way to increase screen capacity on the small netbooks is to set the task-bar at the bottom to auto hide.

Near Paperless Teaching with Netbooks

By using Google Docs and emails, a teacher can almost teach without printing documents. Teaching students about having an environmentally responsible classroom is just one aspect of being a 21st Century student. As educators, it is very easy to print reams and reams of paper. Instead of printing projects to turn in, a netbook classroom teacher can check student work on a screen.

Let’s see how a nearly paperless assignment might continue. Let’s say that the student’s assignment was to gather information about the red-eyed tree frog. The teacher starts off by sending an email to all the students (a distribution list set up in his or her email program) which sends all the students to a Google Doc worksheet. This worksheet asks the students questions about the frog that they need to research on the Internet. This document also contains the list of tasks that the student is to complete such as obtaining three photos and a map showing where the frog’s habitat is and a short video about the frog which is found on SchoolTube.com. Since the teacher is set up on each student's worksheet as a collaborator, there is nothing to turn in and revisions can be done as many times as needed. When the student is done, they add the word "final" to their file name and the teacher will know that the grading can begin. To conclude the project, the teacher uses a Google Docs “form” to test for retention (i.e. a quiz without paper).