When presented with an IBM thinkpad 760XD running windows 98, Wordpad the only application available and set to autostart, the year 4 boy summed it up by saying “This is the world’s dumbest laptop”
To succeed as a writing tool in the early years of school, the laptop needs to be slightly boring, to invite response from the student. It needs to match the pencil and paper as closely as possible. This is where the Web2.0 begins; the student is encouraged to become a producer of written output, not just a consumer.
The laptop must be as task oriented as possible, with as few distractions as possible. This is not just for the student, but also for the teacher. It must allow the teacher to have control of the process, and be as robust and as easy to understand and use as a piece of paper and pencil. Ideally the laptops could be handed out in any classroom with any teacher, the teacher says “open your laptop; turn it on; begin writing” and the class continues as seamlessly as if using pencil and paper. In this way all teachers can adopt this technology without massive retraining, and can focus on teaching and their subject knowledge rather than trying to become technology experts. It must be “teacher friendly”. Teachers are able to use lights and air conditioning without retraining as electricians and refrigeration mechanics. The aim is to produce a laptop that can be incorporated as transparently into the classroom. If teachers wanted to know what the students were writing, they could walk around the classroom and look over the student’s shoulder, just as they do now.
Why a laptop?
Students need to own their writing tools, and to be able to take them home with them, so they can use them at home. Individual ownership is important, and is one of the foundations of the One-laptop-per-child project.
The low cost of mini-laptops means that parents of the children could be asked to fund the purchase, and so the children would literally own the laptop, and take it with them if they moved schools.
The same result could be obtained with desktops, but only if all classrooms were equipped with desktops. In the future this may be the case, and a USB flash drive is the only thing to be carried, but for now, the laptop is the most robust solution.
The software requirement for the worlds dumbest laptop is that it only has one application, a word editor such as MS Wordpad, Mousepad(linux), Abiword, Ted; or even just a file editing program. No spell check, thesaurus or fancy fonts. The application will autostart when the laptop is turned on. The operating system will be as invisible and as inaccessible to the user as possible. The less there is- the less there is to go wrong.
Hardware requirements revolve around how robust it is physically, how fast it starts and shuts down, and battery life. Processor speed and hard disk capacity become almost irrelevant. Processor power needed to run a word editor is minimal, and the tiny text files take up little disk space. Ideally the hard disk will be a flash drive, so that it can be moved around when working. The IBM 760 mentioned above failed when the hard disk crashed because it was bumped while working.
The world dumbest laptop requires little infrastructure. The battery needs to be charged, but this can be done overnight. Any student who forgets is back to pencil and paper. It does not rely on internet connections for functionality. Printer connection is not needed. This is a tool to practice writing. In old fashioned schools, children wrote with chalk on a slate, and then spat on a rag, and wiped it clean for the next lesson. If a paper copy is needed then it can be copied as a handwriting exercise, or transferred to a usb drive.
There are many low cost mini laptops available. The challenge is to find an easy way to dumb them down to the required specification.
The Asus eeePC has a user interface called Easymode, which can be converted to hide all the functions of the machine except the chosen word editor, by adding one file (simpleui.rc) to the user directory. The eeePC can also wipe the hard disk and reload the operating system in less than five minutes(check youtube), so a teacher can wipe clean any machine suspected of being non standard, or of containing unauthorised material.
The most robust laptop is probably the OLPC XO, with silicon keypads, waterproof housing, and a screen that can be read in sunlight. Once again the challenge is to dumb down the machine to requirements. The slower processor and tiny solid state hard drive are not impediments.
Comments are invited especially from teachers who are the people who know what will and won’t work in their classrooms. Mini laptop hackers are welcome to post their version of “the world’s dumbest laptop.”