The World’s Dumbest Laptop

February 23, 2009

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.”

Benefits of a Kindy laptop class

February 18, 2009

This series of articles is about using technology to empower class teachers to teach children who would otherwise not succeed in the school environment.

This post by Jeff explores the frustration of introducing technology to the classroom,and is still receiving comments 17 months later. To justify its presence in the classroom, the technology must solve a problem that exists in today’s classrooms, with today’s curriculum and teaching methods. There needs to be a clear definition of the problem, and a logical application of technology to solve it.

A laptop computer can be used to teach writing skills to children whose handwriting skill is not sufficient for their learning needs, and can improve their handwriting.

Dean Shareski says:Using technology means doing things differently and eliminating practices that don’t help kids. I’m trying to show people why it’s essential and what it replaces.

Dennis Harter is on the right track when he says

But there is a part of technology that we have only begun to tap into that is transformational.  There are things technology can do for us now, that simply were not possible before.

In this case, technology allows an approach to teaching writing that is not possible with a pencil and paper.

A keyboard and screen allows the middle order writing skills to be taught in isolation to handwriting.

Middle order writing skills include such things as sentence construction, grammar, punctuation and spelling. Sentence construction can be broken down into discreet steps, and leverages from a child’s verbal language skills. When they start school, children already use extensive language skills. They do not know the technical terms for the parts of a sentence, but they certainly know how to use them. The “Davidson Method” of sentence construction uses the advantages of a keyboard and screen (any computer with a text editor) and scaffolds a child’s existing verbal skills into the written form.

Davidson Method of  Sentence Construction 


1.         Choose an action word, a verb, an -ing word (every sentence must contain a verb!)

e.g.                               chasing


2          Ask who or what thing is doing the action. (noun,object)

                                                dog chasing


3.         Ask who or what thing is the action being done to. (noun, subject)

                                                dog chasing cat


4.         Describe the things (adjective, phrase).

                                    black hairy ferocious dog from next door chasing mangy yellow cat


5.         Ask when or where or how the action is happening (adverb, phrase).

                                    yesterday afternoon black hairy ferocious dog from next door quickly chasing mangy yellow cat across the park


6.         Check that the tense of the verb matches sentence. Does it sound right?

            Modify verb (auxiliary verb, compound verb)

            yesterday afternoon black hairy ferocious dog from next door was quickly chasing mangy yellow cat across the park


7.         Add words to make it sound right.

            yesterday afternoon the black hairy ferocious dog from next door was quickly chasing a mangy yellow cat across the park


8.         Add commas and full stops. (Punctuation)

            yesterday afternoon, the black, hairy, ferocious dog from next door was quickly chasing a mangy, yellow cat across the park.


9.         Add a capital letter to the first word.

            Yesterday afternoon, the black, hairy, ferocious dog from next door was quickly chasing a mangy, yellow cat across the park.



This method allows a sentence to be built logically rather than sequentially, the screen holds the parts in place rather than trying to juggle all the pieces in memory while attempting to write neatly.

It is a step by step recipe.

It is easier to choose a letter from a keyboard than try to remember the shape of a letter.

Correction is neat and does not require the whole page to be rewritten.

Spelling can be checked as a separate step.

The sentence can be copied by hand to paper when complete to practice handwriting, and it is relevant to the child because it is their sentence with their ideas. There is no need to print the sentence.

There is no dumbing down of the ideas in the sentence to match writing or spelling skill.

Proofreading and editing are being taught as an integral part of writing.


It should be emphasised that this does not replace handwriting. Handwriting must still be taught in the normal way. It does make handwriting more effective by allowing some ideas to be taught and practiced in isolation, thereby increasing focus and effectiveness.


It should also be emphasised that a competent and dedicated teacher is still required  to lead the child, to encourage, to nurture. The keyboard and screen is just a different writing tool, with features that a good teacher can use when required.


Computers can be used to increase learning outcomes in KLAs -here-now-today in ordinary classrooms, and bring relief to children who are struggling or giving up because they cannot write fast enough or neatly enough to produce the written output required to cater for their learning needs. Avoid the temptation to reinvent the school system and philosophy of education in order to justify spending money on ICT. Instead look at the problems that are in our classrooms and see if technology can help competent and dedicated teachers find a way forward.


In the comments section please practice a sentence using the step by step method outlined above. It is a great way to explore the structure of language, and to improve your own writing skills. The next article is  “The dumbest laptop ever” and outlines the necessary characteristics for a laptop to succeed in a kindergarten class.

Kindergarten Laptop Class

February 15, 2009

Perhaps the most powerful yet most overlooked advantage of a computer in developing writing skills is as a glorified typewriter. It waits as a blank page which can be written upon, corrected neatly, proofread, edited, added to and rearranged with a minimum of effort, and without rewriting. It allows an approach to teaching writing that is impossible with a pencil and paper, and may have its greatest impact in the earlier years of school.

It is important not to be distracted by technology, and get carried away with multimedia, interconnectivity and internet access. The keyboard and screen can be used to empower children to master the written word, and produce written output at a level necessary to cater for their learning needs. It can be used to teach sentence construction, grammar, punctuation and spelling, the mundane but essential building blocks of written literacy, without being dependent on good handwriting skills which may be slower to develop.

Production of written output is essential to the learning process in school. A child who cannot write cannot learn effectively, so one of the first tasks of school is to teach the child to write. Writing is a complicated process requiring the simultaneous execution of several difficult activities. There is the content, there is the sentence construction, there is remembering to go across the page from left to right, and remembering what shape the letter “e” is. There is the physical movement of pencil on paper.

The coordination and complexity involved in handwriting has been compared to that involved in driving a car.Up until now, all these skills had to be taught simultaneously, and were deeply dependant on how quickly the handwriting skill developed.

It is no wonder that some children are slow to develop adequate handwriting skills, which retards the whole of their school career. Teachers are aware of students whose written output does not match their intelligence, comprehension or verbal language skills.

This can be because their handwriting skill is not adequate for their learning needs.

A keyboard and screen allows the middle order writing skills to be taught in isolation to handwriting. Middle order writing skills include such things as sentence construction, grammar, punctuation and spelling. Handwriting must still be taught, but it is no longer the limiting factor. Handwriting skills may develop with maturity and practice, so that when a student is required to produce handwriting for an exam, not only do they have handwriting skills, they also have something worth writing.

It has been remarked that the provision of laptop computers to year 9 students as part of the Rudd Government education revolution in Australia is far too late to make a significant difference, but that laptop computers could make a huge difference if introduced much earlier in the education process.

This is the first of a series of articles to explore the introduction of laptop computers in a kindergarten class. It outlines a significant classroom problem, and the application of technology to solve it. Future articles will examine 
Benefits; Alternatives; Implementation; Obstacles; Hardware considerations; Software considerations; Teacher training and retraining; Limitations; Costs and funding.

In the comment section please note your reaction to using computer tecnology to improve learning outcomes in Key Learning Areas –here-now-today in ordinary classrooms, and bring relief to children who are struggling or giving up because they cannot write fast enough or neatly enough to produce the written output required to cater for their learning needs.  Alternatively, comment on the idea of giving a laptop computer to every child starting school in Australia.