The World’s Dumbest Laptop

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.”

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5 Responses to “The World’s Dumbest Laptop”

  1. Lorelle Says:

    Hi Andrew

    Good article! Thanks for the opportunity

    Have read your blog and a few things jump out at me as an educator. This is from the point of view that computer technology is crucial in schools from an early age. These children have been born into an era that knows nothing else.

    Firstly, I do not agree with laptops for learning writing in kindy. A hundred other reasons at that age, yes, but not writing [I’m talking 5 year olds and early 6 year olds]. From 7 years old, I strongly agree – yes. For children to learn to write, one thing they have to develop very good phonemic awareness. In other words, the focus of early learning is the development of oral language, the ability to hear, discriminate and manipulate sounds. It’s like crawling, skip that part of a child’s development and problems arise later. The biggest indicator of later success with reading and subsequent writing is oral language, vocabulary. If children can’t speak in sentences, don’t have a wide oral vocabulary and good grammar eg I went to the shop, not I goes to the shop, then learning to read and write needs to come after this is developed. Kids are fabulous manipulators of technology from way before kindy and there is lots of good early childhood software. This does not mean that pushing them into a reading/writing stage too early will improve their reading and writing. Push too hard and then sit back in Year 3 and wonder why your child is having problems. We changed our approach to teaching early literacy from current ideas and research and looking at how successful countries like Finland [highest literacy rate in the world] work. They start at age 7. The number of parents that say to me, my child knows the alphabet but as soon as you start to work with language with them, the biggest part has been left out- that’s where parent education is vital.

    Also for many families, especially in this economic climate, funding this is impossible. So we should not cut children out because of their circumstance. For some children, arriving at prep means they see a book for the first time. They have to learn that those little things are called words and that text has meaning. Computer literacy is quite different from the traditional literacy.

    Again, the biggest problem I’ve seen teachers who are 100% for technology based classrooms is the technical side. Who is responsible when the technology fails? Fixing a missing pen and paper is easier that fixing a computer- I’ve seen this technical side spoil great idea after great idea so any push for something like this needs to address how a teacher can expect 25 computers to function perfectly every time they are needed. And children lose things and leave things at home- and they will with computers. And unfortunately things get stolen- especially classroom with easily moveable items [sad indication of society but true].

    So I agree that laptops are good ideas. The schools up here who have taken up this challenge are interesting in that it goes like a dream for a time and logistics get in the way. A push for interactive whiteboards is a much better bandwagon.
    However, I have seen the latest technology out of Malaysia a week ago. A small, mobile phone sized gizmo [IPTV], battery powered and can sit on a tiny tripod. This thing is the latest ‘interactive data projector’ but will very soon be integrated into an ‘I-phone’ type phone. It will access internet, and PP and everything else, take up no more size than a phone and go anywhere. For kids, these days, the future is voice activated software anyway. This, hot off the press markets for the price of a laptop and can have/will a virtual keyboard. About $800 aussie dollars.

    Kindy children need to work together and talk and share. Interactive whiteboards and little IPTVs like this are something to consider as well. DON”T push writing too early. Another thing, don’t forget little children don’t have good fine motor skills. The laptop keyboard would need modification.

    Anyway, I thought I’d give you some food for thought. Love to hear your comments.

    And don’t give up your drive to improve learning for children- it’s magic.

    Cheers
    Lorelle

  2. Andrew Cosgrove Says:

    Thanks Lorelle, many most excellent points. It gives topics for this blog for a long time to come.

    Firstly, I do not agree with laptops for learning writing in kindy. A hundred other reasons at that age, yes, but not writing [I’m talking 5 year olds and early 6 year olds]. From 7 years old, I strongly agree – yes.

    Kindy may be too early for some/all children. Even preschools work on teaching a child to write their name before they start school. There is great pressure to start earlier, especially now we are the “clever country”. Parents and politicians would be the worst offenders here. I would like to hear from other educators about what age they think writing is most effectively taught(this will vary from child to child as well) and also what is expected in their various school areas.

    I’ve seen this technical side spoil great idea after great idea

    The focus must on producing robust solutions which work seamlessly in the classroom. We have enough mips and megabytes. Reliability is the key.

    For kids, these days, the future is voice activated software anyway.

    I think writing will be with us for a long time to come. Our school system is built on teaching production of written output. Academia and schools are run by people who write well. There is also something essential about writing in the learning process. In order to own the learning you need to be able to write about it, particularly when we get into higher order thinking.
    Thanks for your great response, I will be referring back to your comments in future blogs.

  3. Laura Mae Says:

    Thanks for seeking my input. I’m not a full-out tech person, teacher, nor parent. My love of my eeePC is mainly due to it’s ultra portability. I’m a graphic designer, so I can’t work at all on the eee. But I’ve never really been able to work on a laptop, so this is nothing new. I’m used to being tied to a desk for “real” work.

    My understanding is that kids mainly use a home computer for social sites like MySpace or IM and video chat. I wouldn’t think these lend to reinforcing any literacy presented in school. Not that anything I did as a kid at home reinforced literacy. Except for reading books. I think reading was the greatest factor in developing my writing skills.

    What happens at school and the public policies we put into place at school is, and should be, different. I think there should be more effort put into a OLPC program for the US [where I live]. But besides that, I think the very best thing we could do in general is provide broadband internet to the entire country. For super cheap. A laptop at home doesn’t help all that much if there is no internet [except for writing school assignments and reading any school-issued eTextbooks]. This lack of internet is a big factor between the haves and have nots in my town. You just can’t finish a lot of papers for school if you can’t access the information on the internet.

    So using a word processor at home is great. Awesome. Yes the kids should do it. The laptop just won’t do much good without the internet. Without the internet, they might as well be writing by hand or on a typewriter.

  4. Andrew Cosgrove Says:

    Some great points Laura Mae.

    My understanding is that kids mainly use a home computer for social sites like MySpace or IM and video chat. I wouldn’t think these lend to reinforcing any literacy presented in school.

    Quite right. While the social networking aspects provide incentive to engage with the internet, they can be a distraction to the fact that the internet is a huge library of information, which can and is used for “serious” education and work. The challenge for our teachers is to provide students with a framework to navigate this pile of information, and extract what they need from it.

    And teachers are still expected to teach students to read and write. A boring text editor on a laptop can help with this.

    Broadband internet access is not as reliable or available as we would like, but that need not prevent us from putting some of the solutions in place, which will bring very real benefits to children.

  5. Andrew Cosgrove Says:

    From One-Laptop-Per-Child forum “What is the best XO OS-UI for learning?” read my reply

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