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Big Flexibility in a Small Package

Getting work accomplished on the go is easier with today's crop of new minicomputers.

Getting work accomplished on the go is easier with today’s crop of new minicomputers.

It’s possible that thousands of students, teachers and district executives will soon be carrying computers around campus that are every bit as functional and web-enabled as a standard notebook, yet are about half the weight and size.

“The whole school computer paradigm is shifting to portability,” says Roland Moore, chief information officer and senior executive director for the Orange County Schools in Orlando. “Unlike in the past, where notebooks were more expensive and a bit more problematic in regards to carrying them around, the newer minimachines are just as capable as notebooks, with the storage capacity to get to many online services. And they’re light enough to carry.”

School districts across the country are piloting new minicomputers such as the Fujitsu LifeBook U810 and the HP 2133 Mini-Note PC. These computers are small; units weigh 1.5 pounds to 2.5 pounds, with screens that are about 6 inches to 8 inches wide. But they also allow for flexibility, enabling automated learning, studying and remote access to administrative activities from a device that weighs about 2 pounds.

Right now, the price of these units is slightly below a full-size notebook, running between $500 and $1,500, but many tech directors think advances will add functionality and lower prices in the years to come.

Smaller Size Fits More Tasks

Hermes Mendez, Orange County’s director of IT, says the district is testing the Fujitsu U810 for one-to-one education projects and for the district’s executive and tech staff. “With a computer that’s the size of a textbook, students can have all of their stuff available to them — curriculum reference materials, the ability to do homework on the Internet, a means to do research and be collaborative,” Mendez says.

Samsung’s Q1 Ultra UMPC carries Windows XP Tablet Edition, 1GB of RAM and an 80GB hard drive.

He says the minicomputers also allow his own team to more easily execute equipment inspections, because it’s easy to take notes directly on the U810’s tablet and submit those notes remotely to the district’s IT office computers.

“There’s time savings, and the information is fresh,” he says, adding that taking notes remotely on a larger notebook would be more difficult because of that machine’s bulkiness. “Also, since [many] more of our school buildings now have wireless access, we can use this kind of remote access technology more easily,” Mendez says.

Blue Valley School District in Overland Park, Kan., is testing various microcomputers, including the HP and Fujitsu models. Although the 21,000-student, 32-building district hasn’t made a final decision, Bob Moore, the district’s executive director of information technology, says adoption of small notebooks is likely, given their size and lower cost of ownership. These computers can make what Moore calls a “true” one-to-one learning environment possible. “We will evolve to a one-to-one environment at some point, and these notebooks that are being bandied about will help us get there,” he says.

Moore also is interested in the “flash-type” hard drive available on minicomputers, which reduces the complexity of the small machines. Flash hard drives have no moving parts, which allows the machines to withstand the jostling that comes with being so portable. Also, the drives retrieve information faster than a traditional hard drive and work silently.

“All the district needs is network access and access to files. Very little resides on the computer itself,” Moore says.

These units are also part of the discussion in Michigan where Scott Wooster, director of technology services for the Chelsea School District, is considering using the HP 2133 to expand a sixth-grade student notebook program to seventh- and eighth-graders.

Called Freedom to Learn, the three-year-old, one-to-one program allows students in the district — which has 2,800 students spread throughout five buildings about 15 miles west of Ann Arbor — to use and take home HP notebooks. These PCs have 15-inch screens and weigh about 6 pounds; students use them for a wide range of automated educational programs that are part of their overall curriculum.

“The kids are more engaged in their learning, and the teachers are learning more about integrating technology into the curriculum,” Wooster says. The portability of these minicomputers would help alleviate the backpack overload that so many students face, and allow the computers to more easily become a part of a student’s learning experience.

Reducing Backpack Bloat

Because textbooks are still a large part of the curriculum, it’s hard to expect students to carry both books and full-size notebooks to and from school, Wooster says. “If kids also play instruments, it gives them an awful lot to carry around.”

As more districts deploy automated learning software and hardware, portable computers will be just as much a part of a student’s equipment as band instruments, athletic equipment, or even books themselves.

“The kids now think about these devices as being like books,” says Curtis Timmons, director of information technology for Memphis City Schools. The 112,000-student, 200-building district uses 2-pound notebooks as part of Epic Learning, a high school program offering courses in algebra and pre-calculus and other subjects. Students sign out the computers from principals and use the notebooks to do coursework online.

“The kids are thinking about doing work in these electronic terms, so if you’re deploying the smaller computers, you’re with the times,” says Timmons.

The lesser weight of minicomputers also makes them a possible fit for a wide range of administrative duties, from security to mobile presentations to maintenance of larger computers by IT staff.

For example, Sue Parler, tech coordinator at DePaul Catholic High School in Wayne, N.J., uses the 2.5-pound, 8.9-inch screen HP 2133 to monitor network traffic. “You can be outside the classroom, and without entering it, you can see what every kid is doing on the computer, and if there’s been an intrusion or if a student has logged on to another network,” she says. “Of course, you can do that monitoring with any computer, but a regular computer is just impossible to carry around from one class to another. So the extraordinary portability of [this PC] makes it attractive for security purposes.”

Other IT officials use the PCs to help connect widely dispersed colleagues. Rocco Seiler, the technology systems coordinator of the 7,000-student Pleasant Valley School District in northeastern Pennsylvania, is testing the Fujitsu U810, and has been impressed with the machine’s ability as a tool that facilitates staff meetings, bringing together participants who are spread out among several of the district’s seven buildings.

Seiler says it’s much easier to transport the smaller machines from one building to another to make automated presentations. “We really like the Vista business addition, which works very well with the tablet and the other functionality,” he says, adding that he sees the computer being used as an administrative tool. “And you’re able to use the stylus to write up some notes without opening up a big computer screen and interrupting the presenter.”

And by using a USB adaptor, the computer’s also being used as a GPS device for administrators traveling to offsite functions in the district’s Pocono Mountain territory and elsewhere. Seiler says the size of the monitor — about 5.6 inches wide — is larger than a typical 3-inch-wide GPS screen, yet small enough to fit on a car’s dashboard. “I’ve been impressed by Fujitsu’s functionality. It has a good-sized hard drive, so it functions like a full-sized laptop,” he says.

Super-computers

While today’s school officials are scaling down and treasuring portability in their computers, supercomputers continue to get faster. Earlier this summer, the top ranked supercomputer crossed a milestone by being able to perform at more than 1 petaflop per second, which is one-quadrillion floating-point operations per second.

IBM built this computer for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Los Alamos National Laboratory. The machine is named “Road-runner,” after New Mexico’s state bird. It topped the annual list of Top 500 Supercomputers compiled by Erich Strohmaier, a computer scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

The new Road-runner system vaulted past the previous top performer, IBM’s BlueGene/L system at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Blue Gene/L had held the list’s top spot since November 2004. The BlueGene can perform 478.2 teraflops per second (trillions of floating-point operations per second).

The Minicomputer Showroom

Here’s a look at two of the new minicomputers from Fujitsu and Hewlett-Packard that are being piloted at a number of school districts.

Fujitsu

The LifeBook U810 is among Fujitsu’s latest minicomputer models, selling for between $1,000 and $1,500. It has the functionality of a traditional notebook, but is about half the size, with a 5.6-inch touch-screen display, weighing in at 1.56 pounds. Users can access e-mail, watch video, listen to MP3s and surf the Internet.

The U810 is a convertible tablet PC, which means users can type on a keyboard or twist the display and lay it flat to “write” on a tablet screen and convert those notes to text that can be e-mailed to other users — such as notes from a teacher to his class, or from an administrator to her staff.

“It allows instructors to teach directly from the PC and make notes on the fly, or write on a screen to help emphasize a point,” says Paul Moore, senior director of mobile product marketing for Fujitsu Computer Systems in Sunnyvale, Calif. “For example, when reviewing a document, you can make edits directly on the document — you can just circle a picture on a PDF and write a question or statement. This is an intuitive way of editing and teaching, the kind of thing that makes a lot of sense to today’s students. You can touch a screen and get a reaction.”

Hewlett-Packard

The recently introduced HP 2133 Mini-Note PC sells for between $500 and $1,000. It weighs more than the Fujitsu model, at about 2.5 pounds, and can’t be used as a tablet. It does have an 8.9-inch diagonal WXGA display, a keyboard and touch pad. The HP 2133 also gives users the ability to view video, capture still images, and conduct web conferencing or video-enhanced instant messaging with no additional hardware.

Wireless technology such as integrated Wi-Fi Certified WLAN and optional Bluetooth allows students to access the Internet and communicate via e-mail, IM, chat, VoIP and blogging. The wireless technology also enables connections at hotspots as well as with Bluetooth devices such as printers, mice and headsets. The HP 2133’s keyboard is 92 percent the size of a standard keyboard.

“Students have a lot of things to carry, so the size of the computer is important,” says Cheryl Hewett, education manager for Hewlett-Packard in Houston. “And for administrators, this computer fits into a purse, so you don’t have to carry a laptop bag around with you.”

HP also unveiled an interactive teacher website at the recent National Educational Computing Conference in San Antonio. The site includes information, instruction and potential lessons that can be taught off of mini-units such as the HP 2133. “We’ll share lesson plans that allow the technology to be used in a way that keeps children more engaged, such as the ability to take virtual field trips,” Hewett says.

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Jul 22 2008 Spice IT

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