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This article is from the In-Depth Report CES 2009: The Consumer Electronics Show

New Tech Makes Classroom Computers a Reality Worldwide

Intel and others are developing the technology to make less costly, child-friendly PCs
Intel, Classmate, netbook



Image courtesy of Intel

LAS VEGAS, NEV.—Kids carry technology with them wherever they go, so why shouldn't this extend to the classroom? That's the idea behind budding programs designed to put low-priced simplified PCs into the hands of kids worldwide, especially in developing countries. Chipmaker Intel on Friday at the Consumer Electronics Show will unveil its new Classmate netbook PC, which is faster than its predecessors and features a touch screen for easier use.

As netbooks pick up steam and tech companies launch their latest and greatest at the Consumer Electronics Association's annual trade show, being held here this week, Intel and its partners are applying Classmate PC technology in schools worldwide. "This is a netbook specifically designed for kids," says Jeff Galinovsky, Intel's regional manager for the Classmate PC.

Computers used in the workplace are not suited for the classroom, because in most cases they're fragile and too big for elementary and middle school students’ desks, says Tony Salvadore, a senior principal engineer with Intel who is also a psychologist and anthropologist. "Computing helped transform the way corporations work." Now it is time for them to same for education, he adds.

Intel is the most high-profile company involved in the Classmate project, but it works with several hardware and software makers to create the Classmate. Device makers Elitegroup Computer Systems (ECS) and Quanta Computer craft the PCs that run Intel's chip. Intel also relies on software writers and service providers in individual countries where the Classmates are deployed to tailor the PCs' programming to local needs. Intel and its partners introduced the Classmate PC in January 2007 and have since launched 30 pilot Classmate programs in 28 developing countries worldwide, including Brazil, Jordan and India.

In August 2008, Intel and its partners upgraded the Classmate, replacing its Intel Celeron processor with the company's more powerful Atom chip. The upgraded Classmate, now more efficient, faster and with a longer battery life, also drew the attention of teachers in the U.S. and other developed countries as well.

Classmates are "kid-friendly," Galinovsky says, adding that each has a carrying handle and a water-resistant keyboard. The Classmate's exterior is also made of a tough plastic and can be dropped as far as two feet (60 centimeters) without serious damage.

Intel and its partners developed the tablet model, because it is easier to use and carry, as opposed to the more conventional clamshell laptop design, which is more difficult to use when being held in one hand. The tablet model also has a thick touch screen so that a student can rest his or her hand on the screen while writing with a stylus. (The screen is not sensitive enough to sense a palm.)

In order to place Classmates in the hands of schoolchildren, governments (including Portugal's, which has promised to install a half million PCs in its schools) have been subsidizing them to varying degrees. The basic Classmate PC costs about $300 to make, but this does not include software, installation and ongoing support. (Local tech companies, not Intel, set the price.)

But the Classmate PC is not the only game in town. The One Laptop Per Child program (a spin-off of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab) offers the XO computer, and NComputing has a "thin-client" model, where several PCs with limited capabilities connect to a central computer to store and retrieve information. NComputing claims to be able to deliver this at less than $100 per desktop. Given the enormity of trying to get more computers in the hands of children worldwide, Salvadore acknowledges, "there's enough room for a lot of competitors."

In last week's issue of Science, Andrew Zucker, a senior researcher with the Concord Consortium, a Concord, Mass., nonprofit that studies the use of technology in schools, and Daniel Light, a senior scientist at New York City–based Education Development Center, Inc.'s Center for Children & Technology, pointed out that the falling cost of technology is helping computers get a better foothold in the classroom but cautioned that the impact of classroom PCs is still unknown. Developing countries such as Portugal, Uruguay and Venezuela are eager to invest in the technology because they want to cultivate a better-educated, tech-savvy future workforce, the researchers add.

Although netbooks may be half the price of regular laptop PCs (the holy grail is to produce a $100 computer), costs are a concern because the computers themselves comprise only about one third of the overall cost to implement a network of classroom PCs, Zucker and Light wrote. Other outlays include software, teacher training and technical support. The researchers cite one recent estimate that puts the annual cost for a netbook implementation at more than $400 per PC.

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