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Special Focus: Multiple Platform Computing (1999)

Computers used to be identical boxes. But a new crop of specialized devices is changing all that. Here’s a look.
By Gary Stager

The rapidly falling price and increasing power of microcomputers offer tech-savvy educators with myriad new opportunities and dizzying array of choices. These options can make your district’s computing path a confusing one. It was not long ago that when a school or district purchased a bunch of computers they all looked alike, were lined up in a lab and didn’t talk to each other. There was no talk of routers, hubs, T1-lines or thin clients. The complex issues related to computer networking will be left to future articles. This piece will focus on new hardware, peripherals and the educational issues accompanying their implementation.

Educational decision makers should recite the mantra, “buy appropriate technology” over and over while deciding what their mix of computing hardware is going to be. Cost benefit relationships will need to be determined when new devices are added to your technology bag of tricks.

Think Small
Educators interested in providing students with greater access to computers for writing have a selection of thin clients to choose from. A thin client is a computing device, typically portable, that performs a few specific tasks and then shares its data with a microcomputer or network. The thin client model assumes the availability of a “fat client back at the office.”

Apple was ahead of the pack when it introduced the now discontinued eMate. The eMate combined a keyboard, processor, integrated software suite and pen-based screen in a virtually indestructible lightweight portable device for kids. Despite limited software options, the eMate allowed kids to use science probes and collect data outside of the classroom. (Rumor has it that Apple will be announcing a new portable device for less than $1,000 this January. The new device will contain a DVD-CD ROM drive, color display and robust operating system.)

Alphasmart (, NTS Computer Systems Ltd. ( and Brother ( all offer low-cost portable computers intended specifically for schools. The Alphasmart 2000 is a rugged two pound word processing device with a full size keyboard and four line by 40 character display that runs on three AA batteries. The computer can save up to eight separate files with up to 64 pages worth of storage. It includes a spell checker and timer for keyboarding assessment. Text can be shared with a Mac or PC via a cable. The Alphasmart IR shares data via infrared with printers or computers for a slight additional cost.

NTS Computer Systems Ltd. offers its line of low-cost computing DreamWriter devices. The DreamWriter 100 is designed for K-four keyboarding and word processing. The DreamWriter 200 contains a floppy drive for storage and sharing files with a desktop computer. The DreamWriter 400 allows users to toggle between 4X40 and 8X80 character displays and shares calculator, scheduler, address book software and modem connectivity with the DreamWriter 200. The DreamWriter 400 IR supports wireless printing and file transfer. All but the DreamWriter 100 contain a thesaurus and spell checker, along with full support for basic text formatting tools (bold, underline, page numbering, etc.). The DreamWriters weigh about the same as the Alphasmart and are powered by rechargeable batteries.

Brother has joined the market with its line of GeoBook computers. The GeoBook promises to be virtually crash proof due to its ROM-based software, and while more expensive than the Alphasmart and DreamWriter, GeoBooks look and feel more like laptop PCs. The software for all three GeoBooks runs on the GEOS 3.0 operating system and is called BrotherWorks 98.

The Brother GeoBooks range in weight from 4.9-5.97 pounds. The Brother PN-9000gr features a CGA black and white display with a 32-bit processor, Glidepad pointing device, optional modem, 2 mb of RAM, serial port, parallel port and the BrotherWorks 98 software. The NB-60 model features everything in the previous model, plus a 9.4” backlit VGA display, 33.6/14.4 fax modem, Glidepad pointing device, VGA port and 14.4 mb floppy drive. The software for the PN-9000gr, NB-60 and the 10.4” Color VGA NB-80C features pull-down menus, word processing, spreadsheet, address book, calculator, drawing tools, planner, file manager and synchronization software. The word processing and graphics features make desktop publishing possible. While all three models are capable of e-mail and text-based Web browsing, the NB-80C features graphical Web browsing via a proprietary browser. Flash memory cards are also available.

NTS Computer Systems just released the DreamWriter IT. The IT is a lightweight sturdy device with a 640X480 color LCD display. It uses the Windows CE 2.1.1 operating system, a limited version of Windows 95 designed to run on smaller devices. The DreamWriter IT comes with “pocket” versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access, Outlook and Internet Explorer in addition to helper applications. It contains a 33.5 fax modem, two PC card slots, a floppy drive, serial port, parallel port, trackpad, 16 Mb Flash ROM, and 16 Mb (maximum 64 Mb) of DRAM, infrared transmitter and a 10BaseT Ethernet port for connecting to a local area network. Unlike the other devices discussed thus far, the DreamWriter IT also lets you record and play wav files. It weighs 5.5 pounds and is rechargeable.

Can You Read Me?
Sharing data between Macs, PCs and portable devices like those mentioned above is becoming easier. One can e-mail a document to another computer or share files over a network. You can also use the time honored technology, “sneakernet,” where the student carries the floppy disk (Zip disk, Jaz cartridge or Superdisk, too) to another computer and transfers the appropriate files.

Macintosh computers have been able to read all sorts of files created by other computers for years. MacLink Plus translators found on most Macintoshes automatically convert Windows and Mac files to formats your applications can read. With the release of Mac OS 8.5, Apple stopped bundling this software with its operating system and computers. Therefore you need to purchase the MacLink Plus Deluxe package from Dataviz ( to add this functionality to your Macintosh. Dataviz now offers MacOpener for Windows which lets you read and save Mac files on your PC.

Stuffit and zip compression utilities also exist on both the Mac and Windows platform so compressed files may be shared across networks.

Appropriate Technology
The flexibility and unprecedented power of the microcomputer often leads us to make unnecessary one-size fits all decisions about computer purchases and implementation. The microscope is a good metaphor to use in thinking about appropriate technology.

Kids don’t typically carry microscopes around with them. They go to where the microscopes are when they need them because the function of a microscope is limited. Decision makers buying computers should take note. Purchase computing equipment that best suits the context in which it will be used, then make more critical decisions about connectivity and networking.

Using Computers In Their Twilight Years
Who else but a professional educator can use a twenty year old computer? Schools recognize that old computers can make an important contribution to education as long as we don’t oversell their potential, or stop budgeting and planning for the implementation of new technology.

Many successful educators view older computers as single purpose appliances. You can word process on just about any computer. Most Macs from the LC III and beyond can run many software applications. Old PCs can use the inexpensive New Deal SchoolSuite ( software to offer advance functionality to computers one could easily think of as junk. Numerous teachers use Apple IIs and old PCs as LEGO TC logo workstations. Kids can build, program and test engineering principles while connecting LEGO machines to these computers. More modern Control Lab materials work Microbased laboratory probes and data collection software are available for older computers as well.

All sorts of foundations and corporations provide schools with refurbished office computers, and there are catalogs for this as well. Be sure that you can actually use these computers for at least one good purpose and remind your district that they still need to invest in modern technology.

Pressing Concerns
Many Australian schools have offered a full featured laptop computer to every child since 1989. These computers were used as intellectual laboratories and creative magic carpet rides. They helped teachers reacquaint themselves with the nature of teaching and learning. Microsoft’s nationwide “Anytime Anywhere Learning” program is arming American school children with PC laptops and Office 98. Given unlimited resources, everyone would want to have a full-featured notebook/PC, but is it worth the investment?

If your priority is to provide children with greater access to word processing and simple applications, then the devices single function mentioned earlier are for you. Others of you may decide that you need a mix of different computing devices.

With the exception of the DreamWriter IT and the GeoBook NB-80C, the portable computing devices mentioned above focus on text entry, retrieval and printing. Word processing provides students with the writing, editing and publishing tools necessary to make the writing process more fluid. It is undeniable that word processing helps all people, kids too, with the writing process.

This is where you need to determine the purpose of computers in education. How does a computer help children learn and express themselves? Is the dominant function of computing for children word processing and note taking? Can the computer only contribute to the language arts or does it have a cross-curricular role to play? Will the computer reinforce the existing curriculum and structure of schooling or will personal computational devices allow learning to occur anywhere anytime and lead to new ways of knowing?

All of these fundamental educational questions are precipitated by two factors:

  1. the high cost of computers;
  2. an imagination gap.

Although computer prices continue to drop and more computational power may be purchased at a reduced cost, portable notebook computers remain expensive. Therefore, schools committed to widespread computer access are faced with the difficult dilemma of choosing between access and power. The utility of word processing is easily understood and we can now purchase low-cost devices to make text editing available to more children.

Yet, there is an imagination gap facing educational computing leaders. Do note taking and writing research papers warrant the expense of a computer for every child, even a limited inexpensive computer? Teachers and students alike need experience creating with a computer or solving significant problems with rich software to understand the new creative, intellectual and collaborative opportunities offered by digital technology. The computer can be many things—a paintbrush, a science laboratory, a programming environment, a concert hall, a meeting place, a mathland—and used in many ways. It is vital to look at how to best use the resources, so that we don’t force children to become data processors, when they might be mathematicians, scientists, artists or music composers?

The lack of resources and imagination converge to create scenarios in which young children often get the old less powerful computers in a school system. This practice is commonplace in school systems around the world despite the fact that these grade levels are likely to have flexible curricula, opportunities for multidisciplinary projects and the greatest need for the improved interface and multimedia features found in new more powerful microcomputers. Perhaps it is the secondary student, who doesn’t need to be taught about computers, but does need to take notes and write papers, who should use thin clients. This of course deprives even secondary students of the tools to explore powerful ideas and use the computer to construct their own science simulations, multimedia presentations, musical compositions, Web pages or computer programs.

The Air Computer
Educators need to ask themselves, “Will the kids tolerate less powerful computers? Shouldn’t teachers be armed with the most powerful tools available?” For far too many kids, the weekly trip to the computer lab is like a field trip to Colonial Williamsburg. You are greeted at the door by a woman wearing a silly costume using 18th Century tools and pretending that the 19th Century never existed. All sorts of opportunities and challenges arise for distributed learning in the U.S. where computers and Internet access are becoming ubiquitous.

Your future technology planning will be complicated further when kids carry their own small computing devices with them and when full-featured PCs cost the same as today’s single purpose portables. Low cost, full-featured desktop computers are already for sale.With any luck, notebook computer prices will begin to fall as well. Parents can lease powerful computers for the price of three pizzas per month.

It is quite possible that computers will be the price of a pair of Air Jordans within two years. When this happens, the single purpose word processing computers will be the cost of a textbook. Imagine the possibilities for teaching and learning then!

How will your vision of education change?

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