Now that computers have found a home in the classroom, new devices are helping students make classroom computers at home - at home.
A new breed of rugged laptops is designed to be used at school and then packed along for homework at the kitchen table. Just down the road are machines designed specifically to be used as electronic books, leading to speculation in the extreme, perhaps, that school books in general could give way to electronic library collections, sending traditional texts to join the Dick and Jane readers on the shelves of antiquity.California-based NETSchools is selling a laptop-based classroom computer system that allows teachers and students to exchange information through an infrared wireless network in the classroom. Students can then pack the "StudyPro" laptop home to do their homework, where they can use the computer's modem to connect to the school network or the Internet.
The StudyPro package runs familiar applications in a Windows 95 environment. NETSchools' computer systems are in use in 15 schools around the country in classes from fifth grade through high school. The system costs about $2,000 per student.
Apple Computer launched a similar infrared-networked rough-and-tumble laptop called the eMate 3000 in 1996. But Apple has since abandoned the system and has not announced a replacement.
NETSchools spokesman Lou Fournier is quick to point out its system is the sole survivor. But perhaps eMate's demise tells that Apple, which is no stranger to the school environment, found a few too many obstacles in the way of putting a laptop in every book pack.
"The age group we're working with is a major problem. What do you do when a kid breaks one?" said Harold Shaw, associate director of media for the Granite School District. He oversaw the testing of a NETSchools prototype in a Skyline High School class.
"If it breaks, you've got to replace it or you can't teach the student. And you can't have a stack of spares sitting in a corner - they're too expensive." The same problem exists if the student loses or is enticed to sell the laptop or has it stolen, Shaw said.
NETSchools tackled the durability problem head-on by wrapping the computer's inner parts beneath a waterproof keyboard and a tough magnesium case with rubber bumpers on the corners. "Basically, we took a PC and made it into a tank," Fournier said. "It can be dropped. It can be kicked. You can stand on it. We've had a 300-pound man stand on it and it still runs."
Several companies are developing laptoplike hardware designed to be used specifically as a book with the content transferred in and out electronically. Such devices are being eyed cautiously by educators as replacements for traditional textbooks, but products scheduled for release this fall are geared toward novel-reading consumers - the switch to electronic texts in public schools is far from a done deal.
NETSchools, similarly, has not developed relationships with textbook publishing houses.
The potential to use a single CD-ROM to update the content of a thousand electronic books and then pay the publisher a per-copy royalty instead of throwing away and buying replacements for that many $100 history texts or $150 calculus texts is promising, for example. Legislated school bureaucracy, on the other hand, makes it unlikely frequent updates to curriculum items could punch through to the classroom in a timely manner.
Utah and half of the other states have a curriculum approval process on a 4-year cycle for textbooks. With 5,000 items on the curriculum list, more frequent approval reviews would create a new challenge, said Shawna Stewart, instructional materials specialist with the State Office of Education.
Stewart doesn't see computers as replacements for printed texts but does see texts being used less as teachers supplement their curriculum with electronic resources housed either in a school district library or on the Internet. "I think a lot of our teachers are moving away from the text as the main tool."
The Waterford Institute in Sandy develops educational software and operates the Waterford School that, in its elementary grades, is a laboratory school for the institute. Yet the school isn't myopically focused on classroom technology, said academic dean Robert Ralphs.
"We don't teach anything only on the computer," Ralphs said. "A computer is a tool that can be used alongside many other tools."
"You can't just throw money and computers and laptops at a school and say `Now you're technologically up to speed.' It has to be a much slower, more thoughtful process than you would suspect."