While most praise the mobility of minicomputers, McGill-Toolen Catholic’s Johnny Middleton likes them for their durability. He says his minicomputer lab experiences far fewer breakdowns than a traditional notebook cart.

Oct 27 2008

Coming Up Big

Minicomputers are adding mobility and flexibility to K–12 classrooms across the country.

Minicomputers are adding mobility and flexibility to K–12 classrooms across the country.

When it comes to computers in schools, less is truly more. Desktops continued to shrink until notebooks became the norm, and now notebooks are giving way to new lines of minicomputers. These ultralight notebooks, sporting 5- to 10-inch screens and a price tag of $300 or more, are turning computers from bulky luxuries into everyday tools.

The reduced size and price of minis are nothing short of revolutionary, says Elliot Soloway, an information and education professor at the University of Michigan.

“This is not business as usual,” says Soloway. “This is a very new beast. Up to now, there was no way schools could afford a laptop for every student.” Soloway says a $500 price point is the “magic number” that will allow many districts to put a computer in front of every student. That, he adds, is a profound shift.

“All the functionality that they afford can now be taken advantage of by each kid,” he says. “It’s a new age.”

Soloway says mostly early adopters purchased the devices this fall, but other districts will be quick to follow suit. “We’re going to see a lot of successes in the fall,” he predicts. “Even in January, we’re going to see a major uptick.”

Minicomputers offer advantages big and small over regular notebook PCs. The smaller machines take up less desk space and tend to be more durable, and they also offer the promise of mobile learning and differentiated lessons.

Shrinking the Footprint

Independent battery tests on various minicomputers show that by using some basic battery-saving settings, most minis can run about five hours per charge, according to the website JKontherun.com.

With traditional notebook carts, teachers often incorporate the technology for just an hour or so at a time because a notebook takes up a student’s entire desk space, says Kurt Madden, chief technology officer of California’s 74,000- student Fresno Unified School District. Minis, because of their small size, can be used all day.

“It allows a teacher who has been teaching for years with paper and textbooks to incorporate that with the computer right there on the desktop,” says Madden. “They don’t have to say, ‘Put away your computer and take out your textbooks.’ That’s a big deal.”

Madden’s district tested about 1,000 minis while working with Hewlett-Packard to develop a new product that would suit the district’s needs. Madden wanted a device equipped with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, as well as a battery that could make it through most of the school day without needing to be recharged. The result was the HP 2133 Mini-Note PC, weighing in at a little more than 2.5 pounds and priced around $500. The district rolled out 8,000 this fall, with plans to add 2,000 more by the end of the school year.

Madden doled out one computer for every two students in selected classrooms. However, the district is making the devices available to students for purchase at the district rate, so Madden hopes enough students will buy them to improve that ratio.

Low-Maintenance Technology

When full-size Windows-based notebooks need to be reconfigured, it takes Johnny Middleton, the technology director at McGill-Toolen Catholic High School in Mobile, Ala., up to four hours to reset them. But when one of the district’s 60 new Linux-based ASUS Eee PCs needs to be reset, a teacher can follow simple instructions and have it done in 10 minutes.

Also, because the minis stay in one classroom, they receive more TLC and need fewer repairs than the traveling notebooks might, Middleton says.

“The carts are high-maintenance,” he explains. “When they’re being passed around from teacher to teacher, things get broken, and nobody knows who did it.”

Priced at around $300 apiece, the Eee PCs allow students to conduct Internet research and perform word processing. But with only 2GB of memory, the computers aren’t capable of much else, which ensures that students can’t install their own programs or play games.

“With the big machines, it’s too tempting to play,” Middleton says. “With these, they don’t really have the temptation, because they’re low-powered enough that they do their job, and that’s about it.”

Achieving True Mobility

Scott Hunt, principal of Perry Middle School in Perry, Ohio, fully realized the utility of minis on a field trip when he saw students from another school using handheld devices to take photographs and journal about their experiences.

“Our kids went with nothing,” he recalls.

But this fall, Hunt introduced 150 Fujitsu LifeBook U810 Mini Notebooks. At 1.56 pounds, with a 5.6-inch display, the minis are ultraportable. The district paid between $850 and $900 per machine.

“What we were really interested in was the mobility piece, to create some independence with the kids and allow teachers to let go a little bit,” Hunt says.

Hunt wanted to take advantage of the school’s wireless network, but he also envisions eighth-graders taking the minis on their trip to Washington, D.C.

“What better way to record and capture and journal about the things they’re seeing there?” says Hunt. “This is a tool they can bring with them fairly easily and do that kind of work. Can you imagine taking 15 or 20 regular-size laptops?”

Reaching All Learners

IT research firm Gartner estimates 5.2 million minis will ship this year, with 8 million units to follow in 2009. By 2012, the group estimates, manufacturers will be shipping 50 million minis each year.

Another advantage of minis, says Hunt, is that they can be used to reach students who are at a different level or have a different style of learning.

“You can really begin to differentiate in terms of what kids need,” Hunt says, explaining that students armed with minis can take their computer to the school library to study while the rest of their class learns the same material in another manner. This works especially well for visual learners, says Hunt: “In order for them to be successful, they don’t have to sit in front of you for 20 minutes.”

If a classroom has a mini for each child, says University of Michigan’s Soloway, a topic as familiar as the water cycle can be taught to 30 different students in 30 different ways.

“In the past, what you do is memorize the steps to the water cycle and give them back to the teacher,” he says. “Now what you do is you have different representations of the water cycle. You can use multiple media. The child who is not as good textually but is really good visually can draw the pictures, do the animation and then come to the text.

“There is no way that one teacher can teach 30 kids with that type of diversity with paper and pencil and books,” adds Soloway. “When you go one-to-one, you now have the new pencil and paper.”


Because minis are so much lighter than notebooks, they’re perfect for activities outside the classroom. Here are some mobile lessons to try:

  • In-depth at the museum. Instead of walking the entire length of the history or art museum and getting only fleeting glances of the exhibits, ask high school students to choose one display to study in depth. Students can use built-in cameras to capture images, wireless Internet for research and PowerPoint to prepare a short presentation on their topic, all before they return to class.
  • High-tech birding. Set up bird feeders in a quiet area, then return to the scene a few days later with middle school students and their minis. Students, using a downloaded bird guide, determine what types of birds they’re seeing and take digital photos for proof. Then they log the numbers and types of birds into a spreadsheet and make a chart to see if, say, pigeons are more likely to show up than sparrows.
  • Geometry scavenger hunt. Have elementary students look around the school for as many geometric shapes as they can find. In addition to taking photos, students record the shapes into a spreadsheet and analyze the data to discover which shapes are most common at the school.