Building the Perfect Computer for Today's Student.

It's that time again.

We get to buy several hundred computers for our school.

At our school we are in the enviable position of having a pen-based tablet computer for every student and teacher.  It's been like this for 12 years.

Image: MS Office Imagebank
The students use the computers to get their assignments, do their assignments, and submit their assignments.

They work them harder than any business person I've ever met. When one manufacturer told us they simulate extreme use by opening and closing the lid 30 times a day, we laughed.

That typically happens by noon for our students.

The machines starts at 7:00 am when the student checks their messages for the day, and is shoved into their backpack several times, and generally is shut off after homework (or Facebook if we are being honest) after 10:00 pm.

In cowboy terminology "They's rode hard, and put away wet!".

Ours are leased on a two year cycle.  Even with accidental breakage warranty, on-site warranty repair, and a cupboard full of loaners, the computers are OLD at the end of the two years.
Extreme Damage

For most of them, they are like the ax that has been in your family for five generations... it's only had 2 new heads and 5 new handles (but it's the same ax).

The point is... when you implement a 1:1 computer program in a school, and if you expect them to actually use them, then these things will break.

After all, even with the rigorous use, it is still kids using them.  Kids can be, well, a bit goofy - particularly 14 year old boys.

We've seen computers kicked by horses, computers that have been retrieved from the bottom of a pool, computers that have had all the keys removed (purposely), computers with strange liquids and food stuff inside, computers used as baseball bats, and in the case of the picture above, a computer that argued with an SUV, and lost.  The bag was left in the driveway.  Why you ask?  Before you get too judgmental, remember how your brain was working in your teenage years.

If you put computers in your classroom, you need to make the commitment to keeping them running. One of the most important things you can do is get the student back to class as quickly as possible when their computer breaks.  In our model, no computer = inability to participate in class or do homework.

We recently had visitors from another school looking to implement a 1:1 program.  They came to see the model of computer we had selected.

I don't think they had thought about everything else that needs to be in place to keep the machines operational.  They now have a much greater appreciation for the realities of the program.

1:1 is way more than handing a student a computer at the start of the year.  It's about all the things you need to do to keep it running, and available.

The computer is only one piece of the 1:1 program, albeit a critical piece.

But I digress.

Today's post is a series of thoughts around what makes a perfect computer for student use.

The sad news is... it doesn't exist in one manufacturer's offering, not even the one with the fruit logo.

So in the hope of some brilliant designer reading this blog, let me describe our wish list of features we need in the perfect computer.

Our school has students between Grades 7 and 12 (12 - 18 year old). The specifications below may differ if we had younger grades.

Form Factor:  Tablet, Convertible, or Notebook?
Image: Appleby College
At our school, we make great use of the convertible pen based tablet - the one that looks like a regular notebook, but the screen swivels into a tablet format.  Before you jump on your own personal preference bandwagon, come and visit one of our science, math or even language classes and watch the student use a combination of typing and on screen annotation with the stylus.  They don't put the machine into tablet mode, but the combination of input methods is highly productive.

One observation? The current model of computer comes with touch interface in addition to the stylus.  Many of our students have disabled this option or never use it.  The stylus / keyboard combination is the most effective.

Dear designers, I know Steve J said nobody needs a stylus, but our students would disagree strongly.

Ruggedness: Can you get an Airbag?
I spoke of the breakage. So why don't we buy ruggedized computers such as the Toughbook?  That would drive the program costs up to the point where the program would be unfeasible.

We do use a commercial grade computer vs a consumer grade machine.  The primary difference is the quality of the components. Consumer grade is what you typically get at Best Buy and continually comes up when a parent (or CFO) asks why we don't just pick up the $500 laptop at the big box store.  Those machines wouldn't survive in our environment.

We look for things like rounded edges and corners (Yes, you can break a corner off a laptop).

We look for no user removable parts (With the exception of the stylus).  If it can be disassembled, it will. Repeatedly. To the point of never going back together again.

Some of our students are over 6 feet tall.  Most are not. Some of the Grade seven students haven't hit the 5 foot mark yet.  The weight of the computer in the backpack is important to prevent our smaller students from "turning turtle" (or causing lasting damage to growing spines).  A five pound computer is too heavy, particularly when you add it to all the other things they insist on carrying in their backpacks.

As an illustration - When my son was in Grade 9, I picked up his backpack and just about had a hernia.  I weighed the bag and it was 44 pounds.  Once I took out the computer, the charger, his gym clothes, his bike lock, his runners, and textbooks, I asked him why he didn't use his locker.  "It's too far to walk!" his juvenile brain responded.  After some fatherly intervention, he's much smarter now, and I can lift his backpack.

Students packs are too heavy now, a larger computer would exacerbate this problem.

The perfect computer would be around 3 pounds, but we have to live with devices a bit heavier.  If they are too light, that means they have too much plastic which means our kids would have them destroyed by lunch. If they are too heavy, we'll have to get a tow rope from the ski hill to help the younger students up the stairs while they wear their backpacks.

This is where the slate style of computers fall short.  They are typically one integral sealed unit.  If it breaks, the whole thing goes in for service.

We look for machines where a help desk tech can quickly pop out a hard drive and put in into a loaner, then get the student back to class with their personal configuration and local files.  (Students will customize everything about the computer, and add their own music, etc.) Keeping their own hard drive minimizes classroom disruption, which is really what we are about.

We also look for machines that don't involve changing the whole case when something gets damaged.  I love the single piece of aluminum case as much as many of you but repair costs are driven much higher when these things get damaged.  (If you don't believe that they do, try Googling "smashed macbook" in Google Images).

We also keep an ample supply of common parts on hand for our service tech to quickly restore the broken machines to full operation.  This includes case parts, screens, keyboards, etc.

In my last life, I was at a college with a mobile computing program for 5,000 of its 15,000 full time students. There was an equal breakdown of Apple and Windows notebooks.  When you review the service records, the breakage was about even.  The reality is, if you give a student a computer, it will break.  Regardless of the brand.  Being able to quickly service it is critical.

So... the perfect computer is a serviceable machine.  Sealed unibody machines are harder to service.

We always buy an accidental damage warranty for the machines for the life of the lease.  It pays for itself in spades.

The perfect computer comes with a warranty for all the components, including the battery.  At the end of 2 years, we see a significant amount of battery failure given the usage at the school.  Having a battery replacement warranty keeps the performance of the machine at its optimum.

So why the comment about the service costs for the aluminum cases?  Not all damage is accidental.  In that case, keeping service costs down is important.

The perfect student computer would have a battery that lasted a week, or at least for 12 hours (not atypical for our students).  Aside from the iPads and other low powered slate devices, this doesn't exist.  Even with these devices, the battery is quickly drained if there is significant network access, or processor intensive activity.

Even if you had a 12 hour battery, expecting students to come to school everyday with a fully charged laptop is optimistic at best.  The power adapter for the perfect computer should not be a brick the size of the computer.

I really, really like my iPad.  My 80 year old parents like their iPads.  Many of you really like your iPads, or Android slates.

But can you really do any work, for an extended period of time?

I'm great with quick email replies, but if I had to do any major tasks that involve more than 2 paragraphs (like this blog) or create a spreadsheet to justify next year's IT spend, or manipulate images, music and text into a great mashup, I need something capable of real work.  So far, any of the slate devices I own (including the iPad) do not deliver.

I once tried to write a complete blog post on my iPad.  When I got to the editing part (cut/paste, moving things around), I got so frustrated I was thinking of words so nasty that I surprised myself - considering I was sitting in a Disney hotel at the time, if one of them had slipped out, I would have been banned from the Magic Kingdom for life.

Screen Size:
Here's where we trade off viewing area for weight.  The larger the screen, the heavier the laptop.

Image: MS Office Imagebank
We are currently using a 12" screen, but our math teachers would dearly love more real estate.  "You just can't do a good equation on a 12" screen!" they moan, but will live with this size.  Point is... a smaller screen size (e.g. the 10" most often found on slates) is too small for the curriculum.

The second part of screen size has to do with accessing multiple applications at once - as in reference texts, and worksheet.  We are very used to a textbook open beside our computer (or notebook) and switch back and forth between them as we work.

If the device can only show the workbook OR the reference text, it doesn't work.  Both have to be open at the same time.  While many devices claim multitasking, having the material side by side at the same time is the only practical model for the perfect student computer.  Otherwise we introduce disruption in the learning process as we switch between the windows.

Until the manufacturers can bring the flexible screens to production, or build one that unfolds to a bigger size (keeping in mind that it will be teenager power users unfolding them), perhaps the "perfect" computer has a separate reference device - like an eReader or iPad?

Our computers run on a managed network.  While each student has administrative rights to their machines, we retain the ability to push patches, updates and software programs to these machines over the Internet. This manageability saves us significant time. It saves the students time from coming into IT to get software installed.  Some devices don't lend themselves well to being managed this way.  Every machine is managed independently.  Great amounts of time and effort are lost.

If the devices cannot be managed in this manner, it adds complexity and cost to the process of supporting them.

Even in a paperless society, people have to print.  In a school, printing needs to be managed so that costs can be allocated appropriately.  In our school, we have "follow me" printing, and faculty and students can print to the nearest shared printer and use their ID card to release the print job.  Any device used in a 1:1 program must support managed network printing.

In the end, you will notice I haven't been comparing brands or operating systems.  The key point is that the computer you select for a 1:1 program must serve the overall objectives of the program.   In our case, the pen based convertible tablet is the best format at this time to support the innovative curriculum being delivered in the school.  Since the faculty have had a 1:1 model for over a decade, they continually amaze me at what they come up with.

If I delivered a technology platform that took away this ability to innovate, I would find the tires on my truck flattened.

What would you add to this list?

What's the perfect computer for today's student?


  1. Enjoyed the article, Kevin.

    We have similar problems trying to provide inexpensive machines for our front line medical staff. The software they've chosen really needs a touch screen device and a keyboard for most effective use, but it's difficult to find inexpensive machines that support both of those features. Most manufacturers are either going the laptop or tablet route these days and scrapping all the sub $1000 convertibles.

    If you don't mind sharing, I'd love to know what machine you settled on. We are currently re-evaluating our HP fleet. You can send email to breid@mss.org.


    1. Bill,

      In the spirit of laziness and open information, I'll share the response here...

      IMO, There are really only 3 players in this field; Lenovo, Dell, and Fujitsu. Where is HP? They are incredibly pretty machines but their design is too flimsy for the rigors of a 1:1 program in school.

      None of these will be under $1K, but in volume you would see the street price around $1.5K - $1,6K. While it sounds expensive, remember the "commercial grade" requirement. Once you add RAM, warranty (including the battery warranty), the price point climbs.

      We are currently using Fujitsu T4410s. We are in the middle of the RFP process and haven't made our decision yet, but will forward the details to you once we are complete.


  2. Excellent article--this is really helpful. Thanks Kevin!