Intel-Powered Classmate PCs Aim to Change the Way Children Are Taught

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For the past month, I’ve been testing an Intel-Powered Convertible Classmate PC, featuring an LCD touch-screen. The hardware and software are specifically designed for educational use but Intel wants this to be much more than just another classroom tool.

They want to reinvent the way kids are taught.

“What we’ve found is that it’s not enough to simply bring computers into the classroom. It’s not just about the PC and the software, it’s about the right curriculum and the right content,” said Jeff Galinovsky, the Regional Manager for Classmate PC Mature Markets Ecosystem at Intel.

The wireless netbook PC weighs just a little over three pounds, features an Intel Atom 1.66 GHz CPU and is powered by an Intel NM10 Express Chipset. It has a 1GB memory and comes with either 4-cell or 6-cell batteries. The touchscreen/LCD convertible tablet is 10.1″ with an LED backlight. There are two USB ports, two headphones jacks, and one mic-in jack.

Although Intel develops the platform, they don’t sell the Classmate themselves. Their partners in the educational program take their platform and package it with custom software. Because it’s sold through these partners, the Classmate is sold under a number of different names.

But all Classmates have modifications for educational use not found on a regular netbook. On the hardware side, it’s sturdier and can survive being knocked around by children. There’s a handle for easy carrying and it’s water-resistant. (As an aside, these would be great to have in a regular netbook. Especially the water-resistant part.) The HP Mini 100e that I reviewed last year is similarly designed to stand up to abuse.

But, according to Galinovsky, the hardware is only the beginning. The true value of the Classmate is in the software and how it can improve the way children learn. He said what Intel has discovered is that it’s not enough to use computers in the classmate as simply another tool. It requires a new way of teaching.

“For example, it’s not enough to take a science textbook and make it into an ebook. It has to be made into into an interactive text,” he said. “The key is the classroom collaboration software run by the teacher. The teacher can stop software running on the classmate PCs, they can lock out the individual student PCs, they can check if they’re paying attention by how the PC is being used and they can string content.”

And they can purchase software packages ranging from Lego Robotics, Pasco SPARKscience, a McGraw Hill comprehensive literacy program, and Algodoo, a math-based program. They’re all designed to work in harmony with the Classmate and its features. For example, the Algodoo software uses the webcam to create physical models from live photos. The touch screen and digital pen inputs are used to draw objects. The touch-screen can be swiveled to rest on the keyboard, essentially turning the netbook into a tablet. This allows kids to have easy access to the touch-screen for drawing and other interactive programs.

Unlike the HP Mini 100e, the Classmate and the Clamshell PC — basically the same computer but without a touchscreen — are available for individual sales through a number of Intel’s partners. That means homeschoolers and others interested in some of these education programs can buy them for personal use, though individual orders will cost more than bulk orders placed by schools.

Galinovsky said Intel launched the first Classmate platform in 2007 and they’ve been working constantly since then to upgrade and improve it.

“It’s already in thirty different countries via pilot programs. Our first version was a little bit of a tank as we wanted something rugged and affordable. We learned a lot from those pilot programs about what worked and what didn’t. For example, it’s far less bulky now. But we also learned about how kids use the computers and it’s not like adults use it. Most adults have a dedicated space for their laptop at home or when they use it at an office, it stays in one place. Kids are much more likely to pick it up and show what they’re doing to their classmates. We re-designed both hardware and software for that portability.”

Galinovsky pointed to the Pasco SPARKscience Platform as a great example of the meld of hardware and software. The SPARKscience software, SPARKvue, is optimized for use with the touchscreen. Together with the Pasport line of sensors and sensor interfaces, teachers and students can use SPARKvue with the Classmate to create and perform experiments in general science, biology, chemistry, earth and environmental science, and physics at all grade levels.

In essence, this science platform allows the Classmate to become a portable science lab.

Another platform that might particularly interest GeekDads is LEGO robotics. According to information provided by Intel, the LEGO Education North America is a joint venture between Pitsco and the educational division of the LEGO Group. The software combines virtual Lego sets with software and activity packs that integrate science, technology, engineering, and mathematics with an eye to creating in hands-on classroom projects.

For the elementary learner, they’ve created the WeDo Robotics Set, a cross-curricular program that covers content in the areas of math, science, technology, and language and literacy. Using this set and software combination, students can build and program robotics models to write stories, solve problems, and create innovative projects.

Obviously, I couldn’t test how the Classmate functions in the classroom but I know if my older children had this kind of software when younger they would have picked up the ball and run with it.

One other element of the teacher use of the Classmate intrigued me. Galinovsky said there is teaching software that is designed with different student skill sets in mind. If each Classmate is assigned to a particular child, it will track how they learn and how fast, and adapt the lessons individually to that skill set. That would mean a teacher could be up front teaching one lesson but the child at the higher end of learning might get the information at an advanced reading level or, conversely, a child somewhat behind would get it in more simplified form.

This software is called McGraw Hill LEAD21 from the Wright Group. LEAD21 is a K-5 literacy program. It contains core literacy competencies like phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, oral language development, and writing.

The official press release says Lead21 “enhances and expands the effectiveness of differentiated instruction through the use of varied texts, student groupings, and instructional supports during literacy instruction,” which is educational speak for the software adapting to varying student levels of learning. If that works as well as it’s presented, it might go a long way toward solving the problems of teaching to the lowest common denominator.

But the Classmate and the software, of course, costs money.

Galinovsky estimated that individual Classmates with various platforms are priced anywhere from the low $200 to the mid-$400 range, depending on if the model were the Clamshell, which doesn’t have the touchscreen, or the Tablet version that I tested.

He estimated the Tablet would cost schools somewhere in the mid-$300-$400 range, depending on the software. However, that comes with a three-year support contract that involves instruction and tech support. Galinovsky pointed out while that figure sounded high, schools are already paying a considerable amount of money for textbooks. These could replace textbooks and would have the advantage of providing information updates that print books cannot provide. In other words, Galinovsky felt the schools would save money in the long-run.

Though no studies have so far definitely shown that computers in the classrooms improve test scores or comprehension, Galinovsky says Intel believes that is because teaching hasn’t yet caught up to the potential growth that using something like the Classmate PC and the software developed for it can provide.

For those needing more information, there are three large manufacturers of the Classmate and the less expensive Clamshell: CTL from Portland, Oregon, which offers it as the To Go PC; Equus Computer Systems which deploys it as the Nobi Classmate through a network of more than 2,000 resellers focused on the education market; and M&A Technology, a Dallas-based company that offers a wide range of services to the education market (including design, manufacturing, deployment, and consulting services), which offers the Classmate PC as the Companion and Companion Touch.

I checked a few of the manufacturers for individual prices. CTL’s store had their individual ToGo netbooks from $445 to $534. The other two companies only had links to their educational sales. However, if you’re interested in one of the programs above for individual use, you’d obviously have to buy them separately. The Lego WeDo software, for example, is listed at $89.95 at the Lego Education store.

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