Earlier this year I wrote a proposal called “Science by the Netbook” and submitted it to the Qwest foundation.Â They were kind enough to grant it and the shiny blue Acer Aspire 1 netbooks arrived in late June.Â They came with Windows 7 starter and I had some students help me get them set up after they arrived.Â The Windows setup proved rather tedious.Â Later in the summer, however, I decided to install Linux (Ubuntu 10.04 Netbook Remix) on all the computers.Â Windows 7 came with a lot of extra junk I really didn’t want on the computers and adding virus protection wasn’t part of the grant, so Ubuntu was a great alternative.Â It does everything we need it to and has a simple, easy-to-use interface.Â The purpose of the netbooks is to help facilitate an inquiry based science curriculum and I’ve got a lot more to write about that, but this post will focus on some of the logistical things I never thought about until I got the netbooks in the students hands.
A week before school started, I modified an old bookshelf and added some doors to it so I could have a place to store and charge the netbooks.Â I labeled all the computers and lined out a space for each of them.Â The charging cords were labeled by computer number and came in through some holes I drilled in the back of the shelf.Â To be clear, we’re not a 1:1 school and each student does not have his own netbook – they use them when they come to my class.Â I teach three different grades, so there are three users (plus a guest and an admin) on each computer.Â My original plan was to have students check out their computers from the station at the back of the room when they came into class, then put them back onto the shelf at the end of class.Â Even though I had each class broken down into groups for checkout, it ended up being too many bodies in one space grabbing at computers, which wasn’t a good situation.Â After the first day of class, I created some satellite stations spread out around the room for students to put the netbooks during the day.Â While my homeroom students are still responsible for checking them out/in from the charging station at the beginning and ending of each day, I don’t have to worry about students crowding up around the charging closet every period.Â The six cell battery on the netbooks is about perfect for the amount of time we use them during the school day.
Getting everyone’s attention
Having a laptop in front of every student can cause distractions.Â I thought that having students close their laptops when I was giving directions or going over something would work just fine to alleviate this problem, but shutting the lids forces the user to put in his password to get going again. This slows things down. Â I could probably modify all the settings to fix this, but came up with a simpler solution.Â Whenever I need everyone’s attention I do one of two things: 1. Have everyone turn their netbooks around so the screen faces away from them.Â 2. Have students put both hands in the air or keep their hands down and give me the Buddha pose.Â Both have been working well in terms of getting everyone’s attention.
Working through bugs
Being open source, there have been some occasional problems with Ubuntu.Â Once in a while the wireless won’t connect or the mousepad gets wonky on one of the computers.Â This is usually resolved by restarting the computer, but if the problem persists I have one backup netbook and an old Titanium Powerbook (circa 2001) that works as a print server, but can also handle some lightweight internet tasks.Â The problems have become fewer and fewer since I started stressing logout procedures.Â Sometimes students closed their netbooks before completely logging out.Â The wireless and mouse issues seemed to be caused by multiple users being logged in at one time (netbooks aren’t known for their computing power).
One other problem, unrelated to Ubuntu, are the batteries for the computers.Â The batteries work fine, but they have little clips on the bottom that students occasionally knock out of place.Â If they hit it just wrong the battery can nudge out of place and the computer shuts off.Â Initially, I thought it was the operating system, but then a student noticed that he had undone the clip.Â After realizing the real cause of the problem, I started telling the students to be more careful with the battery clips.Â While I’ve still had a few students accidentally turn their computers off mid-lesson, most of them are more careful about it.
There are about a million other things that I’ve learned in the first couple weeks with the netbooks, but I’ll save them for later posts.Â It’s been a lot of work, but its starting to pay dividends.Â I look forward to sharing some more experiences and appreciate any feedback from others in 1:1 environments.