So I Bought A Netbook

April 17, 2009

HP Mini 1033cl

HP Mini 1033cl

…but it’s not for me.

My wife, Jennifer, is a high school (and part time college) English teacher in a school district that frankly could do a much better job prioritizing integration of technology into the learning process. She now, like the other high school teachers, has one desktop PC in her classroom with a projector, but that’s frankly not enough.

For teachers to really begin to morph their classrooms into 21st century learning environments, adopting relevant and engaging methodologies using the tools of digital natives, they need to have anytime, anywhere access to technology. For Jennifer, portability is important since she teaches and works on lesson planning several times a day, from several different locations.

I’ve closely watched the emergence of the netbook form factor for the past year or so, intrigued by the possibilities for affordable 1:1 computing in public schools. In my family Macintosh is the platform of choice, and we’re waiting as patiently as we can for Apple to hopefully introduce a netbook or tablet of their own. In the meantime, existing netbook prices continue to creep downward while performance and functionality inches forward. So with no announcement from Apple in sight, I decided to go ahead and bite when I received a Twitter message this week that was offering factory reconditioned HP Mini 1033cl netbooks for $279.99 with free shipping.

While not the top of the line in this form factor, the Mini 1033 sports a 10″ screen, 1.6 Ghz Atom N270 processor, 60 GB hard drive, 1 GB RAM, and Windows XP (although I may try my hand at installing Mac OS X Leopard like this). With a keyboard regarded as one of the best among netbooks, this is quite the buy for less than $300.

Starting Monday evening, for less than the cost of a month’s groceries, my wife will have purse-sized computer capable of doing everything she needs, and maybe she can go from carrying several flash drives to one. I’m also netbook shopping for my middle school daughter so I’m most curious how our first foray into the ultra-portable market plays out, while holding my breath for an Apple solution sooner rather than later.


Let’s just get this out on the table: ┬áThe view I take in this post is entirely my own, does not necessarily reflect that of my employer or any other professional affiliation, and may be quite unpopular among many people I know and respect.

I’m not interested in popularity.

Several years ago, the Oklahoma state legislature allowed the formation charter schools. Designed in part to create models for successful reform, they had the (perhaps) unintended consequence of creating an unfair competitive environment in public education. Charter schools in Oklahoma are allowed to operate free of the constraints of many of the myriad unfunded mandates state lawmakers have handed down over the years. Public schools are required to comply with a dizzying array of rules, including things like mandatory vision screening for elementary age students. While most are laudable notions, they have associated costs in terms of money, time, and administrative oversight. It adds up to an incredible amount of resource allocation which, even when well-intentioned, often sidetracks the ultimate mission of learning and handicap opportunities for meaningful innovation.

Senate Bill 834, authored by Sen. John Ford (R-Bartlesville) and Rep. Tad Jones (R-Claremore) allows local school boards to choose to ignore many of those unfunded state mandates when they don’t make sense for the local district. It does not direct or require local school boards to do anything except continue to comply with certain, existing state requirements related to school board member continuing education, employee background checks, personnel evaluations, graduation requirements, and teacher certification. And of course, there are still standards districts must meet regarding accreditation for the State Department of Education and organizations like the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools. If Senate Bill 834 were signed into law as written and amended today, this is what districts would be required by law to change:

1. Nothing
2. Nothing
3. Nothing

Does it mean that a local district COULD elect to change its collective bargaining process or salary scale? It does, but consider that it also puts school districts in a position to now compete for the best teaching talent. For example, there has historically been little or no incentive for local boards to pay teachers more than the minimum salary requirements because if they didn’t, they knew nobody else would either. And because administrators are so strapped by state mandates, there has been insufficient flexibility in the budgeting process to allow it. Would Bartlesville’s (the district where my wife teaches) school board, in its stated quest to be a great school district, choose to create a working environment that attracts the best teachers in the state through working conditions, compensation, and curricular freedom; or create an adversarial environment that causes teachers to leave in favor of better jobs in districts that choose to compete for the best? Which would local citizens, parents, and business leaders demand (and enforce through board elections)? Hint: Think Texas versus Oklahoma on an intra-state level.

But then, why should we create so much potential for disparity in the quality of education by allowing some school districts to be “better” than others? Such an argument unfortunately assumes that local school boards and administrators aren’t first and fundamentally interested in creating the best possible learning environment. I don’t believe that is the case with most school board members (unpaid volunteers) and administrators. I do believe that there are incompetent, ill-intentioned, and malfeasant school board members and administrators out there, and that they need to go away mercilessly. A fair, competitive playing field is prerequisite for the elimination of these bad actors. By allowing local school districts more local control Senate Bill 834 strips the unfair advantages charter schools have over traditional public schools and creates new opportunities for meaningful school improvement through healthy competition.