by Cary Hellman, College Park High School, Pleasant Hill, California and Matt Hiefield, Sunset High School, Beaverton, Oregon
If you're preparing to implement a mobile laptop lab in your school or classroom, there are a number of issues to consider. This article attempts to cover them by focusing on the basics of choosing equipment; implementing security; setting up loaner, sign-out, and reservation policies; and managing the classroom environment.
The biggest issue to consider when making a laptop purchase decision is price vs. performance. The decision depends largely on the applications to be run. If students will be using high-end programs such as Photoshop*, Flash*, HyperStudio*, or AutoCAD*, or accessing video-streaming content on the Internet, then higher-end laptops are recommended. But if students will be using the laptops primarily for composing documents in Word*, creating PowerPoint* presentations, or visiting Web sites and composing e-mail, then more basic systems might suffice.
Other considerations include the age and expertise of the students, the expected type and volume of use, and upgrade plans:
As for hardware specifications, here are a few pointers to keep in mind:
- What are the ages and grade levels of the students who will be using the laptops?
- What kinds of teaching activities will be involved?
- Will everyone in the school have access to the laptops, or will they be designated for certain classes and programs?
- How much wear and tear will the laptops endure?
- How easy will it be to upgrade?
- What peripherals come with the laptops? Although such components can increase flexibility and functionality, they also can increase the risk of loss or damage.
Finally, consider two crucial accessories:
- Hard-drive capacity should be at least 4GB, and more if possible.
- Memory should be at least 64MB.
- The LCD display should be "active matrix" TFT design.
- Battery life should be at least two hours, and more if the school can afford it.
- The CD-ROM drive should be built-in and preferably not warm-swappable (to reduce the risk of theft).
- A PC card slot is required for a PCM wireless network card.
- A USB port should be included for compatibility.
- An AC adapter is essential for powered operations and battery recharging.
- An external floppy drive is considered "old technology" but may still be needed in some situations.
In all likelihood, the laptops will be housed in a mobile security cart when they're not in use. Look for the following basic design features:
Another factor to consider is the number of laptop bays. A 30-bay cart can minimize the overall cost, because each cart will need just one access point and one printer. Moreover, should all 30 laptops be in use at the same time, it is easier to manage one cart than two. A 15-bay cart, on the other hand, is more flexible for lessons requiring only one laptop for every two students. This frees the other cart for another class to use. In addition, twice as many carts can mean fewer reservation conflicts for teachers. Finally, smaller carts are easier to navigate down corridors.
- Overall construction of solid and durable metal.
- Locking doors that open a full 270 degrees so they can be kept out of the way.
- Casters that are large, heavy-duty, and rubberized.
- Laptop bays with have non-scratch surfaces, access to AC adapters from within, sized to accommodate larger laptop designs.
- Electrical plugs that are surge-protected, with an outlet for each laptop's adapter and a few extra ones accessible from the outside.
- Padded handles, because the carts are heavy when fully loaded.
- Raised lip on the upper surface, to help keep any top-mounted equipment in place.
For more information on devices or technologies: