The iBook – An Apple for the Whole School

The iBook
An Apple for the Whole School

The vast majority of school buildings in the United States were built before the evolution of networking technology, probably before computers themselves were invented. Installing fiber optic backbones, classroom drops, server facilities, or concentrators, and completing a ‘power upgrade’ to minimize electrical interference to ensure the stability of the network, are very expensive propositions. A local area network (LAN) for a typical school of 1,000 students could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Additional workstations, server software, network licenses for applications and information sources, Internet connectivity, training, and technical support could add significantly to the overall bill.

At the same time, there is enormous pressure from almost every end of the spectrum for schools to provide students with access to the Internet. Unfortunately, the significant expense involved in installing a proper LAN has forced some school systems to opt for ‘interim solutions’ that are geared more to public relations than true technical requirements. These ‘quick fixes’ often involve coaxial or twisted-pair cable jury-rigged from room to room, ‘daisy-chained’ work stations, multiple servers running different versions of NetWare or AppleShare, and heavy-duty appliances like air conditioners and heaters sitting on the same power circuit as the servers and workstations. These systems may work fine as a temporary fix, but their performance is poor, maintenance is a nightmare, and their functional life is severely limited. The political capital gained by installing a cheap LAN will eventually dissipate when the school board is informed that the whole thing has to be replaced and ‘done correctly.’

When politics, school funding, and complex technical decisions mix, it’s often the students and school programs that suffer. There are still thousands of derelict filmstrip projectors, partially used phone answering systems, dust covered video disc players, and Betamax™ video recorders sitting around schools that demonstrate the problem. Schools genuinely want any new technology that offers an advance, but the central office either can’t afford the technical expertise to make the right decision or politics intercedes to cloud the technical issues.

The political pressure to ‘LAN’ the schools, the inherent cost in doing it right the first time, and the potential pitfalls in purchasing the ‘wrong technology’ have been mitigated by a new technological breakthrough from Apple Computer and Lucent Technology that could revolutionize the way school systems approach this challenge. The recently announced Apple iBook offers both wireless connectivity and extraordinary power with an amazingly affordable price tag. The iBook may represent the greatest advance in educational technology since the invention of the ballpoint pen!

The ballpoint pen? On the surface, that may seem like misplaced hyperbole, but please indulge me for a moment. Let’s first talk about what the iBook offers schools. For around $1,600, you get a ruggedly built laptop computer that’s faster than any non-Apple laptop computer on the market today, along with a beautiful 12.1 inch TFT screen, a 56K modem, 24 X CD-ROM drive, a 3.2 gigabyte hard drive, a full size keyboard, and USB and fast Ethernet ports. The machine is perfect for students to either carry in their ubiquitous backpacks or check out of a media center.

If that’s all the iBook offered, it would be reason enough for schools to seriously consider a purchase. The main attraction for schools, however, is wireless connectivity. Each iBook comes with a built-in antenna that can communicate wirelessly with an ‘AirPort Hub’ anywhere within 150 feet, and the hub can in turn be connected to a local network and/or an Internet Service Provider. Up to 10 iBooks can connect to a single hub at a speed roughly approaching 10BaseT Ethernet speeds—and that is fast! iBooks can communicate with each other via the hub or directly in the absence of a hub. It’s also possible to use one iBook as a temporary hub, dial up the net, and share access with other iBooks in proximity.
Thus, the iBook offers schools a functional alternative that provides Internet connectivity for a fraction of the cost of a standard LAN installation. At the same time, the iBook’s mobility, coupled with Apple’s solid system software, makes it ideal for media center checkout providing connectivity options to the whole school. And better still, the iBook is perfect for cooperative learning grouping because the iBook goes where the student goes… which brings me back to the ballpoint pen.

Some years ago, when I made the grand transition from 2nd grade to 3rd grade, I was very excited about the ‘inkwell’ in my desk and could hardly wait the two or three weeks that passed before we would begin using a straight pen and ink. For me, it was the first great technological leap; inkwells were cool. Straight pens were serious business. I loved filling my inkbottle, dipping the pen and letting the excess run off, and scrawling my letters on lined paper.

It didn’t take long, however, to realize that as long as we used straight pens, I was as tied to my desk as present day users are tied to network workstations. When learning was accomplished elsewhere, it was necessary to return to the inkwell to record official ‘pen written’ results in composition notebook. Pencils wouldn’t do, as they were usually broken when you needed them most, and the good Sisters of St Joseph looked down on anything that could be erased.

The ballpoint changed all that by letting you record information while still immersed in the learning process. On a slightly more sophisticated scale, that’s exactly what the iBook now offers. Location is crucial as the more proximate the processing is to the learning activity, the more students will be engaged and the more representative will be the results.

The Apple iBook is the ideal machine for students, teachers, parents, and administrators. It offers an inexpensive, flexible, and dynamic approach to accessing the Internet and, like an intellectual turbocharger, delivers processing power exactly where it is needed. Students will love its functionality and style; teachers will like the way it fits seamlessly into learning activities; parents will appreciate the price, and administrators will be delighted to embrace a technology that can provide Internet access to the whole student body without requiring the expensive installation of a business network. Meeting the needs of all the ‘stakeholders,’ the iBook is truly an “Apple for the Whole School.”

•Mick O’Neil•

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