Desktop or Laptop?
by Prof. Jim Lengel, Boston University College of Communication (http://www.bu.edu/jlengel and http://www.lengel.net)
You can find them on the train, on the plane, in the backpack, in the library,
and in the lecture hall. They're getting smaller and smaller. And more powerful.
And less expensive. Half of my students bring theirs to class. You'll find six
of them in my house, including the one I'm using to write this article. Some
teachers, and many students, could not survive the day at school without theirs.
Though they cost more, the store sells more of the new book-size models than
the old large appliances.
It's the invasion of the laptops. This article considers whether or not we
should welcome this trend, and whether or not it bodes well the work of the
teacher and the student.
Imagine every student in your class with his or her own laptop computer, connected
wirelessly to the net, usable both in school and at home. Imagine that the district
or the college has provided these at no cost to the student. In many schools,
this is not a pipe dream but an accomplished fact. And in many cases, they're
not the wealthiest schools. In rural Maine, suburban Virginia, and dozens of
other places, a1-to-1 initiative is taking hold -- that's one computer
for each student (and teacher). And in most cases, the one is a laptop.
You need no imagination to picture the actual situation today in many colleges
and universities, where most of the students arrive at school, and in the classroom,
each armed with a laptop, that can connect to the Internet anywhere and at any
time through the wireless network. This is the reality on many campuses today.
And the trends is spreading quickly as computer prices drop and networks proliferate.
As a teacher, how should you react to this invasion?
Not in my classroom!
In some schools, students must check their laptops at the door, along with
their iPods, MP3 players, cell phones, and Palm Pilots. These are considered
distractions to the learning process. (Imagine a business that banned its employees
from using these devices in the office. How long would it last in the competitive
marketplace?) While this restriction is understandable, it's probably not a
wise policy for the future. Like the book, pencil, and the calculator, which
were in their time uncomfortable new technologies in the classroom, these laptops
can contribute to a major leap forward in the possibilities for learning.
Possibilities of Portability
The trick is to channel, co-opt, and control these new devices for the benefit
of learning. The teachers in Maine, Virginia, and elsewhere who have faced the
onslaught of the ordinateurs have learned to harness them for the good
of their curriculum and their students. They have invented new assignments that
take advantage of an anywhere, anytime access to information. They have raised
their expectations for the intellectual level of the research their students
conduct. They have cooperated with parents to provide computer-based homework
They have found that the laptop is in fact less intrusive than the desktop
computer. Students can use their laptop in the normal places of the school --
the library, the reading corner, the science lab, the gym, and the desk. Computer
assignments need no longer restrict themselves to special times, uncomfortable
places, or awkward appliances. A computer assignment is no longer something
special; it happens every hour.
Laptops used to be difficult to connect to the Internet and to printers. Desktop
computers were always more reliable for online work, web browsing, email, research, and
printing. But with today's wireless networks, and laptops that automatically
connect themselves to the network, laptops are no longer stand-alone devices.
My students find their laptops connected wirelessly to the Internet when they
are in the college library, the lecture hall, the new dorm, and at the Starbucks
on Commonwealth Avenue. For a little over $100, a family can set up a wireless
network at home. The connection process on a good laptop today can be, indeed,
Dollar for Dollar
A desktop computer remains less expensive, dollar for dollar, than a laptop.
Today you can purchase a desktop Macintosh, for instance, with a 17-inch display,
1 gHz processor, and 128MB Ram, for about $1000. The same power in a laptop
will cost you over $1500, a 50% premium. The laptop costs more because it must
include a battery and charging system that the desktop does not; it's display
costs more to manufacture, and it's tough to miniaturize all those chips and
drives. So the desktop is less expensive.
Steal this Laptop!
No one has ever stolen my desktop computer, but I have lost a laptop to a larcenous
lout. Laptops beg to be stolen. they are more easily concealed, transported,
and sold than their desktop cousins. A school that promotes portability must
also study seriously the issue of security. For many students and teachers,
caring for a device valuable enough to be a target of thieves is a new experience
that may require some forethought and training. The good news is that the schools
with the 1-to1 initiatives have experienced very few losses due to theft.
My Desk? My Lap?
What's best for you? That depends on how you work. If you do most of your computing
and connecting from your desk at school, if you have another desktop at home,
and if you seldom work in other places, then a desktop may fill the bill for
less money. But if you often take work home, work in different places at school,
and don't have a computer at home (or at school), then a laptop may allow you
more freedom and access than a desktop. If most of your students use laptops,
you may find your communication with them easier if you join in their portability.
If you like to write from the rocker, or surf from the sofa, you'll find the
laptop to your liking.
In the comic strips of the '40s and '50s, Dick Tracy used a wristwatch to contact
headquarters, receive video transmissions, and access the crime databases. What
was science fiction back then is the reality of today. The prognosticators point
out that the future is in small, wearable devices that connect to the
Internet and allow us to communicate or compute from anywhere anytime without
a second thought. No desks, no laps, no cables. If they are right, then perhaps
the way to prepare yourself for the future is to select the smallest computer
you can find.
For more information on the Maine laptop initiative, connect to http://www.state.me.us/mlte/
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