Build the affordable, usable laptop lab: What would you do?

When I needed a dream computer lab — I asked and you planned it. So, now I'm looking to propose a dream laptop lab. The only problem is, the budget is very limited.

Is it possible to have an effective, working laptop lab with 20-25 computers — a projector and printer for less than $30,000 — or less than $20,000?

What do you think?

I hope that my friend Steve Hargadon (who has linux working nicely on his laptops) and other open source experts will help give insight to an easy to use laptop lab arrangement that also doesn't break the bank.

So, as I did last time, I've opened up the Westwood Tech Plan wiki to your editing. Ask to join, let me know who you are and edit away! As always, you can comment here and as always the answers will be shared.

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15 thoughts on “Build the affordable, usable laptop lab: What would you do?

  1. Has the community made a commitment to build a FOSS-based lab? I don’t know anything about your school. Pardon my ignorance.

    As for the wiki, I’ll keep an eye on it. I am doing the same sort of project in a Moodle wiki but we’ve only drawn up really rough plans. Like what is commonly done with a free software project, we’ll nurse it before the community sees it. 🙂 I’ve only recently arrived to this school and am interested in seeing what we can do.

    I don’t know about the money. It sounds like the school can build a lab easily for that much…maybe two or three! There are several innovative laptop projects in the world right now driving the cost down tremendously. Remember that tech support costs may rise unless the school already has an educated enough community to launch such an endeavor. This can take time unless you are lucky. So, you may need to pay extra in the short-term to train/teach and/or acquire help.

    If the school is thinking of doing this only to save money, I would suggest doing a detailed cost-analysis and then make a decision. If you pressure some proprietary vendors, you might be able to get a really good price for many years and actually save more money in the short-term than going with free software – especially if your school is a large institution. In fact, I suspect that as time goes on the world may see a point where even the most popular operating system software will become free (as in beer) as it adds OSI approved pieces around itself.

    If the school desires to do this for ethical/pedagogical reasons (perhaps financial as well if that’s the case), then it will do what it needs to do to use free software. If the community has already made a decision to go with free software, then the hardware it buys (or already owns) may drive the software decision. In the free software world, there are choices. If your hardware won’t run a completely free system, you will have to go with a GNU/Linux distribution containing binary blobs. Or, if you feel the community needs time to adjust to some loss, the school may consider going with a distribution that makes installing (e.g. proprietary Flash) easy with an intent to work on weeding the garden over time. Often, a large community will turn in a direction while many members may not understand why. In that case, easing the resistance through compromise may be a better pay-off so long as the goal is freedom.

    In several respects, I failed miserably in my last teaching position in regard to bringing this change about. I was relatively clueless going in, so I have some degree of sympathy for myself even though I can think of at least a couple “D-oh!”s. Hopefully I learned enough from my friends and experience that my mistakes this time through won’t make a large splash.

  2. p.s. I am flattered that you called me an “expert” but the fact is, I only know basics about open source. There are books out there I’ve never read that describe in detail the open source development model. My understanding is more in the free software side of FOSS.

  3. Peter-

    It is just my school — I am a teacher and a full time IT director. It is really what I recommend and yes IT support is a HUGE issue. These are the things I don’t know.

    I really know NOTHING about it –even if it is practical. Who is doing it? Is there a place to share?

  4. As for software, if the school wants to go the “weeding out the garden” approach, I might recommend going the Edubuntu/Gobuntu/Ubuntu route as the community is large and answers to common questions are usually very easy to be had. But again, this is dependent upon your choice of hardware.

    What you will want to do is download and burn yourself an installation CD and then start getting your hands dirty on your own machine or one school machine. The ol’ learn-by-doing approach never fails.

    I believe today the newest version of Ubuntu is to be released (v7.10). Ubuntu.com is where to go. In their download section you can get help on how to burn installation images onto blank CDs. If you download the Live CD, you can test to see if it works with your hardware before actually committing to make room on your hard drive for it.

  5. Tom– Great question.

    Right now we have 2-3 computers per room but are going to have to do some sort of laptop lab arrangement. We don’t have the space for another lab nor the personnel to watch up. But I’m open to suggestions.

    I know NOTHING I mean NOTHING about open source and need people like you to educate me. (Except for installing and using open office.)

    Eventually I want us to move to a laptop campus, however, I believe (as does the curriculum director) this is the next step.

    What do you think, Tom?

  6. Yes — Tom, we really do want a rolling laptop lab. A lot of movement in schools is away from a resource (like a film room) and movement of the resources into the classroom — that way the resource moves instead of the 20 something little bodies.

    When you have to build a room for a lab and don’t have someone attending it, sometimes it is easier for it to go to the students.

    Thanks so much for all of your time — I’m going to paste these links to the wiki and review all of them.

    I appreciate the education b/c I know nothing about the possibilities of open sourcing a lab and if it will work.

    Thanks again!

  7. I’m not really going to try to talk you out of carts, but we found at our school that they are rough for scalability and sustainability. Having one or two carts are great for some flexibility, but keeping four carts running reliably is pretty much a full time job (ok, probably a 3/5th job, but it would have to be someone’s main focus).

    But basically, all the alternatives right now have their own serious drawbacks, so you’re just picking your poison.

  8. I was just wondering how your laptop lab search went, I am studying elemantary education in Michigan and last week we discussed in my ed 205 (computers in education) about the usefulness of computers in the classroom. I was just wondering how that search went and if you did find some, how do your studetns like it?

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