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Futuristic Classrooms: “Pocketbooks” come of age

I remember as a child having to pull a bag filled with books going to school. When I got my first PC in the ’80s, I imagined a classroom where students are holding electronic “pocketbooks” that serves as their library of books, their electronic notebook / magic slate …

The recent news of a big deployment of Linux in schools got me back into thinking just how near the reality of my concept is actually unfolding. One thing caught my attention though, the deployment will use virtual Linux desktops using a CPU sharing scheme. The scheme that uses a single computer connected with several monitors is not something new but I wondered if it’s still feasible in this day and age.

After some checking and comparing alternative solutions and schemes, here’s what I found out — electronic “pocketbooks” are in.

The Costs

Cost will always be an issue when deploying computers in campuses. This is why I believe using Linux is such a natural fit for school computer systems. Most of the software needed in schools are already available in freely available open source projects so the other thing to take a look at is hardware.

An option to deploying computers in the classroom has always been the use of a CPU sharing scheme. With this option, the students get to share the resources of a single CPU / computer by attaching several monitors and keyboards to the computer. Things have actually evolved because nowadays you can now even attach a separate speaker/mouse/microphone to each “virtual computer”. But the concept remains the same. The CPU is shared instead of having a dedicated CPU for each student. This is made possible by providing a special software to allow the single computer to have multiple keyboards and monitors which sharing the CPU resources. Below is a drawing of how it is usually setup.

futuristic-classroom-cpu-sharing

The other option is to provide a student with his/her own dedicated CPU complete with its own monitor,keyboard,sound,mouse … The dedicated CPU solution can be in the form of a full blown computer that allows each student/user to perform tasks own it’s own. It can also be a “thin client” computer which has limited functionality — usually to connect to a central computer / server to be able to perform tasks. Connections between these dedicated computers is usually via a network (wireless or wired). The cost has always been the primary demarcation between “thin client” and “full blown” computers. With the reducing costs it’s almost neglible in terms of hardware what defines a thin client and a full blown unit from a point of view of a student user. I will call this the “pocketbook” scheme and won’t distinguish between a full feature or thin client unit.

futuristic-classroom-pocketbook

I made a spreadsheet (the values are in USD) of how the two solutions compare with each other. Comparison is between two setups of 10 workstations each. I found some very interesting revelations that made me think that the “pocketbook” scheme has come of age.

futuristic-classroom-costs

Some noteworthy points about the cost

The Computer / Server cost used in the CPU sharing scheme is underpriced at 500 dollars. I think it may very well be bigger (cost and size) since it needs to have more memory and slots for the video cards. But putting the server and the teacher’s computer (in the “pocketbook”) scheme at equal footing makes it easy to compare the workstations or student computers.

The major costs for the CPU Sharing scheme are the “server/computer”, sharing device and the graphics card. The multi-headed graphics card and the needed extra slots on the CPU Sharing computer is drives the costs up. Since such setups isn’t currently mainstream, such “specialized” requirements has a increased effect. Also, since multi-headed graphics cards are focused towards gaming, it is costing more to use them in a classroom environment.

I have pegged the monitor at only 100 USD since whatever the value it will be on equal impact for both schemes anyway.

On the “pocketbook” scheme, major cost is attributable to the workstation CPU for each student. The workstation cost is based on building a desktop unit that uses an Atom mini-itx motherboard product of Intel. I came up with 140 dollar per workstation cost using the following assumptions:

  • US $65 – 1 unit of Intel’s mini-itx Atom board
  • US $10 – 1GB RAM memory
  • US $15 – 8GB flash memory
  • US $30 – CPU casing, power supply, cable and connectors
  • US $20 – Assembly cost per unit

Now to the interesting part. The per unit cost for the CPU Sharing Scheme is at US$ 299 while the “pocketbook” scheme is lesser at US $250. What’s interesting is that the $250 is also the cost of a single unit of Dell’s Mini 9 with Ubuntu Linux installed (update 2/27/09: Dell Mini 9 is now just $199). So Dell, shouldn’t you be installing those Mini 9’s in those schools?

The Pros and Cons of the two solutions

The only advantage I see with the CPU Sharing scheme right now is if technologies like DisplayLink that uses the USB for attaching multiple displays can be used. This will drive the cost down. But with the current speed of USB at 480Mbps, I’m a bit not convinced that it can handle 10 displays connected to one CPU.

I think that using an “intelligent” workstation for the student is a better approach. As “pocketbook” prices continue to go down. It can really allow for a more realistic “One Pocketbook per Child” scenario. Getting an electronic pocketbook into the hand of each student will allow him/her to use it for other things besides inside the classroom.

What the future holds

It’s also interesting to see the replacement of the classroom boards with those electronic whiteboards with touch-based features.

I think that as touch based and small high resolution colored screens gets in to mainstream, we will be seeing “better than Kindle 2” like features into “pocketbook” devices that will ultimately replace paper based textbooks. I think we’d also have to provide alternative means (besides having to carry all those books) of exercise to our children once this happens. 🙂

Gerry Ilagan

Gerry Ilagan is into mobile apps and WordPress development at @speeqs. He loves to write about electronics, the Internet of Things, mobile phones, and #crazyideas.

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