A Silicon Valley start up is trying to persuade educators that American children would learn better if they had their own specialised laptops, but critics argue that the technology is too expensive.
Netschools claims it has developed a complete custom system, which includes hardware, software, support and training, to unite technology and learning.
It also attests that the laptops are of no use to thieves because they become inoperable as standalone computers if they do not connect to schools? local area networks within a specified time period.
The portable, rugged computer, known as Studypro, weighs six pounds, has a water resistant keyboard and eight hour battery. It is based on a 133 MHz AMD 5x86 processor, runs Windows 95 and has a 10.4 inch colour display.
Once installed in schools, the system is hooked up to the Academic Information System (AIS), which manages shared electronic curricula and network communications, with the aim of making it a convergence point for teachers, students and parents.
On opening their Studypros, students register their classroom attendance, automatically download assignments, and can incorporate research they have done using the Web into their lessons.
AIS also enables parents to communicate with teachers by email and to access securely stored messages from teachers so they can track students grades and progress.
But, although the system only costs about $2,000 per student, critics say few schools can afford to implement them.
Reed Hastings, president of the Technology Network, a public policy organisation dedicated to improving education through technology, said: "To tap into the economies of scale in the computer industry, school hardware should be a commodity product. Only the software should be specially designed."
Yet the early signs appear promising.
Netschools claimed that in one Studypro pilot program in Idaho, students showed an average performance improvement of a full grade, and demonstrated dramatically better attendance after using the system for just one semester.
And if the scheme succeeds, it will prove that education, like health care and financial services, can be a profitable vertical market for the technology industry to pursue.
Netschools is backed by $30.9 million in venture capital from Hambrecht & Quist, Vulcan Ventures (Microsoft cofounder, Paul Allen's firm), and GE Private Placement Partners. The company is headed by two IBM veterans, James Dezell, retired founder of IBM's Eduquest education division, and his coworker, Tom Greaves.
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