Michigan's Student Laptop Program Endangered, but Macs Could Help

Dan Knight - 2005.04.18

Mike Wendland reports in today's Detroit Free Press, "Michigan's grand vision of equipping every sixth-grade student in the state with a laptop computer may be no more."

Once the nation's most ambitious program for putting laptops in the hands of students, the Freedom to Learn program has been a great success, according to teachers in schools where it has been implemented.

Jim Bembenek of the Berrien County Intermediate School District in southwest Michigan states, "I've been an educator for 39 years. I have seen nothing like this technology to improve grades and improve motivation and improve discipline in the classroom."

Although intended to benefit 130,000 sixth-grade students, at present only 20,357 students an enrolled in the program, along with 1,200 teachers. It works, but it hasn't spread far enough - nor is it likely to.

Unfortunately, national and state economies are in a shambles. The budget for the $21 million program was to be covered by $3.7 million from the state and $17.3 million from federal coffers. The feds cut their contribution "by almost $13 million" - and there's no way for the state to make up the difference.

Michigan has fallen on hard times. Once dominated by auto manufacturing, with a strong furniture industry (Steelcase, Haworth, Herman Miller) on the west side of the state and great tourism during summer months, Michigan now has the highest unemployment rate in the nation.

The state budget is a disaster. Cuts have been made all over the place, and hopes for a gasoline tax break haven't materialized. Here in Grand Rapids, the city has closed city parks; there's no money to maintain or supervise them.

What Can Apple Do?

Students who receive laptops are more motivated - motivated to learn the technology and use it to do research and write papers. Teachers are thrilled with the results, but this successful program may fail due to a lack of funds.

The program currently uses an HP laptop with wireless, and there are no other details about it in Wendland's Free Press article.

HP's cheapest laptop is the ze200. By using a slower CPU (1.3 GHz vs. 1.5 GHz) and dropping to a paltry 256 MB of RAM (which most users consider hopelessly inadequate with Windows XP), we can get the price down to US$649 after rebate.

Figure a 20% or greater education discount, and we're looking at about US$500.

You've got to wonder if Apple could go after this market.

You'd want to leverage this from an existing design, such as the 12" iBook G4, which retails for US$999 with 256 MB of RAM, a 40 GB hard drive, internal AirPort Extreme, and a Combo drive. Or $949 for educators.

Or $899 with a CD-ROM drive and no AirPort Extreme card - isn't that a horrible deal? The AirPort Extreme card sells for $71 to educators, but by giving up wireless networking, the ability to burn CDs, and the ability to watch DVDs, Apple only provides a $50 break.

But what if Apple got really creative and configured a very affordable iBook just for large education buyers? Instead of 1.2 GHz, drop in a slower CPU. Skip the CD-ROM or Combo drive completely and offer a free external Combo drive with every 10 iBooks purchased.

Think different. Leave out the modem - or at least allow schools to say no to it. Use a lower-capacity battery even if it means the kids have to charge their iBooks during their lunch breaks to make it to the end of the day. Offer a version without AirPort Extreme for schools that are wired.

If it can save a bit more money, use 16 MB of memory with the graphics system. Maybe even leave out the AC adapter/charger, providing the school with a power source that can charge four iBooks at once or a dock that can hold eight iBooks for charging at once.

Basically, if it isn't integrated into the logic board, make it optional. Give each school the opportunity to customize the iBook for their own needs - and their own budget.

Could Apple sell a stripped 12" iBook G4/933 in the US$500 range (assuming quantity purchases)? Or should Apple do something different?

Sell the Mac

Apple can probably come within striking distance on price, but that's not going to give Apple an advantage. Apple needs to find a deal maker - and here it is: the school's IT budget.

Apple should send some analysts into the field to research just how many IT professionals a school needs to support 200 Windows computers vs. 200 Macs vs. 100 of each. If a school can trim $30,000 a year from their IT budget, they've just covered the cost of 50 $600 laptop computers.

Stress the point that you can't save on IT overhead by sticking with Windows, while eliminating one IT salary (or perhaps sharing a smaller IT staff among more schools) could equip a classroom or two every year.

Best of all, Apple appears to be the only vendor with a portable designed for the education market rather than repurposing a home or business laptop. The iBook is designed to weather a little abuse.

Add to all of that the fact that Macs don't currently get viruses, and you have a dream computer for education.

With a program like that, perhaps Michigan's sixth graders will be able to keep their laptops (the original goal of the program) without depriving next years sixth graders of portable computers.

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