Choosing Computers for use in Elementary Schools


Created in September 2004 by Michael Gordon, helpdesk manager and network engineer for a medium size business with operations in four western states.  My computer experience started in 1969 on an IBM 1620.    

You can quote it, link to it, but remember -- your mileage may vary and so will mine next year when everyone issues new software and hardware.  Trademarks used descriptively include Windows, a (disputed) trademark of Microsoft Corporation; MacIntosh, a trademark of Apple Corporation; Corel Draw and Corel Photo Paint, trademarks of Corel Corporation; Photoshop and Illustrator, trademarks of Adobe Corporation.  Linux, a trademark of Linus Torvalds (so far as I know).


"What is wanted?" should be the first question, the driving force behind discussion and decisions regarding computers in school.  

In the case of an elementary school, "reading, writing and arithmetic" is the core curriculum with expansion of these themes as the child gets older.  Many things that a computer can do are not relevant to elementary education (admittedly, you may have an exceptional student, for such persons a few special computers may be appropriate).

Many years ago when computers became small enough and cheap enough for use at home (the Apple II in 1980) many people wanted them but did not know how to justify having one.  One conversation I had with a fellow sailor who was contemplating such a purchase went something like this:

"I want to get an Apple II computer," he said.

"What are you going to do with it?"

"I will use it to water my lawn on a schedule every day," he said.

"Why would you dedicate a thousand dollar machine to that task when, for sixty dollars, you can get a water timer valve at the hardware store?"

"Well, how about if I use it to control a solar panel on the roof and make it follow the sun!" he said.

"Why would you dedicate a thousand dollar machine to turning a solar panel, when a cheap timing motor can do it?"

"Well, how about if I put it in the kitchen and my wife can use it for her recipes!"  he said.

"Did your wife ask for it?  Probably not.  She has a Betty Crocker cookbook, plastic coated full color pages with photographs.  Besides, do you really want flour, eggs and sugar in your keyboard, and do you want to never use your computer because it is in the kitchen?"

"Well, I just WANT it!"  he said.

"Now you are talking sensibly," I said.

Fact is, he didn't have a reason for having a computer, he just wanted it.  

Machine Paradigms

Does a philosophy or guiding principle underly a particular computer system?  Very much so, and the philosophy or reason for a computer to exist goes right down to the chips from which it is made.

Generally speaking, all computers can do the common functions and are certainly more similar than they are different.

Apple's MacIntosh is right-brained, so to speak, appeals to intuitive, artistic types that don't like a lot of detail and want things to work as automagically as possible.  It has only one menu bar on the screen at a time; even if you have multiple programs open, only one of them can have focus, its menu will be the only menu, and the menu is detached from the document window.  Mouse has only one button.  Some paradigms are mysterious; to remove a disk, you drag its icon to the trash and while you'd think you just erased everything, what actually happens is the disk pops out.   Technically, Mac's started out with the Motorola 68000 series chip; using a flat memory model and seven identical index registers -- extremely well suited to working on large blocks of data (ie, digital images) but not very efficient on varying sizes of small data (ie, text, word processing).  I believe newer chipsets (The G5 for instance) now include variable length instructions and operands, converging the characteristics to be more similar to that of its main competitor.

Microsoft's Windows is left-brained, so to speak; coming from the world of the IBM PC.  It speaks rows and columns, numbers, data.  Everything down to the processor chip itself is tuned to business processing.  The CPU chip uses a segmented memory architecture, instructions and data is variable length.  That produces exceptionally high code efficiency and is great for multi-tasking. The segmentation philosophy means that each "window" has its own menu bar and exists independent of all other windows.  This can reduce errors that happen on a MacIntosh when you forget which window (application) the menu bar is now speaking to.

Linus Torvald's Linux is compiled for more than one platform so it is not confined to any particular chip but is most frequently found on the same Intel chips that can also run Microsoft Windows.  As such, Linux combines the telecommunications and security strength historically associated with Unix (Linux is not Unix, but is a "work-alike") and the CPU efficiency of the Intel chipset; in other words, it leans toward business use, data processing and telecommunications.

Educational Functions

Educational functions that might benefit from a computer and a hint as to what kind might be most suited:
  1. Reading.  The computer does not really help anyone read but it can assist with phonics exercises and comprehension exercises.  It also has place with people that have visual impairment and need to see text larger.  
  2. Writing.  The computer merely assists with the tedium of report writing.  
    1. Benefits: Much faster erasing. Readability of report. Style considerations may be easier to use.  Speed may be faster than handwriting for elementary children.
    2. Downside: It could retard penmanship and it can certainly retard scholarship if the student learns only "copy" from a web page and "paste" into my report.  
    3. Preferred computer:  None.  All of the major types of computers offer word processing.  Convergence has caused nearly all word processors to become very similar.
    4. Applications:  Microsoft Word (for Windows), Open Office or Abi Word (Windows or Linux); many others.  
  3. Arithmetic.  The computer can either organize the math or actually do the work.  At the elementary school level, I would prefer children NOT to use the computer as a "homework machine." 
    1. Benefits:  Hardly any for younger children.  They must learn to do arithmetic by hand.  On the other hand, spreadsheet programs may be useful as a presentation tool to produce meaningful charts and graphs out of seemingly meaningless data.
    2. Downside: The "original" homework machine.  If children are going to use a machine, let them use an abacus to work problems (the abacus has mechanical equivalents to "carry" and "borrow" and I even learned to multiply and devide on an abacus).  Dependency on a computer for arithmetic must be avoided.
    3. Preferred computer: Any business oriented system.  First choice: MS Windows, followed by Linux and MacIntosh.  
    4. Applications: Microsoft Excel (for Windows), Quattro Pro (for Windows), Mathematica (higher math and calculus, for Windows),  Open Office (for Windows or Linux), Gnumeric (for Linux), a higher math program exists for Linux but I have not played with it yet, I think it is Gnuplot.  
  4. Thinking.  One of the best uses for a computer in the classroom.
    1. Benefits:  The inherent determinancy and logic of a computer is ideally suited to playing games.  Games usually involve some degree of problem solving and memory; the electronic versions of well known board games such as Reversi (also known as Othello), Chinese Checkers and Chess come to mind.  Electronic card games can require careful thought; one such is "Free Cell" and it teaches ordering and planning.  Many of the "Adventure" style games (Warhammer, Final Fantasy) require players to evaluate the mission, choose companions, weapons and supplies, and then deploy them correctly through the game.  The most cerebral of the genre is "Riven" and "Myst" where you don't shoot anyone at all but to escape this virtual world requires solving a blizzard of very interesting and difficult puzzles, as well as remembering where you have been and what you already tried that worked or did not work.  The graphics are beautiful and it requires a substantially powerful computer to play many games.
    2. Downside:  Is there a downside to thinking?  Anyway, some students might experience difficulty utilizing excellent skills developed on a computer to real life similar situations.  Other students may simply not be thinkers and may find "thinking" computer games frustrating or pointless ("NF" in the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator) yet find happy fulfilment programs more appealing.   My daughter played that type for a year, earning computerized praise with the efficiency of a laboratory pigeon but I'm not convinced that she learned anything that transferred to the real world.
    3. Preferred computer:  Any.  Microsoft Windows has more of the first-person realtime action games, Linux has a nice portfolio of thinking and logic games and very likely the same portfolio exists for MacIntosh. 
    4. Applications: Simple games such as Freecell and Reversi work well for all age groups.  Intensely visual games such as Myst and Riven would probably work well with autistic children whose "input" is narrowly defined yet whose minds are very intelligent.  
  5. Presentation and Public Speaking.  Students need to be able to communicate; visually and verbally.  The computer can help with the visual part of this.
    1. Benefits of Powerpoint (or equivalent) screen-oriented display programs: Add some pizazz to student presentations to the class.  Use a projector and a screen.  Page oriented display ensures that each screen contains exactly and only what you want to see on that screen. 
    2. Benefits of Web presentations:  Global audience, portable presentation -- almost everyone has a way to view your presentation.  (Privacy problems can be mitigated two ways: access controls and secure website).
    3. Downside of any electronic presentation: Complexity, the medium can become more important than the message.  Powerpointitis is a well known government disease.
    4. Downside of Web presentations: Global audience (privacy problems); not predictable what size screen people have, not usually page oriented.
    5. Preferred platform:  MS Windows; followed by Linux or MacIntosh.  
    6. Applications:  Powerpoint (Windows, maybe MacIntosh); Corel Presentations (Windows); Impress (part of the Open Office suite for Windows and Linux).
  6. See, Show and Tell.  As implemented in the computer, through the use of graphics, either images or vectors.  
    1. Bitmap graphics: photographs and scanned images composed of pixels (picture elements).
      1. Benefits:  Visual input is extremely useful for learning with an estimated 50% retention rate.  If children manipulate relevant images themselves, they are very likely to remember the image and its meaning.
      2. Downside:  Not much; but it can become consuming and distracting because of the power of images.  It also eats a lot of disk storage.  Bitmap images cannot be scaled to different sizes cleanly.
      3. Preferred platform: MacIntosh is widely regarded as the imaging platform.  Windows and Linux compete for second place.  Linux has a slight advantage insofar as superior memory management goes, Windows has a wider variety of applications and a generally smoother interface.
      4. Applications: Corel Photopaint (Windows), Adobe Photoshop (Windows, Mac) -- about the same thing at twice the price of Corel.  "The Gimp" ( for Linux (and Windows and Mac for that matter).  Primitive applications include MS Paint (Windows) and many others.
    2. Vector Graphics: images composed of lines and shapes rather than pixels.  
      1. Benefits:  As with photographs, visual input is very compelling.  The simple shapes obtained by vector graphics are better for charts and diagrams.
      2. Downside: Expensive and complex software.  
      3. Preferred platform:  None, but good applications seem to be existing only for Windows and MacIntosh.
      4. Applications: Corel Draw (Windows), Adobe Illustrator (Windows, Mac; very expensive).  I know of no general purpose illustrator program for Linux.
  7. Need Input!  In the movie, "Short Circuit", the robot, Number 5, comes alive and has a thirst for knowledge.  One way that is now gained is through the World Wide Web; traditionally the computer offered CD-ROM libraries containing enormous quantities of information.
    1. Benefits of the Web: An enormous repository of information and images; a small portion of which can be considered useful and factual.
    2. Benefits of CD-ROM knowledgebases (Encyclopedia, Literature): Enormous quantities of probably correct information at cheap prices.
    3. Downside of the Web: the larger portion which is not considered useful or factual.
    4. Downside of CD-ROMs:  The slight nuisance in choosing which CD is likely to have what you want.  Also, recent events are not going to be on CD.
    5. Preferred platform:  Linux, followed by MacIntosh and Windows bringing up the rear.  Windows is a magnet for hostile websites.  This is mitigated somewhat by using Mozilla rather than Internet Explorer; Microsoft fights back by making some websites work ONLY if you are using Internet Explorer.  I fight back, in turn, by advising webmasters that they really ought to make their websites correctly so it doesn't matter what web browser a person is using. 
    6. Applications: Microsoft Internet Explorer (for Windows and Mac), Netscape (all platforms), Mozilla (all platforms), Opera (all platforms).  Mozilla is much safer and preserves privacy much better than Internet Explorer.  Netscape seems to be dead; Mozilla is its successor.

Things that probably do NOT need to be considered for Elementary School Computer Lab

  1. Computer programming.  Linux is easily the champion here; the platform is free, the compiler for the programming languages C, C++, and presumably Fortran and some others are all free and very good.  How many child computer programmers do you know?  Not many; if you have one, get at least one Linux computer.
  2. Computer Aided Design (CAD).  The premier spots go to Sun workstations, Irix, Silicon Graphics -- very expensive, Unix-based systems.  The leading "affordable" software is AutoCAD but it retails for $2,500 or so and then you add modules.  Difficult to learn but certainly capable of designing houses and other things with great detail.
  3. Application Serving.  This is where one computer does all the computing; all other computers are merely windows that show what the virtual machines are doing on the one and only application server.   It is very expensive to implement in Microsoft Windows but not too difficult; much more challenging yet "free" of capital cost in Linux.  Benefit: generally speaking you need to buy only one copy of a program.  Downside: the terminal server license are very expensive and the host computer must be profoundly powerful (hence, expensive).  In Linux, the X-windows system was designed a very long time ago (20 or more years ago) in an era when efficiency was much more important.  It can remotely compute and display with much greater efficiency than can Microsoft Windows (in my opinion; your mileage may vary). 
  4. Email.  How many of your children should be sending or receiving email at school? 

Value Matrix

To choose the computers for your situation, a value matrix helps.  Using a spreadsheet is a good idea for this since you will undoubtedly adjust the weights and values.

To get everything to a meaningful range, we use a multiplier, called a weight.  For instance, the cost of software, in dollars, can be weighted to a similar range as an arbitrary assessment of value.

For instance, in this demonstration I weight the Reading function at 10 (important), the Linux-factor at 1 (how well does Linux address the reading function) and the product, 10, is the value of Linux to the reading function.  Windows is better suited to reading software so it gets a 3; producing a value of 30.

The cost of software is divided by 10 (0.1 multiplier) so a 200 dollar reading software ends up with a value of -20.   So long as you use reasonable values, the method is quite reliable and is largely free of religious bias (religious meaning that tendency of advocates to prefer one system or another based on emotional rather than rational values).

Obviously, we compare only those platforms that meet your goals.  If only one platform can do what you want to do, no further analysis is needed.  However, for elementary school labs that need basic functions, any of the popular operating systems will suffice.

Function                                  Weight      Linux-factor,result     Windows-factor,result   MacIntosh-factor,result
Reading                                        10                1, 10                              3, 30                          3, 30
  Cost of reading software             10                0, 00                            -3, 30                         -3, 30
Writing                                          10                5, 50                             6, 60                          5, 50
  Cost of word processor               10                0, 00                            -9, 90                         -7, 70
(Remainder of functions)
  (Remainder of cost of software)

Software Result   (add columns)                         60                                  -30                            -20

Cost of Operating System             0.1                 -0                                   -28                          
Cost of Hardware                         0.1                  -0                                   -50                           -90
Help cost times frequency            0.1                 -30                                 -40                           -60
(Windows needs help 5 times more often than Linux, but is usually cheaper so we split the difference)
Total Benefit of Ownership                                  30                                  -148                        -170
(Assuming you already have computers that can run Linux but would have to purchase Windows or MacIntosh computers)

And so on.   In this simple demonstration, Linux comes out far ahead of the other choices, but of course, statistics have meaning only when comparing "like" things.  In my helpdesk experience, Linux needs intervention 1/5 as often as Windows, but part of that difference is because Linux is usually used as a server and Windows is primarily used as a desktop.   If we compared like-with-like the outcomes will almost certainly differ.


So you are ready to do it.  What now?  The show stopper is whether or not you have talent on-hand.  The cost of a human expert exceeds all other costs combined.  Right after looking at what is wanted you should look at what do I already have.  If you have nothing -- no hardware and no talent, then it doesn't matter much -- you're going to pay a lot.  If you already have a Windows expert, then it's a "no brainer", that's the way to go.  His/her $30,000 wage becomes a weighted factor of 3,000 in the above value matrix and no other factor comes close.  If you have a Linux expert, same story, different outcome; go with Linux.

Only in a LARGE installation (more than 30 computers of $1k each, becoming equal in cost to the annual cost of your expert) does it really start to matter what kind of hardware and software you use.

In a very large installation of several hundred computers, it matters so much that you choose the hardware and software first then hire an expert to run it.

  1. The Linux kernel is much more efficient than Windows, meaning, you can operate Linux on old machines that will not support current versions of Windows.  This fact is relevant if you have several old machines that you wish to continue using.  Many companies are willing to donate good used computers to schools; they will not run the latest version of Windows but they will run Linux and you should not continue to use the old versions of Windows because of security vulnerabilities.
  2. Microsoft Windows is the de facto standard for business computing in America.
  3. Apple MacIntosh is the de facto standard for graphic arts and publishing in America. 
  4. Linux is the de facto standard for computer programmers on a tight budget, school students on a tight budget, families on a tight budget especially that tiny fraction that is religiously honest in their software acquisition. 
  5. More software is available for Microsoft Windows than any other platform.  However, that is relevant only if you are planning on purchasing a huge library of software.
  6. Microsoft Windows generally cannot be fixed if something goes wrong -- it's a "black box" and it does magical things.  In case of disaster, you restore from CD and start from scratch. 
  7. MacIntosh is also a black box; maybe even blacker.
  8. Linux is wide open.  You can inspect, change, repair anything about Linux -- if you possess sufficient skill, so it is great for students of computer science, especially poor students!  How much that is depends on what you are changing.  Removing "mp3" from the list of automatically downloaded files in the "Gary" program is easy; it is written in the PERL plain language program and you can see the "mp3" sitting right there.  Take it out in your word processor, run "Gary" and you have just changed the program.  Easy as pie.  On the other hand, if you have a Netgear FA-410 PCMCIA ethernet adapter card stuck in 100 megabit mode, you'll have to write a small program to send it the appropriate commands to switch it to 10 megabit should you need to do that (I did, and it was not very easy at all). 
  9. Security, Privacy, Viruses
    1. Windows: bad, bad, bad.
    2. Linux: good, good, good.
    3. MacIntosh: good, medium, good.
    4. Details: Ever hear of anti-virus software for MacIntosh?  Well, neither have I.  Nor for Linux.  But you'd better have antivirus software on your Windows machine.  Privacy is a function of the software rather than the operating system.  Programs for MS Windows, especially Internet Explorer, tend to invade privacy as does its vulnerability to worms and viruses.   Programs for Linux can steal your privacy, too, but for the moment not much of that sort of thing exists for Linux.  Mozilla is more privacy conscious right out of the starting gate than is the current and previous versions of Internet Explorer (version 6) and is easily enhanced to be almost paranoid about security and privacy.  IE can also be adjusted, but it is not very obvious what you are doing, or how to do it, and it is not very granular (IE can turn on, or off, Java; Mozilla can allow specific functions to work and others to not work). 
  10. Maintenance.  I have about six Linux boxes and about 200 MS Windows installations to service, a ratio of 33 to 1.  I (with two other men) have completed about 22,000 (yes, twenty-two thousand) services on MS Windows installations in the past three years.  In that time, 130 services were for the Linux computers, a ratio of 169 to 1.   That works out to a maintenance intervention ratio of about 5-to-1 in favor of Linux.  That is not the whole story of course; most of the Windows interventions do not require the level of expertise that those few Linux interventions required and the Linux were used primarily as servers while the Windows were used primarily as desktop computers.  However, the Windows computers were also running in restricted user mode which greatly reduces their need for maintenance and we still consumed 22,000 tickets.
    1. Windows:  Like a certain brand of pickup truck that needs to be "fixed or repaired daily," but is relatively easy to fix.  If it is broken completely, fixing it is not a choice, you pop in the CD and rebuild the computer from scratch.  "Ghosting" or imaging the disk is the fast, easy way to do this.  Google "Norton Ghost". 
    2. Linux: Like a Ferrari.  Reliable, efficient; but when it breaks you're gonna need an expert.  Or you can do it the Windows way and just pop in the CD and start from scratch.   Fortunately, experts are developing every day in high schools and colleges and bedrooms all across America! 
    3. MacIntosh:  Another Ferrari, and not very many experts to choose from.
    4. Sun Workstations, Irix, Silicon Graphics:  Lamborghini, twelve cylinder, 24 valve turbocharged computers.   You wouldn't put your seven-year-old at the keyboard of one of these, but these computers scream through hard work and can do it 7 days a week, round the clock, for years.  

Bottom Line

Generally speaking, up through this year, I would probably recommend Microsoft Windows for small elementary schools who wish to expose their students to applications rather than pure technology (ie, gadgets, gizmos and computer programming).  Such schools should teach basic principles (reading, writing, arithmetic) and computers should directly assist those functions.  Technology for its own sake is probably wasted on most elementary school age children -- how many first graders are going to appreciate the nuances that define Linux versus Windows?

I recommend schools choose a mix of platforms that represent approximately the market share (and thus, the probability that children will have one at home) of the contenders -- 80 percent Windows, 15 percent Linux and 5 percent Mac, depending on your community demographics which may vary from national market percentages.

A mixture ensures that students can take work home whether they have Linux or Microsoft Windows at home; or even a MacIntosh -- school labs ought to have a MacIntosh or two for those students that display a gift for graphics.

Generally speaking, all of these computers can talk to each other; Linux excels at being the hub in a lab with a mixture of operating systems.