Why can't I buy a ...?
I am convinced that for a program such as ours to succeed, it needs to be very much broader than just getting Tablets into the hands of students and faculty. There are the obvious considerations, such as training, software, wireless infrastructure, etc. There are also a lot of other considerations any one of which could have a strong negative effect on the outcome of our efforts. It is some of these latter issues that I want to address now.
When I first had meetings with various groups, back in March and April of 2003, the student group I met with had some really good insights. They, more so than anyone else, were convinced that Tablets were a good idea but that to succeed, they needed to become ubiquitous within our school. Though they didn't say as much, I think they recognized that the more the Tablets were used, the more useful they would become.
This is something of a catch-22, because of course they would need to be useful before they would be widely used. Training, brainstorming, getting a few early adopters to show their stuff, and other things will address this over time.
For this usefulness to develop, though, we must make sure that the Tablets are always available whenever they are needed. Any time the situation were to arise that someone was depending on a Tablet and that Tablet was unavailable would be a blow to the program and a setback for our efforts. We chose to handle this by defining one single model as our standard platform. The only significant variation we allow is how much memory is installed. This has helped us address this issue in a few ways without the need for a big jump in IT resources, either human or monetary.
To start with, We could get the machines more quickly by ordering in bulk quantities. At the time we were placing orders, HP was allocating machines and ordering several bumped us up the list so that we got our machines very promptly. Later orders for only one or two machines have taken much longer to arrive. We could also keep an extra machine or two on hand, budget allowing, for later student orders. Using disk imaging software, we can use a single installation image to set these machines up quickly, efficiently, and correctly. As the HP line changes, we may lose this last advantage. We'll see.
Also, and this has proven critical, we are able to keep a small number of machines on hand for loaners. When a problem arises that we can't quickly resolve, we swap the student's hard drive into a new chassis and he goes on his way. Total elapsed time: under 5 minutes. If we had even two somewhat different models, we would need to have several more machines at our disposal to make this work. If we allowed other makes or models of machines, we couldn't do it at all. Oh, to be sure, we could keep loaner Tablets, but swapping hard disks between different models would probably be out of the question. The time involved for IT and the time cost to the student would be greatly increased, even if she did have her data backed up for restoration to the new machine.
We have only one warranty program to deal with and have learned the ins and outs of navigating it pretty well and pretty quickly. Having a good HP authorized warranty repair center close by (very fortunate given our rural setting) enables us to consistently get prompt service.
As we are committed to distributing service packs and patches as quickly as possible, having only a single platform to test allows us to get on with this critical task promptly. Likewise, we have far fewer worries about driver problems with only one set to support and update.
All of these things on the technical support side have contributed to the success we've achieved. Failure on these things would have been a contribution to failure of the program.
As they say on the games shows, "But wait! There's more."
Having only one model to support allows us to provide additional types of support to students and faculty as well. Since all machines are HP TC1100s, we can put docking stations, with keyboards, mice, and external screens, at various locations around campus for users to drop their machines into when they need to charge up or want an extended desktop or perhaps a higher screen resolution or bigger viewing area.
A spare parts inventory (pens, power blocks, peripherals) is feasible. This also contributes to the "always-availableness" of the machines as a student who lost his pen or power cord can get a replacement immediately. We are able to keep charged batteries for emergencies, too.
A less tangible factor is the elimination of "Tablet envy", at least among the Tablet using population. I don't really know how big a deal this would be, but these are adolescents and I suspect there would be some issues in this regard.
And last, we are able to provide these machines at a cost that is lower than anywhere else. We had two students whose parents worked for HP resellers ask if they could get the machine elsewhere, only to find that our price was lower anyway.
I wonder if someday we won't allow any brand and model of Tablet to be purchased and used. There are good arguments for this kind of program, too. But for now we don't, and I think this has proven to be the right decision.