Same Money, More Computers

One of the interesting things to come out in the Beta Survey was a shift in how teachers are using technology and a shift in the availability of technology to students. Teachers reported that they’re spending more time on Internet-based activities, both to provide instruction and to use as a research tool. The most-often-used technologies are now Internet for Instruction, Internet for Research, Word Processing, and Drill and Practice. We’re not doing so much with Spreadsheets, Desktop Publishing, or Simulations, and student use of technology in all of those areas is declining in our district.

Monitors waiting to be installedTeachers also reported that technology is less readily available to students. On average, 13.5% of our teachers reported that the technology is not available to students for academic work in the categories I mentioned. This is an increase from the 2005 survey, when 10.5% said the technology is not available.

Over the intervening two years, we improved the student-to-computer ratio in our district from 6.5 to 5.8. That’s a 12% increase in technology availability for students. While that’s not a bad improvement, it’s clearly not keeping pace with the demand.

In order to make real improvements in these areas, we need to either spend more money on technology, reduce the amount of money we’re spending per computing device, or keep computers in service longer.

Given the gloomy financial outlook for the district, it is unlikely that we’re going to see any kind of substantial, transformational change in technology funding within the next several years. We have been looking at two possibilities for spending less money on computing devices recently. The first is the little laptop. While there are several options available, we’ve been considering the Asus eeePC. While our teacher certainly have concerns about the durability and sustainability of these machines, we like them well enough to move forward with a pilot project. If they can really do most of what we need at half the price of a desktop computer while throwing in portability, it would be a bargain.

The second is the nComputing X-300 system. In the right classroom situation, a card could be added to the teacher’s computer allowing three additional monitors, keyboards, and mice to use the system simultaneously. This would allow up to four people to use a single computer at a time. While there are some performance tradeoffs, the initial tests look promising. The system costs about $200, and we’re going to be trying it with a couple new classroom computers we’re installing. We would use old monitors and keyboards that we have on-hand to keep costs down. Several area school districts are using these effectively already.

In the area of improving access to technology by keeping it in service longer, we’re looking at several different products. Two interesting Linux distributions are designed to run with a minimal amount of memory and processing power. Linpus Lite is designed to run on low end hardware, and looks a lot like the interface on the eeePC. It’s only a live CD at this point, so it’s not very practical for use in a classroom yet. But it’s worth keeping an eye on. Meanwhile, gOS is the software the came pre-loaded on the Everex $200 Wal-Mart computers last fall. Again, it’s designed to give a lot of performance without needing fancy hardware.

Either of these might be used on older computers to allow people to continue to make productive use of them even after they’re too slow to run Windows with all of the bells and whistles. We’re also starting to play with nLite, which allows us to build a customized Windows install that leaves out a lot of components we don’t need. This will allow Windows to run with fewer performance issues on older hardware. While we can’t do much about aging hardware going bad, we can at least try to keep working computers in service longer.

All of this adds up to a more concerted effort to maximize our technology investments. While these measures certainly aren’t substitutes for adequate funding, we may be able to get more useful technology into the hands of our students this way.

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Author: John Schinker

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3 thoughts on “Same Money, More Computers”

  1. And no mention of Linux thin clients? 🙂

    This past year I stopped disposing of machines (7-10 years old) and am now placing them in classrooms as Linux thin-clients. I outfitted a new 24 seat lab at our middle school for $1,400 (not counting the cost of furniture). I’m now expanding out to the classroom, placing as many computers as we have room in the classrooms. We are now at a 3:1 ratio and may get down to 2.6-2.8 ratio by the end of next year. These machines can only really do web browsing and OpenOffice.org.

    The beauty is that it doesn’t cost us anything more than the price of a server. My oldest clients are 10 years old, and they run as fast as current era computers. The linux server integrates into our user directory, and staff and students have the same Desktop and Documents folder no matter what OS they’re using (Windows, OS X, or Linux).

  2. I tried. I really did. Last year, we set up a test environment with LTSP, and there were just too many dealbreakers. We wanted to replace Windows on the low end computers with Linux. But the performance on LTSP wasn’t any better than just running Windows, and we could still use all of the Windows-only software that they’d been running on those computers.

    Maybe I was approaching it from the wrong perspective. If we look at them as limited use machines, that aren’t going to do everything, we may have more success.

  3. I have tried the x300 in my room and have been pleased with it for simple browsing & word processing. Make sure you load up on RAM and don’t expect to be able to do a great deal of high end graphics. I plan on using it more for writing next year.

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