Oct 11 2006

Connecting Students And Faculty To Information With Single-Point Access

From wireless networking to Tablet PCs, there’s no dearth of choices when its comes to accessing technology resources. Increasingly, schools are looking for a centralized approach to give students, teachers and administrators access to the software tools

From wireless networking to Tablet PCs, there’s no dearth of choices when its comes to accessing technology resources. Access to technology is a chief concern among school districts, both in terms of acquiring the proper equipment and making sure students and faculty can get to needed information.

From wireless networking to tablet PCs, there’s no dearth of choices when it comes to accessing information, but these solutions are often beyond the reach of the more financially strapped districts.

Several school districts have turned to thin-client solutions to provide students and teachers with access to relevant information anywhere, anytime, on any computing device. Citrix Systems Inc. is one company that IT leaders are using to make applications centrally available in K–12 schools.

Choate Rosemary Hall, a private boarding school in Wallingford, Conn. that serves 850 students in grades 9 through 12 (students come from 37 states and 32 countries; 20 students are abroad), installed a Citrix server about a year ago for its administrative staff. The project has worked well enough that the school is considering installing additional servers to make the system available for its students, as well.

Joel Backon, a history teacher and Choate Rosemary’s director of information technology, notes that about 95 percent of the students enter the school with their own computers. While that lessens the burden on the school’s hardware resources, it makes it difficult to ensure that each student has access to software appropriate for their needs.

“This solves the issue of having to customize some students’ machines based on the courses they’re taking,” Backon says. “If they need specific applications—our calculus students, for instance, need to run Mathematica [a math application from Wolfram Research]—we can’t afford to install it on each of their computers. We have specialized applications in the computer labs, but when they’re given a homework assignment, students don’t have access to the application. If we put all these applications on a central server, we can make them available only to the kids who need them.”

MetaFrame “Web-enables” applications—basically, it makes any software program, such as Microsoft Office, accessible via the Internet. Because the applications reside only on the server, programs that run through MetaFrame are available on multiple platforms, from Windows-based PCs to Macs to personal digital assistants (PDAs). Perhaps more importantly for school districts, users of older PCs can access the most up to date software applications.

“Students use their home computers in the same fashion as they use the computers and network resources inside the school,” says Ken Eastwood, superintendent of the Oswego City School District in New York.

Oswego’s goal with MetaFrame was to extend the school day. Eastwood and his staff monitor students’ usage after hours. He says the school consistently reports 500 to 550 users from 3:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. every day except Thursday (when Friends airs).

For remote access from their homes, students download Citrix Independent Computing Architecture (ICA) client software from the company’s Web site, which provides access to 53 software applications residing on the Oswego district’s servers, including Microsoft Office XP, Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, Macromedia Flash and Director, and CAD (computer-aided design) software. Students and teachers also get access to their personal profiles and network drives.

For some schools, the beauty of MetaFrame is that it eliminates the need for PCs altogether. Districts such as Carbon Cliff-Barstow School District #36 in western Illinois and Lemon Grove School District in Southern California cut costs and complexities by deploying Wyse Technology’s Winterm Thin Clients—essentially “dumb” terminals, which aren’t equipped with such amenities as hard drives or CD-ROM drives.

The Winterm machines come equipped with Ethernet and USB ports, providing access to network resources and external devices such as printers. For districts with tight budgets, these machines, which cost about $300 each fit the bill. School districts still need to purchase the requisite number of software licenses per user.

When the Carbon Cliff-Barstow district received about $30,000 in found money from the state of Illinois for technology funding, the district’s principal, Kristin Humphries, knew he had an opportunity to do something different. While Eastwood was looking to extend the Oswego district’s school day beyond the classroom, Carbon Cliff-Barstow was looking to extend the day inside the school, allowing students to do more of their homework on school grounds.

After completing construction of a new building to house all of its students last December, Carbon Cliff-Barstow installed 100 thin clients for its 270 K-8 students. Humphries would like to add another 35 systems to achieve a 2:1 student-to-computer ratio.

“My board thought I would recommend we buy 37 or 38 desktop machines, with a different operating system [than what was currently in place], so I’d have to run around the building with different software and different boot disks,” Humphries says. “I knew I could pay for all [100] of those Wyse terminals out of that $30,000.”

A thin-client setup greatly simplifies system maintenance. When something goes wrong, it’s a matter of solving the problem on the server instead of individual desktop PCs. The simplicity also greatly reduces the cost of hiring and training dedicated IT professionals to maintain the system.

Humphries notes that it costs between $10,000 and $15,000 to send an IT professional to a week-long training session. “We can’t afford that,” she says. “We can’t afford to pay these people what they’re worth. They’d be making more than me.”

Instead, the district pays a local company, Platinum Information Services, $15,000 a year to handle system maintenance.

But Backon points out a drawback to the thin-client setup. “The only thing I worry about is that if you do have a problem with your network or the Citrix servers, you’re dealing with a significant loss of productivity,” he says. “That’s why I’m not quite ready to put all my eggs in one basket. It seems to me that I would always want to have Microsoft Office on my computer, even if I were running it on the Citrix server. If I lose network services or if I’m someplace with my laptop where I don’t have network services, I can still compose a document and work. Without those applications, I can’t do anything unless I have network connectivity.”

Such caveats notwithstanding, some school districts view MetaFrame as a way to change the learning environment. Four years ago, the Lemon Grove school district, which serves 4,600 K-8 students, implemented Project LemonLINK as a way to reduce the 6:1 student-to-computer ratio to 2:1.

“Students no longer go into a classroom where the seats are all lined up in a row facing the front of the room,” says Darryl LaGace, Lemon Grove’s director of information technology. “Classrooms are designed in such a way that they’re set up in pods, and the students are working in collaborative groups. It allows for differentiated instruction, it allows the teacher to work with small groups of kids because, for the most part, kids are online all day long.”

For Lemon Grove, MetaFrame also served as a way to bridge the digital divide.

“In our community, about 70 percent of the students were on free- or reduced-lunch programs and were receiving some type of social services,” LaGace says. “The likelihood of them having a computer in their home—much less having one with the applications compatible with the school district’s—was pretty much slim to none.”

Along with Citrix, Lemon Grove worked with a local cable provider and Microsoft to provide more affordable solutions to enable less affluent students to get online. The cable provider established a high-speed virtual private network (VPN) connection to the district’s servers at a 50-percent discount, providing students with secure access to school applications from their homes.

“We decided to deploy it as an academic intervention program,” LaGace says. “Every student below the 40th percentile in math or reading in third through eighth grades is provided the equipment. They’re given the equipment for 12 months as part of a rigorous intervention. We’ve gotten great gains that show this deployment is working.”

Project LemonLINK, which focuses on high-speed connectivity, equity and adequate access to resources, development of Web-based instructional tools and ongoing professional development for teachers, involves a five-year evaluation period. Halfway through the project, the district had half the students grouped with teachers who were trained to use the technology. At that point, LaGace and Barbara Allen, the project’s director, took a snapshot of students’ SAT 9 math and reading scores in grades three through six.

Allen notes that students who had access to the technology posted gains of 5 to 18 percentile points in SAT 9 testing compared with students who did not have access to the technology. Allen attributes the results to the way the technology has changed classroom dynamics in the district.

“Teachers are finding different ways of assessing the students’ knowledge using the technology,” Allen says. “The way students post their assignments with electronic portfolios, it’s a different kind of assessment rather than just turning in a piece of paper with answers on it. It gives a lot more opportunity to effectively determine a student’s ability level. For special-education students with disabilities, this is the kind of tool that allows them to compete with other students and produce the kinds of projects that other kids are doing. It provides for a more integrated classroom.”

Given the way the MetaFrame solution significantly reduces cost and complexity for school districts, not to mention the resulting academic improvements, it seems like a win-win situation for any school district, especially when public-school budgets are under the gun.

“The ultimate goal would be to make computing as ubiquitous and simple as possible for the faculty, staff and students, while making IT support easier,” Backon says. “That’s usually not the way the equation works. When you make it easier for everyone else it usually means more work for an IT staff that is already overburdened with a dramatic increase in the demand for support services.”

Conversely, easing the burden on the IT staff is what may keep some school districts from adopting such a solution.

“Big districts have people all over who make the technology decisions, and most people are never going to go for an idea like this, because it puts them out of work,” he adds. “That’s a problem big districts would have going to something like this. The reason we did it was because we’re small and we had nothing, so going from nothing to something was an easy decision for us. What people need to understand is anyone can do it.”

Solutions Checklist

What technology issues will single-point access solve for your district?

Access: Utiilize an application that is platform- independent, so users can run applications on Windows PCs, Macs, thin-clients, Linux workstations and PDAs. This also means students and faculty can access those same applications from home, even if they’re using older computers.

Complexity: Because applications are stored only on the server, there’s no need to run around fixing individual machines. Fix the problem on the server, and the whole system is up and running again.

Cost: Instead of purchasing costly desktop machines, use thin-client terminals, which can cost as little as $300 per unit. Manufacturers’ software licensing programs still apply when accessing software from thin-cleints.