The technology coordinator for Bowling Green’s school district, Beth Krolak, has increased her student-to-computer ratio while decreasing the IT costs associated with keeping hundreds of desktops up to date.

Apr 17 2008

Saving Money, Space and Energy

New technology allows this Ohio district to put more terminals in front of students for less money.

New technology allows this Ohio district to put more terminals in front of students for less money.

When teachers at Kenwood Elementary School attended a staff meeting last summer, they learned that most of the computers they once had in their classrooms were gone. Well, not literally gone, but certainly transformed.

The district had upgraded the school’s technology with help from a new product by NComputing, the X300 terminal. Most teachers already knew that when hooked to a computer processing unit (CPU), each terminal enabled them to add up to three more workstations in their classroom for a fraction of the cost of a single computer. What they couldn’t predict was how easy the transition would be and what other benefits they and the school would receive.

Like many schools across the country, Kenwood, which is part of the pre-K–12 Bowling Green (Ohio) Area Schools district, was having a hard time replacing its hardware every five or six years. A single desktop cost approximately $800. The school needed to replace about 120 outdated computers in its classrooms, library and computer lab. Four more elementary schools in the district faced the same challenge. Considering shrinking budgets and rising expenses, the district installed X300 terminals so it could achieve its technology goals.

The district’s technology coordinator, Beth Krolak, first heard about the terminals from a neighboring school district. Her curiosity piqued, she did her research and learned why the X300 was such a big hit with schools.

The product includes a PCI card and three access points. The PCI card is inserted into the host computer. The card then connects to each terminal with a Cat 6 STP cable, enabling up to four students to work off one CPU simultaneously. Because standard CPUs can accommodate two PCI cards, the number of computer workstations can actually be boosted to seven for each host.

Nearly all applications on the host computer can be shared. Students can also work simultaneously on different applications. For example, one student can conduct research on the Internet while others are e-mailing or using office-productivity or basic multimedia software.

Each kit runs approximately $200, far less than the cost of a CPU. The cost savings allowed the district to pilot the technology for nearly two months last spring in several elementary classrooms.

“We got the thumbs up from those classroom teachers so we put them in all of the other classrooms,” recalls Krolak, adding that an estimated 70 classrooms in the district’s elementary schools were due for technology upgrades.

A standard computer processing unit (CPU) uses about 115 watts per hour, nearly as much energy as two 60-watt lightbulbs per hour.

The next summer, instead of purchasing 280 new computers — four per classroom, at a cost of approximately $250,000 — the district bought about 90 terminals and 70 host computers that were paired with existing monitors. Then it purchased flat-screen monitors for each additional workstation. Total savings: approximately $160,000.

“We bought one new computer for every classroom, one of these devices, then used the monitors, old keyboards and mice we already had,” she explains. “We couldn’t have upgraded all of our classrooms in the elementary schools in one summer without it. We probably would have done two to three schools this past summer and the rest next summer.”

The terminals require no training to operate. All teachers and students need to do is turn on the host computer before logging on to other workstations. Installation wasn’t difficult, either. Krolak points to Chip Harms, a sixth-grade teacher at Kenwood, who doubles as a technology representative for her building. Harms set up approximately 90 terminals throughout each of the district’s elementary schools.

“We needed hardly any instruction,” says Harms, referring to herself and three other elementary school teachers who also shadow as technology reps for their building. “We were shown one time how to set the box up. That was it. It was a piece of cake.”

The district plans on using its savings to maintain its replacement cycle and purchase more technology for other classrooms, such as interactive whiteboards, projectors, cameras and software. Meanwhile, it may install more X300 terminals at its junior high school. It’s currently exploring how the technology would impact the school’s 30 classrooms and three computer labs. More than likely, Krolak says, the junior high will be equipped with the terminals in the summer of 2009.

“For us, it’s been great,” Krolak says. “It allowed us to provide four computers in all of our classrooms while still having savings available for other technologies that support student learning. My guess is it will be a good scenario for other schools as well.”

Benefits Beyond Cost

While most schools are primarily interested in the cost savings the X300 offers, they can also use the terminals to improve technology access, adds Don Knezek, chief executive officer at the International Society for Technology in Education in Washington, D.C.

Knezek explains that equal access to technology is a big factor in education. In schools with minimal resources, students often take turns using a computer or work in pairs.

“The [terminals] have the ability to give more students more access with less cost,” Knezek says. “If students have uneven access to technology and connectivity, they’re going to have uneven access to learning. This solution helps address this issue.”

Teachers also appreciated how much space the terminals saved at each workstation, adds Gary Keller, Kenwood’s principal. No more CPUs sitting on desks, tables or floors. Because the terminals shrink the size of work space needed, he says, his school was able to squeeze in three more workstations in its lab. It now can accommodate 20 stations instead of 17.

“That may not sound like a lot,” Keller says, but the change can mean that nearly every student has his or her own terminal. “You don’t have as many students trading off [computers].”

Energy Savings, Too

In addition to the up-front cost savings, this computing model has another payoff. Since the units require less energy, schools are saving energy and lowering costs at the same time.

“A lot of kids are learning about greenhouse gases and global warming as part of their science curriculum,” says Raj Shah, chief marketing officer at NComputing in Redwood City, Calif. One of the biggest energy consumers in schools: the computer processor.

Schools with 100 CPUs may use more than 60,000 watts of electricity each school day. However, each X300 terminal — which replaces three CPUs — only requires one watt of power per hour.

“For a lot of schools really trying to be green, this is the ultimate green computer,” Shah says. Despite the cost and space savings, technology is only useful if it functions properly. The X300 terminals deliver. Students don’t even realize they’re working off the same computer. When comparing how the terminals operate against four separate computers, Keller says there’s virtually no difference in speed or other measures of performance.

The only potential drawback is that because only one CPU is being used, the number of USB ports to plug in peripherals, such as a digital camera, is limited. The same holds true for CD-ROMs. Students can play only one CD at a time.

Still, this isn’t a problem for any of the district’s elementary schools, especially when weighed against all of the technology’s advantages. Other perks: The X300 requires less cabling, which saves more money, and the software needs to be installed on only one computer, which saves time. And repairs are quicker: Only one computer — not four — needs to be maintained.

“When there’s an opportunity to save those amounts of money and space in the education business, it makes good sense to explore [terminals] and see if they work in your given situation as they have for us,” Keller says.

Green Lessons

Environmentally friendly schools are teaching students how technology can help conserve energy and resources. Here are a few examples offered by Rachel Gutter, schools sector manager at the U.S. Green Building Council in Washington, D.C.:

  • Twenhofel Middle School, Independence, Ky.: From centralized school computers, students log on to the school’s Web site to monitor the amount of rainwater the school harvests and how much energy the school uses and generates from solar panels on its roof.
  • Sidwell Friends School, Washington, D.C.: Sidwell’s middle school students constructed a wetlands that will soon be fed by human waste from the school’s bathrooms. Sewage from the sinks and toilets will flow through a primary treatment tank that first removes solids, then pumps out the remaining water to the wetlands, circulating several times. With help from the sun, soil, microorganisms and fresh air, the water will be naturally cleaned and help sustain plant life. While working with the U.S. Geological Survey, students also discovered 46 different species of bees living in the wetlands. Six were new to the region and considered rare, such as the Lasioglossum asteris.

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