Demopolis’ Sherry Feller and Jeremiah Dial estimate NComputing’s technology can keep the cost of creating a computer lab under $15,000.

IT Multiplication

These schools have vastly increased their computing power while watching the bottom line.

These schools have vastly increased their computing power while watching the bottom line.

For the 2,600-student Demopolis City (Ala.) School District, new computers more often end up on the technology wish list than in the classroom.

“We never know from year to year what funding we’re going to have, so replacing old computers is kind of fighting a losing battle,” admits Technology Coordinator Sherry Feller. “We use them for as long as we can.”

Network Administrator Jeremiah Dial adds that the district’s aging collection lags far behind Alabama’s recommended five-year replacement cycle. “This district is in one of the poorest regions in one of the poorest states,” he explains. “When I arrived here three years ago, [there were] computers 12 to 14 years old.”

At K–8 Christ the King Catholic School in Jacksonville, Fla., Information Technology Director Ryan Daley faced his own tight budget and bulging landscape of outdated machines. “They were big paperweights. They couldn’t do anything,” he recalls. “A lot had been donated over the past years, and they would slowly die, one by one.”

For both the Demopolis and Christ the King schools, help arrived in the form of NComputing’s X300 terminals and software, which can connect as many as six workstations to a single computer and its programs, at a fraction of what new computers would cost. The X300 uses compact access devices that allow users to share the memory and processing power of the host computer, as well as virtualization software that lets them simultaneously run the applications installed on the host. The new technology has allowed schools to substantially increase their computer-to-student ratios and change the way instruction is delivered.

Nearly 250 million computers will become obsolete in the next five years, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“It’s just tapping what was always available in the main computer. It’s like a server environment, but on a small scale,” notes Christ the King’s Daley. The X300 kit, which costs about $200 and works with existing monitors and keyboards, comes with three of the NComputing devices, which connect via 10-foot, Cat 6 cables to the three access points on a PCI card inserted into the host computer. (A second kit, along with its PCI card, can increase the possible connections to six.)

Starting in fall 2007, Daley began pairing new replacement computers with X300 kits (one package each for grades one through eight), turning the school’s one-computer classrooms into four-computer classrooms. He economized further by connecting used monitors and keyboards donated to the school, and he’s been counting the savings since.

“I’ve been able to concentrate on other things than sinking the entire budget into computers for the classroom,” Daley says. “I was able to order a bunch of projectors, a [digital resource] subscription and an interactive whiteboard for the middle school math teacher.”

Alabama Expansion

In 2005, the average school had 154 instructional computers, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Meanwhile, Demopolis’ Feller has outfitted four classrooms since January (one in each of this western Alabama district’s two elementary schools and two in the middle school) with a new computer and an NComputing X300 package. Feller added flat-screen Acer monitors to the extra workstations, bringing the total investment to $1,800 per classroom, compared with the $2,800 price tag for four individual computers.

The modest acquisition has already made a big difference: Now four students at a time, rather than one, can do research, play educational games and do word processing in the upgraded classrooms. “When they see four computers in the classroom, their eyes get wide,” says Dial, who adds that the biggest difference he’s seen is how teachers administer computerized assessments.

At West Side Elementary School, Dial points out, “They had to send kids to the library to take the reading comprehension tests for the Accelerated Reader Program.” Now, groups of four take turns in the classroom, ending the commute to the library.

In the high school library, the aging fleet of six PCs has grown by two new computers and X300 kits, increasing the workstations to 14 and opening up a new opportunity for students and teachers. “The school had two computer labs, but they were used as classrooms and students couldn’t go in anytime to do independent or teacher-directed research,” Dial says.

Dial adds that by making up its computer deficit, the high school can better engage many students who already use gaming boxes and the Internet. “They’re already connected at home. I don’t like seeing these kids disconnecting when they get here.”

Christ the King has eliminated its own deficits by deploying the devices, which has made educational technology more visible as this parochial school tries to attract new students. “We’ve caught up and passed other schools our size in our computer-to-student ratio,” Daley says. “That’s helped with enrollment as parents look for a school. The classrooms look different. There are more things going on now. Kids are working on PowerPoint presentations and playing learning games on the Internet.”

The Thin-Client Comparison

NComputing devices are not the first economical alternative to buying computers for every user. In the past, thin clients — which connect workstations via separate IP addresses to a server hosting all applications — have been widely used in the corporate world and by some school systems. Thin clients are another option for reducing management overhead, as well as costs.

Demopolis’ Dial insists that the NComputing architecture functions like a client server, but with greater simplicity because the workstations are merely drawing on a host computer. “With the X300, you have one computer to deal with, with only one IP address,” he says. “You stick the PCI card in the computer, you load the software and you’re ready to go. The drivers are all on the CD.”

Troubleshooting is also simpler. Christ the King’s Daley notes that if one of the NComputing workstations freezes, he simply reboots the host computer.

The Price Is Right

Then there’s the price. “We had looked at thin clients as an option,” says Chuck Williams, technology director for Indian Springs School, a private 9–12 boarding school just outside of Birmingham, Ala. “But they were $450 to $500. They were not really a viable alternative.”

At Indian Springs, Williams has made extensive use of NComputing equipment. He installed two PCI cards into a single computer to create a six-terminal lab. He had enough money left in his budget to buy an additional computer and X300 kit and to create a new four-terminal minilab.

Williams installed NComputing’s L200 devices as well, which connect via the school’s Ethernet LAN to a five-year-old Sony VAIO. (The L200s can run on a high-end computer or low-end server.) Because the L200s plug into the school’s existing network through a router and a switch (rather than connecting though cables to a single machine, as the X300s do), Williams has deployed them more numerously and widely.

“The VAIO will power (at about $200 each) 30 of these [machines],” he points out, adding that he upgraded the computer with 4 gigabytes of memory (compared with the 1GB recommended for the X300). Twenty of these terminals are housed in the lab, with the remainder in the school library. “The huge difference is that it’s only one computer that needs to be updated for new operating systems and software. When I added a new Xerox printer to the computer lab, I just went to the server and loaded the printer drivers. It was a huge advantage in time savings.”

These devices still pose their share of challenges. In Demopolis City, Dial found that certain software programs wouldn’t run for multiple users. So he installed them in four different folders to avoid the problem. “Find the directory and then the executable file and put a shortcut on the desktop. The users won’t see the difference,” he says.

But users will notice any failure of the host computer. If it goes down, so will any connected workstations.

The affordability of these computers means that school CTOs are constantly looking for additional ways to upgrade their offerings. At Christ the King Catholic School, Daley is hoping to purchase flat screens to reduce classroom clutter and encourage more collaboration. In Demopolis City, Dial is aiming to create a new computer lab at the high school. “Instead of spending $30,000, we’d be spending about $14,000,” he estimates.

How Old Are Your PCs?

Computer replacement cycles, to borrow the words of Hamlet, have become “a custom more honored in the breach than in the observance.” Replacing outdated or worn-out equipment is easier said than done. But that hasn’t stopped educational organizations and state agencies from issuing guidelines, taking surveys and expressing concern about aging computer fleets in K–12 schools.

The Technology Support Index published by the International Society of Technology Educators (ISTE) gives a rating of “high efficiency” to schools that replace their hardware every three years or less; “satisfactory efficiency” for those that do so within four to five years; and “moderate efficiency” to those that take more than five years.

But the Florida Statewide Technology Survey presented at the National Educational Computing Conference in June 2007 found that only 8 percent of schools in that state met the three-year criterion and 36 percent met the four- to five-year benchmark. Eleven percent of Florida schools took six or more years to replace computers, and 45 percent indicated that they had no policy for replace-ment — an oversight that ranks them as “low efficiency,” according to ISTE.

A study several years ago by the Colorado Department of Education found that the overall cost of computer ownership was lowest for four-year replacement cycles. Longer cycles, researchers noted, add increasing warranty and upgrade expenses.

Ramping Up

The number of school computers used for instructional purposes has steadily escalated since 1995, according to a 2007 report from the National Center for Education Statistics.

Average number of instructional computers per school

  • 1995: 72
  • 1998: 90
  • 1999: 100
  • 2000: 110
  • 2001: 124
  • 2002: 131
  • 2003: 136
  • 2005: 154

Number of public school students per instructional computer with Internet access

  • 1998: 12.1
  • 1999: 9.1
  • 2000: 6.6
  • 2001: 5.4
  • 2002: 4.8
  • 2003: 4.4
  • 2005: 3.8

 

<p>Owen Stayner</p>

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Jul 22 2008

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