When McMinn County Schools administrators decided last spring to upgrade the district's 10 computer labs, boosting math scores was a big part of the equation. New standards for federal high-stakes testing had created the need for a dramatically accelerated mathematics curriculum in half of the district's eight schools, which meant that the labs in those buildings in particular had to be up and running by the start of the 2010–2011 school year, says MCS Technology Coordinator Hugh Pritchett.
"That was a big push for us," he recalls. "Our equipment was 3 years old, so we were thinking about replacing it [anyway], but it became clear that we needed technology we could implement right away."
The district, which serves more than 6,200 students in Athens, Tenn., and nearby communities, had plenty of factors to consider when calculating which solutions to deploy. Easing the maintenance and management burden for the district's five-person IT staff and making the most of a tight budget were top priorities.
"We were looking for alternatives to our old equipment – PCs at every station – and we wanted to virtualize as much as possible so there would be less for us to support," Pritchett explains. The district already was using VMware to virtualize its financial and administrative systems.
After researching its options, Pritchett's team selected the HP MultiSeat Computing Solution, a hybrid technology from Hewlett-Packard that shares features of thin client and PC computing. Using MultiSeat, a single PC can support up to nine thin client computers with independent applications running at each of the 10 workstations.
Outfitting each lab with MultiSeat cost the district roughly $9,000 per lab – about 60 to 70 percent of what it would have spent to install PCs at every workstation, Pritchett says. The MultiSeat solution also reduces power consumption by up to 80 percent (compared with labs using PCs at every seat).
Hybrid technologies such as MultiSeat are a good choice for schools, particularly those with budget constraints, says IDC analyst Ian Song. More processor-intensive solutions – implementing a virtual client infrastructure, for example – do offer more computing power, but their price tag is significantly higher.
"I'm a huge proponent of this style of computing in schools," Song adds. "It's easy to set up and will do pretty much whatever it needs to. It has a lower power footprint, and it's easy for a capable IT person to maintain, which is important in schools where IT support often is scarce."
For its deployment, McMinn County installed three HP Compaq MultiSeat ms6000 PCs in each computer lab. Each lab's remaining 27 seats were equipped with HP t100 thin clients mounted to monitors and connected to one of the three PCs via USB cables. The system runs on the MultiPoint Server 2010 operating system, which is preloaded on the PCs.
The IT team began replacing the old PCs with the MultiSeat solution late last summer and finished revamping all but one of the labs by the first day of the new school year. "We were busy, but [the components] were easy to install," Pritchett says. "We have one PC for each row of 10, and then the nine thin clients. The thin clients screw into the monitors and are easy to replace if there are problems."
According to Pritchett, IT staff configured just one of the ms6000 PCs with all of the applications initially needed in the labs. They then removed the hard drives from the other host PCs and used cloning software to reproduce the image for all of the computers, reducing server setup time by two to three hours per server.
There were a few minor complications in the first days of the deployment, mostly problems involving keyboard and mouse synchronization with the servers. But Pritchett says his team resolved the glitches relatively easily with support from the manufacturer and using strategies that they developed themselves.
"Overall, MultiSeat has been a tremendous help. There's been a lot less need for support, and it saves on electricity as well," Pritchett says. "It's also as fast, or faster, than using all PCs."
In fact, the initial MultiSeat implementation has been so successful that Pritchett says the district is now planning to deploy it in two new 10-seat distance-learning labs to be built at McMinn County High School and McMinn Central High School.
Once the new equipment was installed, McMinn County IT staff began training lab instructors on how to use it.
For David McDonald, who teaches sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade math at Calhoun Elementary in Calhoun, Tenn., the best news about the new system was that there was no discernible decline in computing power when the thin clients replaced the old, fully loaded PCs.
"I use the system all day long because my classroom is a computer lab," McDonald explains. "There's no drop-off in performance using the thin clients, and I can still monitor each student individually as he or she works on different tasks."
One of the biggest changes McDonald says he noticed in the revamped lab was the larger workspace students now have to work in, thanks to the thin clients' compact footprint. And because the modules are solid state and have no moving parts, there's also less heat and noise in the lab.
A Volkswagen Golf TDI hatchback could circle the Earth 27 tÄ±mes on the gasoline equivalent of the energy saved in five years by converting 225 computing stations from PCs to thin clients.
SOURCE: "Environmental Comparison of the Relevance of PC and Thin Client Desktop Equipment for the Climate, 2008" (Fraunhofer Institute for Environmental, Safety and Energy Technology UMSICHT, Oberhausen, Germany)
McDonald believes the increased convenience the new system provides is a significant advantage for teachers. "If I want to install a program," he says, "I only have to work with the three servers, rather than having to load 30 machines separately."
Pam Nile, a lab instructor for sixth- through eighth-grade math at the E.K. Baker Elementary School in Athens, Tenn., says the technology has transformed teaching and learning in her classroom. "I love the monitoring because I can give individual attention to students from the teacher workstation," she explains. "If I see a student isn't progressing, I can send him or her a message or a prompt. I also have software available that will read questions to students with language or reading difficulties. The technology is like having someone else in the classroom to help."
McDonald confirms that he's already seeing a difference in students' willingness to work. "Technology makes a huge difference in the engagement of the students," he says. "I've worked in traditional classrooms [where] students do 20 practice problems and call it quits. In the lab, they do 100."
That enthusiasm is "really important in a transitional year like this one, where we're catching up to new standards," McDonald adds. "The more they're engaged [in the subject matter], the more they do, and that's what technology gives us."
The Right Fit
Every organization must understand fully its computing needs in order to identify the most cost-effective way to fulfill them. IDC analyst Ian Song and Hugh Pritchett, technology coordinator for McMinn County (Tenn.) Schools, recommend that school districts consider these factors when selecting hardware and software for their computer labs and back offices:
- Budget: HP MultiSeat and other hybrid PC/thin client technologies support more computing seats at less cost than either virtualized client or all-PC installations.
- IT resources: Streamlined management and support are crucial for typically small K–12 IT staffs.
- Power consumption: A more-efficient electrical footprint can significantly reduce a school's energy costs and overall environmental impact.
- Application needs: Processor-hungry multimedia applications often need extra computing power and will slow down if they don't get it – a trade-off that should be factored into any buying decision.