A growing number of technologists and educators think they know a cheaper and more effective way to get computers into the classroom. Instead of individual PCs, they argue, schools should look into client-server architectures, perhaps even using handhelds for the client side.
"Putting personal computers in the classroom is absolutely the wrong idea," said Bill Wulf, president of the National Academy of Engineering in Washington. "The President's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology targets one computer per student. I feel it should be two computers per student. The only way to do that is with a client-server approach."Wulf is among a group of industry and educational specialists who say that it's no longer effective for schools to buy personal computers in an era when the Internet and networking make it more efficient to use less-expensive hardware, often with minimal storage.
"With thin-client technology, you're talking about $100 per machine or less, and you can still do Word, Excel or Web surfing," Wulf said. "At $100 a pop, or even $200 if you give [students] a server for their home, you're looking at $1,000 for five students. That's what you'd pay to have one [personal] computer for five students."
Lowering the cost of hardware will come with an additional benefit: simpler maintenance. That's because the thin clients have fewer things that can go wrong. What's more, cost reductions on the hardware side could also free up more funds for training, an often-overlooked aspect of bringing technology into the classroom.
It's widely accepted that many teachers don't yet have a solid understanding of how to use computing technology to improve coursework and liven up their classroom presentations. At present, only a third of public elementary and secondary-school teachers "reported feeling well- or very prepared to use computers and the Internet for classroom instruction," according to a Department of Education (DOE) report issued in December.
Buying desktops and keeping them running often consumes much of the budget allotment for technology, many observers said.
"One of the things that's important is getting school buyers to understand the total cost of ownership," said Roy Pea, director of the Center for Technology in Learning at SRI International (Menlo Park, Calif.). SRI is part of a coalition that is promoting the use of handheld systems in classrooms.
"The trend in the '80s and '90s was to buy hardware and software and provide some instructional curriculum, but not to pay for teachers or support for the system," Pea said. "Schools only spend 5 percent for professional development, while the recommended figures are more in the 20 to 30 percent range. When you start looking at client-server architectures, you start to get at some radical reductions in the cost of ownership, and that can mean more money for training."
Observers also pointed out that with servers particularly wireless ones it's easier to deploy computers in classrooms that weren't designed to give each student access to phone lines or network connections. Whether the client side is a handheld or a larger box with a screen and keyboard, it can be used right in the schoolroom instead of being relegated to the school library or computer lab, many specialists contend.
"One thing you have to keep in minds is that although the overall relation of students to computers is around six to one, most computers are not in classrooms but are in labs, where they're not particularly well-used," said Jeremy Roschelle, senior cognitive scientist at SRI's Center of Technology and Learning. "Now, schools are spending $121 per student for technology. For that, they could buy handhelds and increase the number of students with access, and the students will be able to take [the computers] with them" just like handheld calculators, which Roschelle said are the most commonly used computing tool among students.
In just the same way, mobile clients can be toted home. "They may use a TV for their monitor, but that's okay," Wulf said.
Whether client-server model or PCs, the nation's schools clearly have a way to go in moving technology into the classroom, which is what parents are asking for in increasing numbers. The recent Department of Education report "e-Learning: Putting a World-Class Education at the Fingertips of All Children" determined that the United States has an average of one instructional computer for every nine students (though other studies cited by Roschelle show a tighter ratio).
Till now, however, there's been good reason for school districts to overlook the possibilities of the client-server model.
"I don't think client-server hardware has been up to the task on the client side," said Nora Sabelli, senior program director at the Directorate for Education and Human Resources (Arlington, Va.). But thanks to advances in the technology, "Today, in education and many other areas, it's much more effective to have a central repository everyone can access. With all the handheld devices coming out, it's possible for the clients to be much, much lighter," she said.
Many observers contend that the time is right for bringing client technology into the classroom. President Bush has made education his first agenda item, and nearly every parent acknowledges that understanding computers will be critical for their children in the future. That creates a potentially huge market for companies that make different types of client-server systems.
Yet observers say it won't be easy to overcome the inertia that keeps schools stuck with the desktops they already know. There are roughly 1,800 school districts in the United States, each acting as an autonomous buying agency. Many are unsophisticated when it comes to technology, so they tend to buy what salespeople offer.
"One of the big issues is going to be salesmen trying to sell older desktop technology to people with limited budgets," said Sabelli. And given the investments already made in PCs, "school districts that already have technology may take longer to change [to the client-server model] than others." In this instance, schools that now find themselves on the wrong side of the Digital Divide "may adopt client-server systems sooner," she said.
An overriding concern for schools, no matter which kind of computer they buy, is reliability. With no equivalent of a corporate IT department to bail students and teachers out when something goes wrong, hardware that's virtually fail-safe is an urgent need. When asked what the barriers are, Pea of SRI International didn't hesitate a second: "Quality of service. A dirty secret in the industry is that it stinks."
Teachers have good reason to demand a computing system that won't crash, he said. "You've got 25 to 30 adolescents whose attention spans wane," said Pea, "and when you assemble them for a classroom project on the Web, you aren't going to have time to create a backup scenario if the Web server goes down."
Most experts believe that maintaining client-server hardware will be far simpler than keeping a number of independent desktop systems running. Wulf of the National Academy of Engineering cited one of the first tests of client-server architectures in schools, the LemonLink project in Lemon Grove, Calif. A recent report from LemonLink to the National Research Council said, "The centralized communications network enables the efficient and ongoing management of the system," and noted that "the majority of trouble calls can be resolved from the tech center using a remote-monitoring system, reducing the need for additional maintenance techs."
"Keeping these systems running is going to take a lot less skill and manpower than maintaining even a smaller number of desktops," Wulf said.
Proponents say the client-server architecture will be of the greatest benefit to schools without large budgets. Those that are now computer-poor have an unparalleled opportunity to leapfrog their richer counterparts.
"Those that already have [PC] technology may take longer to change to this," said Sabelli at the Directorate for Education and Human Resources. "Others may adopt it sooner."