The 800-desktop millstone [SCENARIO]

Computer LabIntroducing a new feature here, here’s a school technology leadership scenario for you…

SCENARIO: You’re a new central office administrator in a growing district. Just a few months into the job you learn that the new high school your district is building – which was originally designed 3 to 4 years ago and is supposed to open next fall – is about to order 800 new desktop computers and put them into rooms configured as stationary computer labs. You know that computing is moving toward mobile, not tethered, environments and that universities, for example, are quickly getting away from labs altogether. The rooms are already built and wired, but you’re concerned about investing a significant amount of money in technologies that may not best meet the present and future needs of students and staff.

YOUR TURN: How do you handle this? Do you let this one go and fight other battles? Or do you take this on and try and stop the already-moving train (and, if so, what’s your approach)?

Got a school technology leadership scenario to share? Send it to me and I’ll see if we can post it. Make sure to let me know if you want your name attached or if you want to stay anonymous!

[cross-posted at Education Recoded]

27 Responses to “The 800-desktop millstone [SCENARIO]”

  1. Wired is still better than wireless. Turn some of the rooms into study halls or charging areas where students can go “plug in” to charge their mobile devices and use the wired network. Give other “labs” to teachers that require the most out of their technology.

  2. Tough scenario. I agree with Steve that some spaces could be transformed into study halls with charging options. I’d also explore the possibility of turning those rooms into science spaces. Wired lab benches could be quite helpful.

  3. That’s a lot of computers for one building. How many students are we talking about, and how many rooms?

    For the price of 800 desktops, you could get anywhere from 1600 to 2400 Chromebooks, netbooks, or 7″ tablets.

    Without knowing specifics about student population, school size, and budget, it’s hard to say exactly what to do. But in general I would suggest this:

    Outfit one or two “real” computer labs for classes and students that need that level of technology (audio editing, video editing, photo editing, graphic design, programming). If you have none of these classes, skip this step.

    In the lab rooms, set up a small bank of higher end computers (4 to 6) for work that requires a fancier set up. Use the remainder of the budget to purchase Chromebooks (if internet at home is not an issue) or netbooks (if internet is) and provide one to each student.

    It would be silly to abandon desktop computers altogether, but it would be equally silly to just sit by and waste that much money on so many computer labs. In my experience, you’d get much better bang for your buck with a 1:1 program anyway, since the logistics of computer labs lead to them often being underutilized or monopolized by a select few teachers.

  4. In our district we have several “secondary” schools with grades 7-12. In the largest of those (over 4600 students), they have a very large room that several years ago was turned into a computer lab – with 150 desktop machines. Why?

    Standardized testing. When the state mandated that all tests would be administered online, schools began reversing the trend to eliminate fixed labs. The school administration felt it would be most convenient to have everything done in one place.

    It’s depressing to stand in that room when there are three, four, or more classes working and watch the really bad instruction happening. Or, increasingly, watching kids taking practice tests spit out from our online assessment tool.

  5. You have to take this on because this is a major capital purchase that will lock kids in for years to desktop computing – obsolete, and inconsistent with the possibilities of contemporary learners to engage anywhere, anytime. There is possibly a need for a few desktop machines for high end work that is graphics intensive. I’m not sure even that’s true. We need to get to a tool crib model where kids have choices of technologies they need to do the work that they both need to do and work they desire to do. You have to quickly educate and bring team together to transition to tools that make sense. If it was not a lock in of precious resources, I might say let it go for a year – but you could lose an entire cohort of high schoolers because of a decision that doesn’t fit with best practice purchasing in today’s world.

    Oh yeah- you’ll have to sell BYOD, too.

  6. I just went through a new construction and I can say that the setup itself is a bonus. Initially we set things up for ALL mobile but ran into some snags that left older but still useful technologies unusable. Edtech is organic but some things stay the same and the big one is access. I have older teachers and newer teachers and their preferences can be very different. My middle school teachers (older) want sit down labs and could care less what device they are using. I have about 200 older HP remote client devices sitting around but we never prepped labs in the middle school for connectivity outside of wireless. These labs are now stationary laptop labs. Modular but not taking full advantage of what we have available. If I were to put those 200 units to use I’d be darn close to 1:1 ratio in our school. Now I am out of money and out of luck. I don’t think this scenario presents a problem. It presents an opportunity.

  7. You’re too late.

    The space has been designed and built, and that was a much larger expenditure than the computers to fill them.

    I you have a plan for re-purposing the space and completely rethinking the technology offerings of the school, go for it. I have to ask though, why are you coming forward so late with the proposal?

    Personally, I think you should skip the losing battle and start planning for the next tech cycle.

  8. I would like to know the number of students. But, my inclination would be to try to stop the hardware purchase. Put the money into a solid wireless network (if not already done) and mobile computers. Even if they are housed in carts in the spaced designed for fixed computers. The spaces themselves may make good places for project/collaboration spaces that teachers could utilize,

  9. I am living a similar scenario. I have the state demanding that I have a certain grade of computer for the PARCC testing. I want a building that is as flexible as possible. Bandwidth is the key. I think you can achieve a scenario where the desktop functions are kept alive by having individual student “desktops” virtually available via the wireless network. My current network administrator fears that the switches will create a bottleneck and we will not be able do what I want to do. The pipe for wireless connections keeps getting bigger. My hope that is in two years, when our new building is set to open, we can have high end operations done on whatever tech we have available. When I talk to our network consultants for our new building, they say what I envision will be doable. They also recommend that I build a network with drops from trays that will allow for dedicated wired connections because some applications will probably always need that high bandwidth supply.

  10. All,

    The scenario is real, with a few clarifying facts. Of the 800 desktops, roughly 150 are designated for this building. The other remaining machines are to replace existing labs throughout the district, as well as secretary and custodian machines throughout the district. The ultimate result of this purchase is 18 replacement labs spread across 10 buildings throughout our district.

    The purchased machines are off-lease devices, costing roughly $350 per machine. Budget is an issue for us, unfortunately.

    The same building will also receive twice as many laptops as desktops.

    While I’m a huge fan of mobile computing and Chromebooks, the buyin has to exist at levels beyond the technology department. Acceptance and buyin and leadership needs to occur at district and building level before we can make a mass deployment of Chromebooks.

    The fact is that it’s easier to support wired desktop computers in a district that will be approaching 6,000 computers and 5 computer technicians.

    Bob–our wireless infrastructure is great; we have almost a 50/50 split between desktops and laptops currently throughout the district

  11. Wired and standardized desktops still win. Go forward with the project. Ideally, see if you can include a wireless infrastructure that you know will be expandable in the coming years.

    • Why do they win? Couldn’t you have wireless and – if you must – ‘standardized’ laptops or tablets, for example?

      • Really Scott? You don’t know that bang for the buck, desktops are always cheaper to purchase and far cheaper to maintain and upgrade and that wireless connections are slower and more expensive than wired? Oh, and that’s not to mention much nicer screens and keyboards for the desktops. The only thing that laptops have in their favor is portability, but it’s a pricey luxury.

        • Oh, I know that desktops may have certain advantages (or disadvantages, depending on your perspective; e.g., ‘standardization’), but there’s also a reason that computing is moving toward mobile, not tethered. Should we really say that ‘portability’ or ‘mobility’ is a ‘luxury’ these days rather than accepting the fact that it’s the direction everything is moving? I believe I’ll lean toward the ‘non-luxury’ side of that question: “You can buy this here landline phone, ma’am; those mobile phones are mere luxuries…”

          On the issue of cost: As a high school student, would I rather have occasional access to a desktop computer in a lab or ubiquitous access to a tablet or Chromebook? The latter, by far. That’s an easy choice for me…

          • All depends on your application Scott. No one doing serious graphics work would use a laptop, they want 20+” color correctable screens, not <10" tablets, and many things require more storage and processing power than tablets/laptops provide.

            Don't assume that your personal use is reflective of everyone's, that's how education often gets stuck with useless tools.

          • I don’t disagree with you, Bill. But a mobile computing model for students with some machines floating around the building for high-end video/graphic work would suffice for most schools most of the time. Specialized equipment for specialized tasks, plus more generalized equipment for what we do most of each and every day. Saves money while simultaneously addressing your concerns, no? Every kid doesn’t need a Cray… :) [I just dated myself; do they still make those?]

          • I guess the short version of my answer really should be “Why is the IT person making this decision without consulting the teachers who’d be using them?” You could not give me a set of iPads for my lab(no support for the probes or software that I use) but I’m sure that other people would love to have them.
            I’ve experienced this problem first-hand. My school received equipment grants, which wasted tens of thousands of dollars giving people equipment that they don’t need or can’t use.

      • Wired desktops are the workhorse, they are not fancy, they do a job, that job has been well defined over the last 10 years. They work, they are cheap, they are easily maintained, and they are standardized. They are not fancy, news worth, they just do a job. Sometimes, that’s all you want.

  12. I don’t agree with the first person about technology being a waste in the classroom. I feel that technology should be used in all classrooms from preschool to grad school.

  13. We are all in with mobile technology and we see it as a tool for students to expand their learning time. We have 6-12 graders in a take home 1 to 1 . We do use desktops where the horse power is needed — Autodesk for example. But we have found very few instances where we would trade the mobility.

    I agree desktops are cheaper but only monetarily. I get more use out of the mobile devices — if you calculated price by dollars versus utilization the mobile will win out for us.

  14. as an IT leader in a large enterprise here is my take.

    I would agree with most of the commentary about the labs themselves. Those are not a lost cause and can be used as recharging stations, study areas, etc. But maybe you have a chance to make them more relaxing and social that just your standard tables and chairs; like a student IT lounge.

    Regarding the new desktop computers, I echo many of the replies… why?

    Assuming these are “Windows” based machines you’ve locked yourself into a IT support nightmare with updates, patches, client software management, etc. Unless you have specific Windows-based applications that must be used, purchasing fat Windows machines (XP or Win7) is the wrong choice entirely. If you buy out XP machines you do know they will not be supported in 2014 don’t you?

    Windows (XP or 7) laptops indeed are more portable but you have the same maintenance nightmares with security patches, updates, anti-virus software, and the like.

    The APPS are what should drive the decision, but there is no right answer here .The discussions about Chromebooks, iPads, Android tablets or some combination has the most merit. Most APPs are being delivered via the www and HTML5 and are accessible anywhere by any device. There may be some cool fat mobile apps that play better on local pads (apple or android)

    Windows8: Note that Windows8 may be seen as the best compromise, but in my circles this is still a work in progress with a lot of challenges. For instance you can get an HP “touch” which is a desktop type unit that has the look and feel of a pad device, running Windows8. Again… you’ve locked yourself into the Microsoft support and licensing doldrums. Avoid at any cost.

    • @Bruce G
      I agree about Win8 just being a horrible idea, but a desktop != Microsoft. You can run Linux (stand alone, or thin client), Chromium OS, some version of Windows, Android (either native x86 or under emulation), multi-boot between them, or even more than one at the same time using virtual machines…

  15. @Bruce–As an IT leader in a large enterprise, I’m curious to hear what you’re running on your computers. Are they thin client computers that support your organizations applications? If so, that’s great…personally I love the thin client model and we’ve experimented with it here. Unfortunately, it also takes support and expertise to support the back end environment in that scenario…a luxury we don’t have.

    As far as having specific Windows-based applications in our organization–absolutely, we have over 100 applications that we support on the Windows platform. Are there alternatives? Absolutely. In most cases, teachers aren’t educated enough about the alternatives to recognize the choices that are platform agnostic, often falling back to what they know. This is not a dig at teachers; they shouldn’t have to spend their time worrying about such things. However, when teachers and others participate in curriculum reviews, it also takes expertise and leadership to help make those software decisions. With the time limitations placed on curriculum review cycles, there is often not enough time to thoroughly investigate all types of software, platforms etc. I believe that the shift towards web-based tools certainly will aid in this software process and ultimately lead us to BYOD, especially within education, but it takes time to get people to that same belief that the platform could/should be irrelevant.

    I believe that wired labs still have their place in education, mostly for practical purposes such as online testing (face it, it’s coming, and we won’t have enough computers or bandwidth to deal with it) and specific curricular needs such as Project Lead the Way, Macs that are “required” for graphics and non-linear editing (iMovie and Final Cut)

    By and large, we have shifted to a mobile district, but I envision us still purchasing some desktop labs for quite some time, at least until every student has their own device, and the responsibility to maintain the device.

    Speaking of responsibility and practicality, our wired labs are used as much if not more than our mobile labs at times, because teachers often don’t want to deal with the hassle of scheduling a cart of laptops, unloading the cart, finding out that half of the laptops are not charged, loading the cart back up, etc. We don’t have those issues with our wired labs…no cart, no charging to worry about. You may believe those are suspect reasons, but when you have buildings with 1,500 kids, 700 computers and not a single dedicated tech person in the building, those are real challenges.

    To the earlier discussion about standardization–I’m not sure that any organization with over 5,000 computers(we will be closing in on 6,000 by the fall of 2013) doesn’t have standards. We try to purchase a few “standard” models each year. Our primary purpose in standardization is efficiency within our technology department. From cost, to parts, to imaging, fewer models mean easier, therefore more efficient maintenance. Again, maybe not an issue for a company with large technology staffs, but crucial to an organization with a department of 6 people tasked not only with computer maintenance, but server and systems maintenance, inventory management, construction planning, user account management, staff development (non-existent)…we have to be as efficient as possible in everything we do. Standard equipment plays a large role in that efficiency.

  16. Large commercial enterprises for the most part have built and purchased APPS inside the Microsoft Windows Framework; such as Office; Exchange; Sharepoint; SAP; etc. Microsoft easily owns 95% of all corporate desktops, including ours. We are in the process of migrating to Windows7 to be specific; but also have deployed hundreds of iPhones and iPads to replace Blackberries and laptops.

    But having said that more than 50% of our APPS today are cloud based and browser accessible. So our goal (and yours too probably) is to be device independent by leveraging the cloud to serve up as many apps as possible. Unfortunately many legacy type apps such as Oracle and SAP are not fully offered in cloud form so you are stuck with a thick Windows Client.

    Indeed there are strategies based on Citrix which can deliver traditional apps via a web browser, but that is a very costly and high support (cost) environment, so you pick your poison there. We have deployed Citrix virtual desktops (VDI) for many of our mobile use cases but it is not an easy environment to manage and there are many hidden costs.

    So as stated in my previous post, it’s all about the APPS. 1) Strategy 1 should be to be device independent by standardizing on cloud based apps that are browser accessible. This is the lowest cost (support and equipment) and highest value (ease of use; user friendly) scenario. 2) Strategy 2 would be to consider a Windows8 platform. If you are “stuck” with thick client Windows Apps for the foreseeable future, then Windows8 (Surface Pro for instance) offers you the hybrid new age mobile experience that also runs legacy apps.

  17. I agree with Pam Moran. The train is always moving, technology leadership in K-12 meaning fixing all the engines on the 747 in mid-flight. If you don’t fix the problem, now it will simply recur later.

    The goal of buying the 800 desktops is (I assume) to provide each student and teacher with some kind of computing solution and you said the building is already wired. Therefore you have to reallocate the dedicated financial resources that you were using to accomplish the goal of providing some kind of computing solution to every student and teacher.

    Therefore instead of buying the 800 desktops , instead purchase a campus-wide centrally managed WiFi system. Compliment that solution with a bring your own devices program for students and then use any remaining funds to purchase a mobile, computing solution for each teacher (if the teachers don’t have them first, then even if the students have them, the student’s probably won’t be able to use their device in class), A mobile solution could be an android tablet, ipad, or netbook and then use any remaining funds to purchase a small supply of student mobile devices to give students who are economically disadvantaged a mobile solution when other students are bringing their own devices.

  18. I don’t see this room as innovative, or anything newsworthy. I just see this room as meeting the bare expectations. If I was a visitor to the school and there wasn’t a traditional lab available, but there was a BYOD / Charging / Mobile support room, I would question the expense. Meet the minimum expectations first, and then go above where you can. Don’t sacrifice basic expectations for modern / mobile support.

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