It turns out they can do quite a bit and in a fairly cost-effective manner. I had a followup call (in response to a few blog posts about my interview with Joe Hartley) with the Northeast K-12 representative for Sun Microsystems last week and he outlined a number of programs available to educators both for curriculum and hardware/software acquisition.
From a purely product perspective, the Sun Global Desktop could prove particularly useful as we try to bridge the gap between home and school. The software, with the appropriate network infrastructure, allows students and staff to access their data via virtual desktops from anywhere, regardless of client. In a school environment, one could leverage existing desktops and/or Sun's SunRay thin clients to access the virtual desktops running on Sun servers in the back office. From home, students could use portable thin clients (called Tadpoles; more on this to follow from Sun) or any Internet-connected computer, allowing them to utilize applications, work on assignments, and otherwise just keep working when they get home. Of course, we can have a discussion about broadband penetration in this country later, but for now, the more kids we can get working effectively on cheap hardware, the better.
The virtual desktops themselves are remarkably robust, as well. Administrators have the ability to deploy applications based on user groups, such that teachers might have access to a student information system, staff might have access to a budgeting application, and students might have access to e-learning applications. As Sun puts it, the virtualization is "completely unintrusive," simply allowing users to do what they need to do.
While this is, of course, the spin from the sales rep, it seems like a mighty fine idea, doesn't it? Use the applications you need, when and where you need them, administered from a single point?
On the other hand, Sun isn't known for making cheap, entry-level servers. Even their thin clients can be beaten on price by many competitors (despite some really innovative features like smart card access to an ongoing session). Enter their Sun Edu Essentials and Matching Grant programs. The steep discounts built into these programs make Sun hardware appropriate for K-12 markets competitive in terms of price with the usual suspects like Dell and HP.
This reads like a sales pitch, no doubt, but I actually get the sense that Sun is really committed to providing robust, customized solutions for educational institutions. Adding their hardware to ongoing curriculum development programs in computer science lends some credibility to this notion. Sun, in fact, offers complete curricula for a variety of courses, as well as low-cost certifications in Sun-specific technologies. Check back for some evaluations of these curricula with students.
I have no doubt that your friendly Sun rep would be happy to discuss these items in much greater detail with you. You can contact the Northeast rep (David Hunter) at david dot hunter shift 2 sun dot com (trying to save the poor guy a bit of spam by not publishing a direct link; sorry for any inconvenience).