Thin clients, though not for everybody, have done a really outstanding job of meeting the needs of the students in my school. Easy manageability, very little maintenance, and transparent access to data and applications from a variety of locations around the school have made them a big hit. If done right, server-centric computing can make a lot of sense in many educational environments and solid solutions from Microsoft (Terminal Services and/or Citrix implementations), Edubuntu (along with other emerging LTSP-based products from Novell, Redhat, and others), and Free NX mean that implementation is easier than ever.
Like most of us, I'm on countless mailing lists for every vendor from TigerDirect to CDW-G to Dell to Devon IT. The latter makes an entire range of server-centric computing products, including a comprehensive line of thin clients. A recent email from them caught my eye, advertising desktop thin clients at very low costs, as well as notebook thin clients. The notebooks, as well as a few of their desktop models, seemed like a nice fit in certain educational settings and they happily sent me a pair for review. This first look focuses on the notebook (from their Safebook series); more reviews will follow in the next couple of weeks as my students and teachers use them to access our Terminal Servers and Edubuntu.
Many schools have had a lot of luck with with laptop carts (basically moving labs that roll from class to class). Similarly, we are already finding that labs designed for 20-25 students would benefit from additional workstations when class sizes can exceed 30 students. Teachers are always clamoring for lab access and it's becoming increasingly apparent that 1:1 computing models can actually have real benefit to students.
The questions around 1:1 computing though largely center on funding, as well as management and providing access to applications and data in a secure, safe, and appropriate manner. After all, once students are off campus with their computers, they are beyond our content filter and firewall, right? Devon IT seeks to address this, as well as provide a mobile, rugged, all-in-one solution with their Safebooks.
The Safebooks come with either Windows XPe (embedded) or Devon's own Linux distribution. In either case, a built-in web browser and wired/wireless connectivity allow users to connect to the Web without launching terminal services of any sort. The browser can obviously be used to access browser-based terminal service implementations as well. RDP is built into both and institutions could use any of the existing means for granting access to application servers either remotely or on campus (Citrix, VPN solutions, RDP, etc.).
Thus, if a school or district is willing to make the infrastructure investment (as well as an investment in the Safebooks), students could have access to a secure, controlled environment from home or at school, with fewer of the worries associated with sending full-featured laptops home with kids. Since the Safebooks are thin clients (albeit with some additional features), the student computing experience at home would be very much like their experience at school and administrators could be relatively assured that the computers are being used for learning activities more than MySpace posting and gaming. While the investment in infrastructure could be significant, the school servers, network, and applications would now be accessible 24/7, rather than merely during the school day, drastically increasing utilization.
Obviously, this is a concept of which I'm in favor. The real sticking point, though, may be the cost of these machines. For $599 a piece, you get a very clear 12.1" screen, a half gig flash-based drive, 802.11b wireless, Fast wired Ethernet, PXE boot capability, and a 1.5 GHz Via processor, all wrapped up in a 4 pound package. The package itself is slick, the keyboard is great for touch-typing, and there are no moving parts. The battery can last for most a school day (longer if it's closed up when not in use); this thing is very handy. $599 is a great price for a true thin and light laptop. It's hard to swallow, though, for a thin client. It's going to take a week of using this to decide if the cost can justify the manageability benefits.