So my principal asked me the other day, "What were you saying about those cows?" Although Athol, Mass is fairly rural, I'm pretty sure I've never said anything to him about cows (or any other livestock for that matter).
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

So my principal asked me the other day, "What were you saying about those cows?" Although Athol, Mass is fairly rural, I'm pretty sure I've never said anything to him about cows (or any other livestock for that matter).  As he saw the confusion spread across my face, he quickly clarified that he was talking about COWs, or computers on wheels.  Turns out some folks at the state level are realizing that we are quite a ways behind the 8 ball in terms of technology (and, of course, the funding that technology needs to be meaningfully implemented and integrated into the curriculum).  As a result, we're finding ourselves faced with the possibility of spending some serious money (at least by Athol standards) on computers.  I'm not actually holding my breath yet, but it's time to start thinking about the best, most sustainable model for student computing in our situation.

Previously, I'd floated the idea of purchasing a couple of these laptop carts in an effort to maximize in-class computer utilization (see How I'd spend a few $100k). I've since received some feedback that I wanted to bring up for discussion.  COWs, as they are called, are pretty cool and have been used very successfully in lots of K-12 applications.  What could be better than setting a wireless laptop on every kid's desk in your class, even if only a couple times a month?  I know I could think of countless ways to bring individual laptops into a classroom, regardless of subject area, for research, class projects, etc.  Rolling carts of laptops also save space and can reduce the need for dedicated lab facilities.  Similarly, because they are identical and stored together, management, care, and maintenance are simplified.  If anything goes wrong, at least software-wise, a simple reimaging gets you back in business.

Laptops do have their downsides, though.  While laptop prices have dropped dramatically in recent months, they still aren't cheap.  Comparable desktops can still be had for less.  Laptops get dropped, plugged and unplugged, shoved, stacked, and otherwise abused; given the extended lifecycles in many ed tech applications, the beatings these machines will take would at least necessitate more expensive support options (e.g., accidental damage protection) and would probably require more standard 3-year lifecycles.

Moving to a stationary lab (or labs) does, in fact, open a number of interesting possibilities.  While you lose the convenience, easy collaboration, and cool factor inherent in a rolling rack-o-laptops, you certainly avoid the problems noted above.  Similarly, it is often easier to recycle outdated desktops into low-availability settings after they have reached the end of their lifecycle in a lab (think computers in individual classrooms, thin clients, etc.).  And speaking of thin clients, stationary labs, especially those devoted to Internet access and basic office productivity tasks, really lend themselves to terminal services.  Whether that means Windows, Edubuntu, or some other network OS, the ability to centrally manage student application access, reduce desktop footprints, save energy, and potentially save a lot of money can be a real boon.

George Ou sent me a link the other day to a Taiwanese company selling tiny $99 fanless computers that just beg to be thin clients in a setting like this (see his post, Unbelievably cheap mini-PCs from E-way).  15 and 17" LCDs can be had for well under $200 now.  Suddenly, I have a 25 seat lab for $7500.  Sure, I'll need a pricey server to handle the applications, but this is a poster child for reducing TCO.  If you have the experience and expertise to make it work, an Edubuntu rollout here could really save some cash.  Better yet, spend a little extra on the server (or servers) and leverage your investment in other small lab settings around the building.  My resource room, for example, is requesting basic Internet access and Word/Powerpoint.  In a scenario like this, adding a few thin clients to the room would be cheap and easy.  Our new business teacher wanted to add a small lab to her classroom for Excel, Internet access, and a simple accounting program.  Thin clients to the rescue, especially given the low projected utilization for these particular machines.  The possibilities are endless with a robust, scalable server architecture, all of which can be yours for the price of rolling cow or 2 (I mean COW).

Of course, ideally, we'd have both.  Robust lab facilities, laptop carts for computer activities best done in a classroom (or when the computer lab is in use), and lifecycle funding?  The excitement is almost too much to bear.  But I shouldn't let my imagination run wild.  We still need to hear from our bean counters on a bottom line and, more importantly, decide on a model we can sustain in the years to come, instead of just spending a lot of cash right now because the state thinks that's what we need.

Talkback below and provide us with whatever insight you might have on this subject.  What has worked for you and your district?  University folks: what are some really cost-effective measures you've taken in your student labs?  Are COWs a good idea, or should they stay in the fields?  Let us know what you think. 

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