How many of you work in mixed computing environments? L'Unix? Mac? PC? Some or all of the above? Traditionally, Macs have been very education-friendly, especially at the primary level. Macs are also obvious choices for desktop publishing and graphics arts applications. The various flavors of L'Unix are starting to win favor in educational markets because of cost, security, and stability. To be honest, I've used them all, I like them all, and they all have merit in an educational setting. This post won't even attempt to argue for the best computing environment in Ed Tech. Rather, I'd like to make a case for standardization, especially for K-12.
By standardization, I mean using a single computing platform, preferably from a single vendor. At a university, this might not make sense, where a variety of needs and specialties need to be addressed. But in most school districts, a lot of time, money, and effort can be saved by migrating away from a mixed environment. While all of these systems can play nicely together from a networking perspective, sharing resources, files, printing, etc., on multiple platforms can be a challenge at best.
Similarly, IT staff who are adept in a single environment are easy to find, particularly those familiar with, and/or certified for Microsoft Windows. On the other hand, staff who are adept in multiple environments are far rarer. As the Mac OS continues to evolve and administration takes it closer to its Unix roots, qualified administrators are becoming harder to find. Thus, districts must often be satisfied with moderately qualified cross-platform administrators or the greater expense of multiple single-platform administrators.
Economies of scale also come into play here. Obviously, a district has far greater bargaining power as it purchases more systems from a given vendor. This becomes even more apparent as vendors like Dell and HP-Compaq begin offering the majority of hardware and software solutions that a given enterprise might need. While this is by no means an endorsement of Dell, this company provides a great example. Dell of course sells laptops and desktops, but also sells high-quality printers, networking hardware, and digital projectors under their own name. Those items they don't sell under the Dell brand (e.g., wireless hardware, specialized mice, software, etc., can all be had for substantial savings from your Dell representative or the Dell website). Not surprisingly, the more you buy, the greater your negotiating power.
The same principle applies to your favorite whitebox vendor, Apple Computers, or Penguin PC. Standardization on both platform and vendor will save money. As you cultivate relationships vendors, it also becomes easier to manage the entire purchasing process, regardless of the platform you choose. Accounting staff in your district always know how to process purchase orders, credit is easy to establish and use, and bids are easy to solicit.
Perhaps most importantly, as computing becomes increasingly centered around Web 2.0 applications and platforms look more and more alike every day, there is little need to run multiple operating systems. Baltimore County (Can you teach design on Windows?) recently switched all of its graphic arts computer labs to Wintel machines. While hardcore artists were chagrined, this move saved the district a fair amount of money in terms of hardware and administration and did not require users to learn any new software as all of the specialized software is now available for both platforms.
As in Baltimore County, a migration to a single platform will undoubtedly be met with resistance from the parties who are losing their OS of choice (or habit). However, IT decisions need to be driven by requirements and cost. If the requirements of a district (or university) can be met at a lower cost on a single platform, then this kind of migration is a no-brainer.