Tablets, netbooks, thin clients, cheap desktops! What to buy?

I'm not talking about specialized applications or high-end media labs here. I'm talking about getting as many kids online, interacting and collaborating as possible, for as little money as possible.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

If you ask most K12 IT folks what their number 1 problem is, more than a few will say "users." That's pretty universal, though, even outside of education. Some K12 techs will get more specific and say "teachers" or, more rarely, "students." Most, however, will say money.

I started consulting this summer for a very well-funded client. It was the first time that solutions or ideas I proposed weren't met immediately with "how much will it cost?" In fact, although this client is a non-profit in the business of education, its revenue streams are such that I had to seriously adjust my mindset, leaving behind the K12 sensibilities that I'd embraced for the past several years and start thinking big.

I'm not talking big as in wasteful, but big as in "we have money, we need to get things done, and we need to benefit as many students as possible." I met briefly with the CEO of the company to discuss a project proposal and knew I wasn't in Kansas anymore when he said, "It's not like you're asking for millions here...We'll get what you need. What, $150, $200,000? The idea makes sense. Get it done."

Uhhhh...OK. I think that's what they call empowerment out in the real world.

Most of us, though, don't get to have conversations like that one. Ours sound more like,

"You want to set up a computer lab in the library? And you say it will cost $15,000? I don't care if the English Department wants to run writers' workshops and you've already gotten $5000 donated. The budget's been frozen since August and I just laid off the football coach."

OK, it's usually not that bad, but money is always scarce in public education. That being said, the cost of computing continues to drop and new devices are becoming available monthly that will meet student and teacher needs very well without dropping $900 a pop for student laptops. The question is, just what should we be buying to get the most bang for our buck?

I'm not talking about specialized applications or high-end media labs here. I'm talking about getting as many kids online, interacting and collaborating as possible, for as little money as possible. I'd rather spend my money on powerful back end systems or training for teachers to really exploit the capabilities of Moodle than on a high-end desktop whose capabilities will often go underutilized.

If we're looking for really cost-effective devices to access those learning systems, though, and ensure that our students are collaborating, sharing, learning, and engaging, is one solution really any better than another? Even desktop computers at this point can be had cheaply, whether as refurbs, DIY kits, or low end new models from Tier 1 OEMs. And by low end, I'm still talking dual cores and a couple gigs of RAM.

Netbooks aren't dead either, with dual core processors coming on the scene, as well as inexpensive Ion-based notebooks providing reasonable prices and a full-sized keyboard for students and teachers. And thin clients? Do you want shared desktops, streaming desktops, fully virtualized desktops, PC over IP, or simple PXE-boot multi-session Edubuntu?

There are more configurations, but you get the point: really inexpensive computing is making it easy to do everything from make mid-cycle replacements that would have been unaffordable even a year ago to setting up mini-labs to fully rolling out 1:1. Tablets as well are beginning to change the game, once again begging the question, "Does 1:1 have to mean a computer in every backpack?"

Next: If not, what does it mean? »

Should it, in fact, mean a computer on every desk? Most kids at least have access to a computer outside of school and the vast majority have one at home. After all, do we want students taking school equipment off campus and, in most cases, beyond the reach of content filters?

I would argue that 1:1 means immediate, constantly available Internet access for all. I don't particularly care if that comes from a smartphone, a tablet, an iPod Touch, or a Nook. The major consideration in this is whether your learning platform of choice can be accessed with high fidelity on whatever devices you either choose or allow. Blackboard, for example, offers full-featured apps for Android and iOS, as well as the standard Web interface.

There are a whole lot of people who disagree with my belief that we should be co-opting student tech, including smartphones, whenever possible. Regardless of your stand on that particular aspect of 1:1, the best way to decide between the nearly overwhelming number of solutions for your students and teachers is to very clearly articulate your goals.

Requirements and all the standard systems lifecycle stuff can come later. Right upfront, it's vital that all stakeholders are crystal clear on what they want students to get out of these new investments, no matter what road you ultimately decide to travel. A goal of 100% literacy will probably lead to a different decision that a goal of universal access to the new learning management system.

That being said, unless the goal is in-depth understanding of 2D and 3D engineering and graphic design software, there probably isn't a bad choice. The only bad choice, in fact, is deciding on a hardware solution without having supporting software solutions in place and embraced by teachers and administrators. Without that platform for interactive learning, extended day access to resources, and student collaboration, it will be difficult to choose the best hardware and nearly impossible to ensure that it's used to its full potential.

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