A La Carts

3/15/2006 5:00:00 AM

You want wireless mobility? Have a COW.

Computers on wheels, or COWs, combine the wireless technology of today with the audio/visual carts of yesteryear for an entirely new spin on mobility. Increasingly used by districts with laptop computing initiatives, COWs are among the hottest high-tech sellers in schools today, according to market research firm Quality Education Data. To paraphrase Bart Simpson, how do you know if you should have a COW at your school?

1. What is the idea behind a COW?

They don't call them computers on wheels for nothing. The technology is comprised of three major components: a physical cart to store wireless laptops, the laptops themselves, and a short-range wireless access point. Some COWs might also include servers, printers, digital projectors, and additional S-video output ports (for televisions and interactive whiteboards, for example). In practice, COWs give educators the ability to roll a computer lab into any classroom, plug it in to just one outlet, and instantaneously create a complete computer-based learning environment.

The COW approach became popular earlier this decade as more and more districts adopted the philosophy of one-to-one computing (putting a computer into the hands of every single student). Schools realized they could avoid district-wide hardware expenditures by embracing smaller models first, and COWs provided a perfect one-to-one microcosm. Today it's typical for a district to graduate to a more comprehensive deployment once it's tried out a COW and determined that wireless is a good option.

2. If the laptops are wireless, why do I need a COW?

Bretford's Notebook storage carts feature bolting doors and reprogrammable padlocks to help deter theft.

In a word, control. Wireless networks are great because they provide unfettered Internet connectivity to qualified users within a certain space. However, they're expensive to set up, and generally anybody with a wireless card and the proper password can log on. With a COW, however, educators can control which students log on wirelessly by preprogramming the access point to connect only with those laptops affiliated with the cart. This prevents other students with their own computers elsewhere in the school from logging on when they shouldn't. It also ensures maximum bandwidth when teachers need it.

From a more practical perspective, COWs offer the additional benefit of organization. No more stacking laptops or untidy Ethernet cords, and no more boxes filled with peripherals, because each COW comes with drawers for storing peripherals and other cords. What's more, because COWs have designated slots for laptops, teachers don't have to worry about keeping track of which students have what computer equipment.

At the end of every class, teachers simply ask students to dock the laptops they were using. If one or two students fail to comply, a teacher will know right away and can act accordingly.

3. Can I buy carts and laptops separately?

Just as you can buy apples and oranges to make your own fruit basket, you can also buy the components of a COW separately and put together your own. But package deals from vendors may ultimately be a better approach. For one thing, as is always the case in K-12, you're likely to receive big discounts on larger purchases. Second, if you purchase the components separately, you run the risk that the laptops you buy won't be able to dock into the laptop cart you've chosen for recharging. Bretford, for example, manufactures two lines of laptop carts: one for Apple iBooks and one for Windows-based laptops. If a school buys an Apple cart for IBMs, it will encounter problems.

Some technology aggregators build their own carts and sell them as one. In 2005, CDW-G unveiled different versions of "wireless labs," COW systems comprised of Bretford carts with one of three configurations: 20 IBM notebooks and three Cisco access points; 20 Toshiba tablet PCs with three Netgear access points; and 20 Sony notebooks with three Proxim access points. Each COW also contained an HP laser printer, an InFocus projector, and an APC backup unit. Each package retailed for about $40,000.

4. Are all COWs created equal?

Jar Systems's HP NetEducation Center has 20 removable notebook trays and features 38 internal power outlets.

Despite what some vendors would have you believe, some COWs are in fact better than others. Standard laptop carts come with few frills: shelving, a couple of AC outlets, maybe a separate sleeve for a wireless access point. Higher-level carts incorporate more sophisticated features, such as built-in power management and battery recharging capabilities or ports for digital projectors. Mobile labs from HP, dubbed "education centers," provide enough power to simultaneously recharge 32 laptops; batteries; a server; and peripherals from just one standard electrical outlet. Certain COWs from EarthWalk Communications, on the other hand, have removable BatteryBay recharging units housed in the mobile labs, allowing students to easily "quick-swap" dead batteries for fresh ones.

Also note that a COW's dimensions matter. COWs from Datamation Systems are the largest in the industry, measuring 52 inches wide by 54 ¼ inches high by 18 inches deep. For schools with bigger laptops like iBooks, this extra space makes it easier for users to reach in and pull out the notebooks without scraping their hands. Some COWs also come with optional tire upgrades. This is an important feature for schools with outdoor campuses where standard, five-inch wheels will not hold up well on sidewalks and paved surfaces.

5. What are the challenges to implementing COWs?

The biggest challenge to rolling out COWs on a widespread scale is getting teachers to embrace the technology and incorporate it into their curricula. Many vendors offer on-site training courses that show teachers how to handle everything from wiring the COW to building an entire lesson plan around it.

Even with extensive training, however, some teachers might be hesitant to embrace the new technology, so adoption might take time. The best approach is for school districts to be patient and help teachers acclimate to COWs with workshops to make them more comfortable using the technology.

Another big challenge is determining the return on investment COWs bring to a district. The laptop carts are expensive; fully equipped, low-end models from vendors such as HP and EarthWalk sell for anywhere from $25,000 to $40,000 per cart. Because students aren't necessarily using these computers every day, charting lifecycle progress can be time-consuming at best and downright frustrating at worst. In some districts, IT managers keep detailed logs of which teachers are using carts, a rudimentary system of tracking usage patterns on the new technology, but most districts don't have the resources to do this.

6. Can I lease a COW to try it out?

Leasing a COW is perhaps the most cost-effective way to try the technology. A vendor like HP, for example, charges between $900 and $1,200 per month for a three-year term. This option gives schools the opportunity to refresh the technology at the end of the lease term. Instead of being stuck with old computers, customers can get brand new stuff without worrying about disposing of the previous technology. Under this strategy, COWs shift from the capital equipment column on the ledger sheet to the column that charts operating expenses. This shift helps even the most fiscally conservative districts manage their budgets a little more easily.

Matt Villano is a California-based freelance writer who specializes in educational technology.

Case Study: COWs in Action

Computers on wheels are all the rage at the Red Hook Central School District in Dutchess County, N.Y., where school officials recently shifted the delivery of instructional technology from fixed desktop computer labs to mobile laptop labs. The transition to mobile computing began in 2001, when Donna Seelbach, Red Hook's director of technology, set out to get more from district computer resources. The solution: wireless laptop carts from EarthWalk Communications.

Today, at the elementary and high schools, where class sizes are limited to 25 students, an EarthWalk mobile lab that can house as many as 32 EarthWalk eBuddy laptops facilitates one-to-one computing. With each student able to use a laptop during class time, the benefits are twofold: immediate access to resources and more effective use of instructional time. At Red Hook High School, two labs housing 30 eBuddy laptops each benefit approximately 750 students, and a third lab with 5 eBuddy laptops is shared among the resource rooms. At Mill Road Elementary School, a mobile lab housing 27 eBuddy laptops serves just over 500 students in grades three through five.

According to Seelbach, the ability to roll a computer lab into any classroom, plug it in to just one outlet, and instantaneously create a complete computer-based learning environment for students is adding a new dimension to academic life in Red Hook schools. "Teachers have their students working on the laptops in just about all subject areas and are creating exciting curriculum-based projects using the laptops and Internet," she says. "Instead of [teachers] having to bring students to the technology, the technology comes to them."

Product Guide: Who's Who

American Locker Systems




Datamation Systems

EarthWalk Communications


JAR Systems


Spectrum Industries

Versa Products

Buyer's Checklist
  • Understand what a COW is all about. The last thing you want to do is buy something you can't master and incorporate into your curriculum.
  • Familiarize yourself with the difference between wireless offered through a COW and regular old wireless. Generally, COWs offer more control.
  • Do your research before buying the components of a COW separately. You might be able to save money with a package deal.
  • Be aware of the challenges surrounding COWs. You'll have to train teachers how to use the technology, and proving ROI might be tough.
  • Consider leasing as an alternative to buying a COW. Leasing lets you refresh the technology and get out if you don't like it.

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