Computer-sharing technology supports one-to-one

One-to-one computing is on the rise at K-12 schools across the nation due to the impact computers have on learning, from improved scores on standardized tests to lowering drop-out rates. But providing a computer for every student remains a challenge due to severe budget constraints as schools struggle with teacher lay-offs, aging buildings and other needs to meet their educational mandate.

Now a new computer sharing technology—not thin client, but one that solves the pitfalls of older thin client, network server-based equipment—is helping schools achieve their 1:1 computing needs for far less than they would spend on new computers.

When aligned with core curriculum, computers not only can be used as tutors but also as tools for research, collaborative learning, and higher order thinking. This is often done via simulations, computer assisted instruction, integrated learning systems, and other educational technologies.

“Computers will enhance learning only when students have easy access to them in their classroom,” states author Harvey Barnett in his ERIC Digest article Investing in Technology: The Payoff in Student Learning. “Using computers once or twice a week will have negligible impact on student learning.”

Because the high cost of purchasing and maintaining new computers is daunting to cash-strapped schools, many have looked to thin client systems. But thin client systems, typically stripped down computer workstations that rely on a network server to do most of the processing, have not worked as well as expected.

Turning 1 Computer into 2 or 4
A new technology, called VirtuaCore, by Lawrence, PA-based Black Box Network Services essentially turns one computer into two or four PC workstations. It does so by using the excess processing power of desktop PCs already in schools, and working off the network to avoid network slows. Although dual core and quad core processors (which combine two or four processors on a single integrated CPU chip) are common in today’s desktop computers, few applications require such computing power. Most applications use only one of those processors, leaving the remaining processing power untapped.

By using the excess CPU capacity of a single desktop PC to simultaneously operate multiple, fully functioning workstations, schools can reduce the number of PCs that need to be purchased, replaced, or supported by up to 75% and reduce energy costs by up to 70%. For teachers and students, it’s just like working on a separate computer, but with no new programs or skills to learn. That means that those uncomfortable with technology don’t have to jump through hoops to use it.

“Instead of buying 20 PCs for a computer lab, schools could buy five PCs and use the Black Box computer sharing technology to provide 20 workstations for the same result,” says Sheridan. “Teachers and students don’t know the difference, except the noise and heat is noticeably less with five PCs running instead of 20. Administrators and IT directors appreciate how much it can cut PC replacement, energy, and support costs.”

VirtuaCore is not thin client technology. It is just like a PC. Individual applications are loaded to each virtual machine, so every user can open their own application at any time. If the operating system fails on one computer, only that computer is affected, not the others connected to it. It uses native video connections just like a PC to deliver seamless streaming video, and doesn’t need the help of an overworked server, which avoids network slows.

“The computer sharing technology outperformed the thin client technology we tested,” says Sheridan. “Unlike thin clients, if one student’s Black Box workstation slowed or crashed, the others kept working and were unaffected. Because we can have a different operating system running on each workstation, we have the flexibility to let teachers run handpicked older software when they want it.”

The new computer sharing technology is primarily software that allows a PC to “understand” what to do when extra keyboards, monitors, and mice are plugged into an everyday PC. Each workstation operates as an independent standard desktop computer and consists of only a keyboard, monitor and mouse, which students use independently. The one computer becomes two or four, each capable of running its own operating system such as Windows 7, XP, Linux, and others.

“When schools cannot buy enough PCs but still want to move toward the ideal 1:1 student-to-computer ratio, computer sharing should be in the District’s technology plan,” concludes Sheridan.