Thin Clients Help Overcome Technology Roadblocks

According to NCES, the National Center for Education Statistics virtually every school in the U.S., or at least 99 percent of them, has Internet access, and the ratio of students to computers improves every few months with new purchases and donated equipment. However, having equipment is very different from using it. We wanted to design a model classroom for the National School Boards Association ( Conference in November 2002 to see how thin-client technology could be used in a cooperative learning environment.

Integrated Options

We have visited many classrooms and schools throughout the country and have seen what is working and what is not. Classrooms that buzz with activity adapt integrated technology. They have equipment that is ready to use, fits the learning seamlessly, and is always on. Teachers and students connect to ideas and tools in a comfortable setting; they enjoy searching for answers and practicing new skills. Teachers have shifted from lecture-style instruction to activity-oriented learning. They accommodate more individualized learning and all students can achieve. The chart summarizes the qualities of Integrated versus Disconnected Technology.

Integrated Technology Disconnected Technology Ease of Use - Consistent applications
- Security up to date - Multiple applications & versions
- Insecure desktop Seamless Network - Server-based information
- Server-based applications
- Easy transfer - Floppy disks
- CDs
- Email transfers Always On - Always available in classroom
- Access to relevant information - Scheduled computer time
- Equipment failure

IT and Instructional Input

When it came to designing a model classroom, we needed input from an experienced educator and the recommendations of IT specialists. Because the classroom is so different from an office or more typical IT setting, it is essential that system administrators work with instructional users to define needs and discuss feasibility.

Shelly Luke Wille, of the San Mateo County Office of Education, created a series of project-based learning classes for the conference where participants (teachers, administrators, and other adults) listened to instructions and completed activities in collaboration. As the instructor of the Model Classroom Sessions, she required the following:

  • One device per two students located in group work areas throughout the room.
  • Teaching space in the center of the room with a projector connected to a laptop.
  • Desktop space for books, papers, and other materials.
  • Open working space for group activity such as round or long tables.
  • Access to instructional web pages and several applications.

I believe the design allows for students to expand their knowledge base with room for creativity. The ease of the set up allows for students to complete projects and cross curricular projects as well.
Cara Ledy, Andale High School

William Myrhang, a Technical Marketing Engineer with National Semiconductor, oversaw the setup and deployment of the technology. He focused on feasibility and on making sure that his team could quickly deploy a working technology infrastructure. His recommendations for a model classroom included the following:

  • Two application servers pre-configured by a system integrator specializing in K-12 education design.
  • 20 thin clients with flat panel displays to provide plug-and-play access to servers, reduce equipment failure, require less energy, and occupy a minimum of desktop space.
  • 4 workstations for high-end computing.
  • 12 light-weight wireless thin clients for flexible, wireless access from work tables and pods.
  • 6 integrated flat panel thin client displays for viewing multimedia.
  • A combination wired and wireless network.
  • A common router firewall.

A thin client network seems to be a very cost-effective way to provide the students with state-of-the-art software without much work or maintenance.
Arlie Huffman, WarrenTech

The setup included 24 individual tables grouped into six pods, six trapezoid tables grouped into three rounds, a long work table, cabinets for servers, a teacher station, and appropriate seating.

This environment worked nicely as far as optimum helpfulness and efficiency goes. People were able walk around and help me quickly. Also, I was able to collaborate with my peers at my table and discuss important issues.
Bonny Fugett, Lecompton Elementary

Thin Client Power

We knew that we were on to something important by the first afternoon. Word had spread throughout the conference and teachers were bringing administrators to the afternoon sessions to show them what the classroom looked like, how the technology worked, and the instructional style modeled by Mrs. Wille.

The learning environment provided today was awesome. The hardware was very user friendly and open. The equipment was up-to-date and a pleasure to explore!! The support staff was amazing! I plan to look for other sessions by this company.
Susan Whitaker, Perry Middle School

For educational IT directors, the Model Classroom proves that they can set up an effective learning environment with low-cost equipment quickly. The Director of Technology and the Director of Instruction both get what they need in the Model Classroom: technology that is easy to use, easy to deploy, and worry free. Because the servers handle all of the application processing and data storage, students or teachers can plug-in the desktop devices without local configuration. The IT department manages software and upgrades memory and processor speed on the servers as needed.

I think this is our solution to down-time issues and shortages of IT personnel.
Janet Foster, Xenia Schools


2 HP Proliant Application Servers
- Citrix MetaFrame
- Windows 2000
- ClassLink Portfolio 20 HP T20 thin clients 4 HP EVO W6000 Workstations 12 DT Research Web PADS (6 WebDT 325, 6 WebDT 380 6 DT Research WebDT 530 HP iPAQ Microportable Projector Netgear 5, 8, and 24 port switches Linksys router firewall Virco tables, chairs and cabinets
- 24 Future Access™ individual tables
- 48 IQ series task chairs
- Plateau table for the teacher station
- 6 8700 series trapezoid tables
- 1 Mojave conference table
- Additional seating lines: EGG, PHD, 9200

Technology Setup

Prior to deployment, Berj Akian, President of ClassLink Technologies, set up the servers with three different profiles: administrator, teacher, or student. Participants logged in with the appropriate profile for access to needed applications such as Microsoft Office, Internet Explorer, and Mozilla.

Once the furniture was in place, we began unpacking boxes and connecting wires. Each thin client required an Ethernet connection, a monitor, keyboard, mouse, and power connection. With the push of the "on" button, they connected to the application servers over the local wired and wireless connections. The servers accessed the Internet via the conference centerÕs network.

The challenges of teaching in an environment designed for student learning and collaboration are easily overcome by teacher technique. The instructor needs to move about the room and work with all students. The "front" of the room is not necessarily a wall with a teacher station, but the "front" changes as the teacher moves about the space working with different groups. This maximizes the ability of students to interact and prevents the instructor from missing sections of the room as happens with stationary instructors.

Teaching Time

Classes began at 8am, the first morning of the conference. At first participants were surprised by the setup. Upon entering, participants wanted to know where to turn and how to face the speaker. Because the room was designed for collaborative work, the "students" were seated in groups and each had a partner. This meant that they supported each other. With a brief introduction, Mrs. Wille had them searching the Internet for their first task and sharing results with the people at their table.

To an outside observer, the classroom looked like chaos. Students appeared to be involved in unrelated activities. They tapped on computers, worked both in groups and independently, and accessed supplies. The instructor was not readily visible because she often sat with groups of students. But administrators, teachers, and other "students" experienced organized chaos: active and productive learning facilitated by the space, technology, and teacher technique.

The order in the chaos became obvious when speaking with the students. Everyone knew what they were working on, what they had just completed and what their next step was. They also understood their timelines and selected appropriate materials for the task.

I liked the way it was easy for me to interact with my peers while I was working.
Dean Vogel, California Teachers Association

Evaluating the Results

Based on outgoing evaluations, 89 percent of participants rated the classroom an excellent or good learning environment and 66 percent said that the classroom changed their thinking about thin-client technology. We found no difference in functionality or ease-of-use between the high-powered multimedia computers and the thin clients. Most participants preferred the thin clients due to their small size. Although we had wireless devices for mobility, the setup of the room enabled people to work collaboratively and dynamically without moving equipment.

Mrs. Wille offers the following checklist that will help you imagine a more collaborative space in your existing classroom.

Is my classroom designed for student learning?

  • Is the technology reliable so that you can plan lessons and count on using technology resources?
  • Do students have space on the network to save files?
  • Are the necessary computer programs available at each workstation so that students have the flexibility to work in any location?
  • Is the placement of workstations flexible enough for all learning situations?
  • Are there clear paths between printers, doors, computers, student and teacher desks, and storage areas?
  • Is there space around computers for instructional support materials like books and paper?
  • Is there ample collaborative space such as round tables or desks arranged in pods where students can meet in groups independently or with the teacher?
  • Is the instructorÕs desk placed out of the way and used for teacher work, parent meetings and personal storage instead of an instructional forum?
  • Is instructional space along all walls utilized with white boards, curriculum-focused posters and student work?
  • Is the classroom full of productive conversation between students?
  • Is curriculum designed both for independent and collaborative work where appropriate?
  • Is there designated space for storage, supplies, books and other materials accessible to all students?