The Changing Face of Computers

This is Not Your Parents PC

03/31/2010  |  JEFF MCNAUGHT
technology
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(This is part two of a three part series.)

The power and pervasiveness of personal computers have taken hold in every part of our lives, and education is certainly no exception. Educators across the globe have welcomed computers, but not always with open arms. We don’t have to look too far back to see how the promise of education computing has turned out far different than the reality. Even today, schools have computers that are malfunctioning, are prone to viruses, and require a great deal of administration and maintenance. In this article, we take a look at the old face of computers in education and what the future holds.

It’s difficult to imagine that when Apple personal computers were first introduced in 1976 that some schools refused to consider them because they had already adopted mainframes and minicomputers. The main use of the computer in the early days of education was for student, career and college counseling. It remained that way pretty much throughout the 80s. It wasn’t until the 90s that schools began to experience a rapid increase in computer access and usage — owing in large part to better multimedia capabilities, improved education curriculum available in digital format, and the proliferation of the Internet. From 1994-1996, the number of U.S. public schools with PCs and CD-ROMs grew from 15 to 41 percent.  Two years later, more than 57 percent of schools had computers, another 16 percent growth spurt. 

As we enter the 21st century with more than 30 years of personal computing history under our belts, most schools no longer wish to merely have a computer in the guidance counselor’s office. Schools have their sights set higher on the promise of 1:1 computing. Imagine a world in which every child has a computer at their disposal, homework is managed electronically, heavy textbooks fall to the wayside as e-books become the norm, and students and teachers use computers to collaborate on projects in science, math and art. This sounds like an education technology utopia, but comes with significant management issues. Just as you wouldn’t ask a teacher to individually teach each child in the classroom, you can’t possibly ask IT to have a 1:1 ratio of tech support to student computers.  It simply doesn’t scale. 

Yet, this is exactly the kind of scenario school IT administrators face when they are looking to get PCs into the hands of every student.

Adam Steele, Director of Technology at Pelham School District in New Hampshire, has this to say about IT support and PCs. “There’s no way to successfully manage traditional PCs when the ratio of users to administrators is 2,000 to one. Even the simplest updates or configuration issues are multiplied across every single PC.” Or, consider Adrian Public Schools in Michigan. Director of Technology Randy Brandeberry estimates that he would have had to add staff to maintain the extra 260 computers called for in the Adrian Public Schools bond initiative. “There’s no doubt that adding 260 more full-blown PCs would have required another person on staff.  That would have cost tens of thousands of dollars annually.”

Regardless if schools move toward a 1:1 computing model or stay with the current model of many students sharing few computers, the biggest obstacles to computers in education in the past, present and future are security, reliability, and the maintenance and costs associated with combating those two issues.  It’s time to rethink how schools are using PCs and find a new alternative. The technology leaders at school districts such as Pelham and Adrian examined their options and chose thin computers.

Thin computers look and act just like a PC, but thin computers have no hard drive and no local storage. All applications are accessed via a central server.  As a result, all security issues are handled at one location, not on every desktop. Because the thin computers have no local storage, privacy and compliance issues become significantly simpler. The maintenance and support costs that PCs demand are a non-issue.

Security and Reliability

With so many students and teachers sharing PCs at schools, IT staff is challenged with keeping computers consistent, not to mention avoiding problems that can occur if students change something that shouldn’t be changed or download something potentially harmful. Teachers, too, sometimes contribute to the problem by bringing in software and loading it onto the traditional computers without checking to be sure it is licensed properly and won’t cause problems. Thin computers eliminate these issues, because stateless thin computers have no local storage, so they add another level of security and control. Because preferences are stored centrally, it’s easy for an IT administrator to control preferences and eliminate viruses or spyware that may inadvertently get downloaded.

In June of 2009, Grady High School in Atlanta had 26 iMacs stolen. Even if a thin computer “disappears” from a lab or classroom, the unit would be useless to the student because there are no files on the thin computer; they remain secure on the server. In South Africa, Wyse is working with an entire province to provide access to computers not only to students, administrators and teachers, but also to the entire community. The potential for problems is great with providing computer access to such a large population, but thin computers were the exact reason that they were able to deliver on the community promise because of superior security and reliability. Thin computers protect the school’s investment in technology.

Security software is easier to maintain, update, and upgrade on a few servers instead of hundreds or thousands of desktop systems. By avoiding the introduction of downloaded software while pushing storage and computing power to more reliable servers, thin computers dramatically increase the reliability of the entire infrastructure.

TCO and Replacement Costs

The average annual maintenance costs for a PC are four to seven times the acquisition costs. Like a car or a Christmas present, the best day of your PCs life is the first day of ownership. Its value not only takes a deep dive after day one, but then you have to invest in preventative maintenance and be prepared to fork over additional cash when it needs repair. On average, thin computers can save more than $1,000 per seat per year in maintenance costs. This can be as much as a 40-percent savings for most IT departments, a significant savings for organizations whose IT budgets are primarily allocated to maintenance. 

For Pelham School District, this is the overarching reason why IT director Adam Steel chose thin computers. “After doing our homework, we found that the long-term economics for keeping a PC environment simply don’t make sense. When you have to spend so much time fixing your PCs, and then have to purchase new ones every three to five years, you start to see the process as a never-ending vicious cycle.”

Do PCs Matter?

In 2004, Nicholas Carr wrote a book called “Does IT Matter?” The book made people re-think the economics of IT. The thesis of Carr’s original Harvard Business Review essay was that the power and pervasiveness of IT functions were transitioning from “strategic resources” to a “commodity.” And that IT capability no longer was a factor that set a company apart. Now, IT is simply a cost of doing business, like heat, electricity or paper.

PCs no longer provide a strategic advantage to a business or consumer.  Rather, it is the software and its capabilities hosted by the PC — not the collection of plastic and circuitry that it encompasses — that help today’s business succeed.  And those capabilities, for many, are better delivered in an anytime, anywhere access model that is increasingly cloud-based. The value proposition for PCs — bluntly put, a chunk of hardware with a short life span, relatively high energy cost, and a propensity to fail — will continue to decline.

While some believe that an ongoing decline in PC sales is owing to largely economic forces, we see the fundamental value proposition of a PC being undermined by advances in virtualization and cloud computing, combined with consumer and enterprise backlash at costly PC replacement cycles. The reality is when computing is delivered as a commodity in the same way as heat or electricity, then you want a simpler device to receive that computing power. Thin computers are the ideal mechanism to simplify computer management.

Jeff McNaught is Chief Marketing and Strategy Officer at Wyse Technology. For information visit www.wyse.com.

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