In a perfect world, every teacher would be engaging and tech savvy and know how to weave interesting technology into each lesson. And every student would be anxious to learn, committed to staying attentive and competent using their computers.
However, in the real world, teachers in a computer-equipped class struggle getting through to students who are playing games, texting friends, shopping, hacking, Facebooking, or even downloading inappropriate content or cyber-bullying. Very few teachers are able to successfully overcome these issues and actually leverage the technology in the classroom to teach effectively.
At the same time, many schools have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to fill classrooms with technology. Is your school getting the most out of that investment? Are your teachers and students actually benefiting from the 21st century classroom?
If not, you may want to look into classroom management software.
While classroom management software has been around since the mid 80s, still 50 percent of teachers don’t know it exists. There are several mature products, such as LanSchool, NetSupport, Smart and NetOp that have been in the market for years, and teachers who use the software understand the power it provides for teaching effectively in the classroom. Some administrators may think the software is used to just spy on students, but when used properly, it gives teachers the confidence to get out from behind their desks and interact with students, because they know the students will stay on task.
Selecting a classroom management software solution can be daunting and difficult. As with most mature software, vendors have added more features than most users can digest. Selecting the right solution requires knowing what matters and verifying that it works for your particular environment. Let’s look at some key considerations when evaluating a classroom management software solution.
The key attributes to consider when selecting a classroom management solution are:
- Simplicity and reliability
- Training and support
Keep in mind that simplicity and reliability are probably the most important attributes. If the software is not simple to install, learn and administer, teachers won’t use it. And if the software doesn’t work reliably every time, it can create significant headaches for both teachers and IT departments. Here is a look at some of the specifics within each product attribute.
The most popular classroom management solutions have a complete set of features in the areas of teaching, monitoring, testing, communicating, administering, and assisting students in a digital classroom. These features include:
- Showing the teacher’s screen to students
- Blanking the students’ screens and locking out their keyboard and mouse
- Showing a student to other students
- Seeing all student screens on the teacher’s screen — also called Thumbnail Monitoring
- Remote control
- Administering Digital Tests
- Limiting the Internet
- Limiting applications
- Muting student speakers
- Limiting printing
- Limiting USB and optical drives
- Application and Keystroke monitoring
- Cyber-bullying alerting
- Sending/Collecting Files
- Powering On/Off computers
- Viewing running applications
- Reviewing Internet history
- Screen snapshot
- Sending a message
- Receiving Student questions
- Battery update information
If you have languages labs or show videos, a few of the products have features such as:
- Broadcasting the teacher’s voice
- Listening to a student’s microphone
- Efficiently sending and watching videos as a class
Selecting a solution by looking at a feature checklist is difficult to do, since the leading solutions include most of these features. Each vendor has some unique features, but the real differentiation comes in other areas.
Will the solution work on the school’s existing computers, operating systems and software. Here’s a list of questions and considerations:
- What versions of Windows does it support? Many of the vendors have dropped support for Windows 98 and 2000. How soon do they support new versions?
- Does it support both 32bit and 64 bit versions?
- What versions of Mac OSx does it support?
- Does it support thin clients? Windows MultiPoint Server, NComputing, Citrix and Terminal Server?
- What versions of Linux does it support?
- What hardware does it support? Will it run on the Atom and older processors? For the Mac will it run on both PowerPC and Intel cpus?
- Does it support mobile devices such as the iPad, Android and tablets for both teachers and students?
- Are all of the features available across the different platforms?
- Are the platforms interoperable? Can you monitor/manage a Mac from a PC or thin client?
- How much RAM and processor does it use?
- Does the web limiting work with the most popular versions of the browsers or just Internet Explorer?
- Does it require additional server hardware, database servers and CALS?
- Does it work with dual monitors?
In addition to the student computers, it is important to determine if the software will work well on the school’s existing network infrastructure.
The most bandwidth intensive tasks are showing the teacher’s screen to students, showing a student’s screen to other students, and showing video. Remote control and thumbnail monitoring generally do not take up as much bandwidth because teachers are only looking at one computer at a time.
Always use a hub when testing bandwidth, as a switch will hide more than half of the total traffic — it only shows the traffic going to a student computer, not the return traffic. Be sure to ask the following questions:
- How much bandwidth is required?
- Does the traffic increase with each additional computer on the network?
- Does it support Broadcast, Multicast and a Directed Broadcast?
- Does it support VLANS?
- Will it work across subnets?
- Will it work between wired and wireless networks?
A Note on Deployment
Once you’ve determined that the software will work on the existing computers and network infrastructure, it is important to know how the software is deployed.
- Do you have to type in and keep track of long key codes?
- How difficult is the software to install manually? Can a non-techie do it? How many decisions does the person installing need to make?
- Is the installation available in industry standard formats? MSI for Windows and .DMG or .PKG for Mac
- Can the solution be deployed viagroup policy? If so, can the settings be changed through an ADM file?
- Can it be installed silently through a login script?
- Can it be deployed with a desktop management solution?
- Can it be uninstalled with Add/Remove programs? Usually this is a nice feature, but students love to uninstall software if it is available to them. The best programs make it difficult to uninstall the product even when students have administrative rights to their machines.
- How is the product updated? Does it have a feature to update the students from the teacher?
Simplicity and Reliability
Classroom management software needs to be easy-to-use, reliable and protected from students trying to get around it. Here are some considerations:
- Can a non-technical teacher quickly learn to use the product?
- Can students easily uninstall or disable the product?
- Can students disrupt other students with the product?
- Does the software have multiple security layers to prevent inappropriate use?
- Does the software include utilities that uncover inappropriate use if it occurs?
- Could the software conflict with applications? Video card drivers?
- Does it work with CAD software? DirectX?
- Can it shut down, suspend or “blue screen” computers?
- Does the software take up screen real estate on the student’s computer?
- Can students get around application limiting by renaming the executable?
- Can students disrupt other students in the class by unplugging their network cable?
One-to-one environments, in which every student has a netbook, are the most difficult environments for classroom management programs. With most packages, setting up a static lab or laptop cart is fairly straightforward. But with a one-to-one program the class rearranges itself every class period so the classroom management software has to be nimble.
- Does it allow for teachers to load a class of students?
- How are the class lists created? Can you create a class list by login name, computer name or directory name? •
Can you import the class lists from a student information system?
- How is the teacher notified if a student has left the class or should actually be in a different class?
- Does it have the option for students to join a teacher’s class?
- Can you compare the list of students in the class to a list of students that should be on the list?
- How quickly can you start class? Can you preset settings to speed that process?
- Does the product give the teacher a warning about battery status?
- How is the wireless support? Are there tools to look at packet loss and reliability of the network?
Training and Support
When you select a classroom management solution, you are selecting a long-term partner. Make sure they are committed to training and supporting your new solution. In particular, look for the following:
- Does the vendor provide free online training?
- Is there a quick start guide?
- Is the vendor’s end user documentation sufficient but not overwhelming for teachers?
- How long have the company been in business?
- How many years of support and maintenance are included?
- How can you contact support?
- What is the vendors support policy?
- Will they provide onsite support if needed?
- Do they require an annual support and maintenance contract?
- Do they have happy, referenceable customers?
- What are their release schedules? Do they release in time for you to create images during the summer months?
- How do you get updates? Can you easily check for updates from within the software?
- Do they have a way to submit/evaluate enhancements?
Finally, in education, cost is always an issue. It is important to look at the big picture when looking at cost. Some products may be inexpensive but lack a complete feature set or support a limited number of platforms. It is important to consider your time and how much digging you’ll have to do to find answers to questions.
- What is the total cost of ownership? License acquisition, training, support, updates, time to deploy, time to train?
- Does the vendor offer licensing options? Perpetual? Subscription? Site licenses?
- Is there an annual maintenance fee?
- What happens if you skip a year of maintenance?
- What is the cost to upgrade?
- Does the vendor offer competitive upgrades if you’re not happy with your current solution?
There is a lot to consider when selecting a classroom management software solution, but if you select the right product, your teachers will be able to take advantage of your sizable technology investment and transform a computer-based classroom into the promised 21st century learning environment that can make a significant difference in students’ lives.