One-to-one computing is on the rise at K-12 schools across the U.S. because of the impact computers have on student learning — from improved scores on standardized tests to lowered dropout rates. But providing a computer for every student remains a challenge due to severe budget constraints as schools struggle with teacher layoffs, aging buildings and educational mandates.

“With severe state budget cuts and competing priorities, putting a computer in front of every student may not receive the attention it should,” said Mike Virgil, a former superintendent of the Morris Central School District in Morris, N.Y., who’s currently interim executive director of the Catskill Area School Study Council, a New York Board of Cooperative Educational Services program. “But if we’re not giving students access to technology with quality instruction at school, where will they learn about issues of Internet security, copyright or information quality? Too many students in urban or rural areas still lack access not just to the Internet, but also to computers.”

Some schools are using a new computer sharing technology — not thin client, but one that solves some of the shortcomings of older thin client, network server-based equipment — to carry out their 1-to-1 computing needs for less than they would spend on new computers.

Thin Clients on Old Networks

Since many schools can’t afford to purchase and maintain new computers, many have looked to thin client systems — typically stripped-down computer workstations that rely on a network server to do most of the processing.

But in a school setting, thin client systems sometimes don’t deliver the full PC speed, function, flexibility and reliability necessary for multiple users, particularly on aging school networks. The main issue is that when many users share a single operating system and server, performance slows when more computing power is demanded than is available. When this occurs, one user’s problem becomes everyone’s problem — like a stalled car that triggers a rush-hour traffic jam.

With thin client systems, multimedia, streaming video, project-based learning and downloading Internet files are particularly prone to slowdown and crashes. Many applications won’t run or have to be tweaked, and some software programs only allow one user at a time to open them. All these challenges can wreak havoc on student learning, teacher lesson plans and tech support resources.

“When we tested thin clients, performance slows and crashes were a concern,” said Phil Sheridan, a former technology coordinator for the Morris Central School District, who’s currently director of technology at the Delaware-Chenango-Madison-Otsego Board of Cooperative Educational Services, a regional educational agency providing services in partnership with 16 school districts in the greater New York area. “Also, we didn’t want to be required to operate off a single operating system, since that excludes some valuable educational software from being used.”

Turning One Computer Into Four

A new computer sharing technology called VirtuaCore, by Lawrence, Pa.-based Black Box Network Services, essentially turns one computer into two or four fully functional PC workstations. The technology does this by using the excess processing power of desktop PCs already in schools, working off the network to avoid network slowdowns.

Although dual-core and quad-core processors, which combine two or four processors on a single integrated central processing unit 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 percent and reduce energy costs by up to 70 percent, according to the vendor. For teachers and students, it’s just like working on a separate computer.

VirtuaCore 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 with full functionality. Each workstation 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.

“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,” said 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.”

Conversely if a school has 150 computers and 600 students, it can turn the 150 computers into 300 or 600 based on processor specifications. If it does so over a three-year period, that same school would save 21 to 57 percent of its budget in hardware, software and energy consumption costs, saving anywhere from $100,000 to $500,000, according to the company.

“Computer sharing technology is a good option for schools that want to move toward a 1-to-1 student-to-computer ratio, but don’t have the funds,” said Virgil.

Computers for Every Student

The 1-to-1 computer-to-student ratio is important because “students are naturally engaged and motivated by technology,” Virgil said. “As long as there’s enough computers and trained teachers integrating the technology with the curriculum, technology is a marvelous way to improve learning.”

“Computers will enhance learning only when students have easy access to them in their classroom,” said author Harvey Barnett in his Education Resources Information Center (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.”

Del Williams is a technical writer based in Torrance, Calif.

Del Williams  |  Contributing Writer

Del Williams is a technical writer based in Torrance, Calif.