School boards across Canada are habitually crying poor and the local and national media are filled with stories about “education cuts” threatening to “devastate the system. ” When asked, where can cuts be made, school officials and teacher unionists respond with blank stares or proclaim, rather lamely, that there is “no fat” whatsoever in the system.
Money is tight in public education, or so we are told, when “educuts” are on the table. Potential cuts to administrative and classroom expenses are then openly debated, except when it comes to the matter of investing in computer technology. Why, I wondered, is Information Technology (IT) so sacrosanct?
Several months ago, Paul Taylor of the British Columbia firm Blue Curl, but based in New Glasgow, NS, contacted me with what seemed to be an outlandish claim. School boards could reap “major cost savings ,” he insisted, if they abandoned their current Information Technology (IT) policy and infrastructure, embraced “N-Computing” technology, and implemented “virtual desktops” on a larger scale. Not only would the education system dramatically cut costs, it would also greatly expand computer access points in our public schools. http://www.bluecurl.ca/
Almost everyone in public education circles seems to accept that putting computers in schools costs big money and IT would be the last place to look when cutting costs. Besides, promoters of the “21st Century Skills” curriculum simply assume that plenty of public-private partnership funding will automatically materialize for IT-driven school reform. Few Canadian educators are even aware of the divisive public debate raging in Detroit, Michigan, over “cutting teachers, while adding computers.” http://scholasticadministrator.typepad.com/thisweekineducation/2011/01/budgeting-cutting-people-adding-computers.html
Desktop virtualization is not really new, but you would think so, judging from official response across the Maritimes. NComputing was founded by Californian Steven Dukker in 2003, and it now leads the world in producing virtual desktop computer devices. It greatly reduces the cost of computing by allowing multiple people to simultaneously share a single computer.
With the release of its new L300 model featuring enhanced video capabilities, the NComputing product has taken-off and sold 500,000 seats in the 18 months ending in September 2007. Since the, it has now been adopted by America’s largest school system in New York City as well as in California, Macedonia, Mexico, Nigeria, India, and all over the Asia Pacific. http://www.smbworldasia.com/en/content/ncomputing-cusp-changing-economics-it
While Nova Scotia is lagging, NComputing pilots are underway in New Brunswick’s District 16, Newfoundland, Labrador, and Prince Edward Island. Most of these small scale experiments involve retiring 10 aging PCs in favour of one much cheaper L300 virtual desktop system at a minimum saving of 50% per seat.
What’s behind the resistance within the system? Most school superintendents still depend heavily upon the computer experts in setting policy and defining the priorities. Many IT directors are “old guard” computer science teachers or techies. They not only tend to favour name brands like Microsoft, Hewlett Packard, and Apple but are products of a system based upon segregated computer labs and restricting student access to the Internet on school property. http://www.zdnet.com/blog/education/tablets-netbooks-thin-clients-cheap-desktops-what-to-buy/4378
Many school boards have also grown dependent upon the Industry Canada model of distributing “hand-me-down” donated computers to the schools. That is why Nova Scotia has 60,000 computers in a system serving 127,000 students, many of which badly need replacement.
Blue Curl’s Taylor sells what was once called “thin client” technology and he puts it much more bluntly. “Many in the IT field, believe it or not, are wedded to the ‘fat client’ model, favouring products where parts break down and upgrades prove lucrative.”
Nova Scotia’s technology consultant, Wayne Hamilton, is typical of many educational techies. He’s known about “virtual desktops” for 7 years and has personally experimented with the NComputing product. Initially, he found fault with the devices, questioning the quality of the prototypes, software licensing costs, and the potential band-width challenges.
In a public system, saddled with hundreds of broken-down computers, Hamilton was spooked by use of “open source software” and the need to invest in better “parent” computers. Reducing the number of computers requiring servicing, also threatened jobs, posing another significant deterrent.
Adopting NComputing will save significant tax dollars. In the Chignesto-Central School Board, some 23,000 students now are served by 12,000 aging computers sucking tremendous amounts of electrical power. Implementing NComputing, Taylor contends, would cut IT costs by 50 per cent and save on power usage. Indeed, many schools could aspire to having carbon neutral computer labs.
Cutting “the fat” in educational computing is bound to ruffle a few feathers. Yet Taylor is one determined Nova Scotian computer salesman. After months of flogging his NComputing technology, cracks are appearing in the passive resistance. He takes heart from small victories in Northern New Brunswick, Cape Breton and Indian Brook First Nation. In school computing as in personal life, slimming down requires self-analysis, setting achievable targets, and sheer determination.
Back to the fundamental question: Why is a serious scrutiny of IT expenditures in public education rarely, if ever, undertaken? Do new innovations such as NComputing’s virtual desktop have the potential for significantly reducing the costs while maintaining or enhancing service? If so, why do senior bureaucrats and IT managers resist such initiatives?