New Tricks for Old Dogs

Here is the presentation I presented today at the eTech Ohio State Technology Conference in Columbus, Ohio. These are the Delicious links, which include all of the products mentioned below. Edit: and here is the video:

In case you missed it, I discussed the following:

  • Teachers’ attitudes toward technology have improved over the last few years. They now increasingly embrace technology as a way to improve teaching and learning. Teachers are using technology more now than they were a few years ago. Students are also using technology more, but not in all areas. Additionally, the number of computers available for student use in schools has increased more than the enrollment has increased. This means more computers are available for students to use than ever before. At the same time, teachers are increasingly reporting that students do not have access to technology to complete assignments and projects the teachers would like to do. This disconnect implies that the demand for technology resources is outpacing our ability to provide those resources.
  • Given the current economic situation, unemployment rates, foreclosure rates, school levy passage rates, and district projected budgets, we’re not going to be able to buy a lot of new computers in the near future.
  • Last year, our district bought some eeePCs, and passed them around to teachers, students, and administrators to evaluate. The teachers generally liked them and thought they were useful for many of the things kids need to do. Many were very excited about getting more of them and using them with students. Looking at the hardware configuration, though, these computers were not much (if any) better than the old classroom computers that nobody was using because they’re too old and slow. We began to look for ways to make the old hardware work more like the eeePC.
  • We tried Linpus Lite. This is a lite Linux OS that looks a lot like the eeePC. It has most of the tools students need. At the time we looked at it, though, there were some problems with hardware device drivers.
  • We also looked at gOS. This is an operating system that relies heavily on online applications. The primary office productivity suite, for example, is Google Docs. This OS has an appealing interface, but we weren’t quite ready to embrace the cloud to that extent.
  • Another thing we considered was the Linux Terminal Server Project. LTSP allows you to use your old computers as terminals to connect to a server that actually runs the operating system. This allows you to use a single computer to power many terminals. In our case, though, we were looking for a simple, inexpensive solution, and this wasn’t quite right for our needs.
  • After talking with teachers, administrators, and support staff, we decided that we really needed to keep Microsoft Windows. The challenge became how to run Windows better. At first, we considered nComputing devices. These allow you to use four monitors, keyboards, and mice with one computer. This lets four people use the one computer. Due to the licensing restrictions, though, this turned out to be a lot more expensive than we thought. Plus, we would need fairly high-powered computers for this, and it wouldn’t use our old ones at all.
  • We then discovered nLite. This software allows you to create a “lite” Windows installation by removing all of the things you don’t need. After removing things like support for Brother printing devices, ATM networking drivers, and the dozens of languages and keyboard layouts, we ended up with a Windows XP package that ran just as well on six-year-old hardware as the regular XP SP2 runs on new hardware.
  • To further improve performance, we used an old version of Microsoft Office along with alternative PDF Reader, Realplayer, and Quicktime.
  • The result is an image that essentially lets us keep our computers in useful working order until they have hardware failure. Staff and students are happy with the results.

Update (16 April 2011): changed video from Google Video to Vimeo.

5 thoughts on “New Tricks for Old Dogs

  1. I am with NComputing and am curious about your comments on our products. First, an update: The new X550 is faster allows 6 users on one PC with one kit and 11 with 2 kits. Second, licensing is very attractive for educational institutions under the Microsoft Open and Select academic licensing programs. Finally, you don’t need anything above a $400 computer for this. In fact. sharing a $400 PC amonth multiple users is usually faster than each person having their own 3-year old PC (as reported by iour customers). We’ve sold over a million seats in two years and about half have gone to schools.

  2. I understand that the X550 allows more computers to be connected. Since the devices we evaluated allowed four, that’s what I referred to in the presentation. Regarding licensing, I’ve been told that the nComputing solution requires a server license for the host computer, a device CAL for each terminal, a terminal server CAL for each terminal, and an Office license for each terminal. Even with the attractive Microsoft licensing options for education, this is a several hundred dollar investment.

    We’re currently buying classroom computers for individual use with 2 GB of RAM, reasonable modern processors, optical RW drives, 17″ flat panel displays, and 3-year warranties. These are much more expensive than $400. I wouldn’t expect to downgrade the host machine when setting it up in an nComputing environment.

    While I don’t disagree that nComputing devices have their place, the real costs are higher than one might expect from your promotional material.

  3. I’ve been playing around with LiveXP. Think of it being an embedded OS bootable though PXE. As for the software itself, I’ve been playing with just portable apps run from the network. The down side is ram, about 256 is about the lowest I’d recommend.

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