Reflecting on BETT: Developments in Desktop Virtualisation Unleash New Classroom Teaching Patterns

Last week’s BETT education trade show in London provided a good barometer for virtualisation technologies in UK schools and colleges.  It reinforced the views I have consistently seen from teachers and ICT technicians on PCs in the classroom.  Teachers just want ICT to work, and work first time.  In a 40 minute lesson there is no time to resolve rogue PCs.

But why are PCs more of a problem in schools?  The demands of the applications are certainly part of the challenge. By the time you get to university the application set is pretty close to that needed in business, but in schools, applications become more challenging the younger the student is.  Old applications written before the concept of PC virtualisation, and sometimes even before Windows are still used alongside the very latest multimedia applications.  A suitably powerful PC provides the flexibility to run everything, but PCs struggle with doing both flexible and reliable.  Lock it down for reliability and you lose the flexibility, and vice versa.

The classroom environment is also getting more attention now.  Few schools want the neatly arranged rows of computers you can see in the picture above.  Whole class teaching is limited, with much more emphasis on groups, and the need to set each group a different task.  With some students using computers and others not, taking the class to a dedicated ICT suite doesn’t really work. ICT has to be integrated into the classroom without taking over the room.

Heat and noise matter too.  An efficient PC, powerful enough for classroom applications is probably using a minimum of 40-50 watts and generating virtually the same in heat – which is equivalent to the heat from a small child.  And older, more typical classroom PCs are using 80-100 watts which is equivalent to a teenager or adult.  So a classroom with 20 computers has a minimum of 41 ‘people’ in the room (don’t forget the teacher).  Students and teachers also need to talk over the noise from fans and disks.  So the classroom ends up hot and noisy – not exactly ideal for a learning environment.

This picture (below) shows a typical, current thin client installation.  Small, silent, thin devices with no moving parts enable computers to be placed around the walls leaving the central desks free for non-computer work, or additional laptop thin clients.

However, recent developments in desktop virtualisation haven’t made it any easier for school staff with ICT responsibilities to understand the alternatives to the PC.

There are a minimum of 5 different technology approaches that can be used; so where do you start?  My presentations at BETT were addressing exactly this question.   You can see my presentation here, and my next post will drill into the different approaches in more detail.

Author: David Angwin blogs on cloud computing and desktop virtualisation technology at A View from the Cloud

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What a difference three years makes…

By David Angwin, Director of Marketing, EMEA for Wyse

Thin client computers are very much the future of digital classrooms.  Low power consumption, automatically updated and centrally managed, thin clients are enabling schools and colleges to install more computers per student while keeping down operational costs with improved reliability.

But, the argument for more thin computing in education is often blunted by a strongly held belief that thin clients can’t match powerful PCs for running the latest curriculum software and peripherals.

The reality is very different.  The latest steaming and virtualisation software (e.g. WSM and TCX) support rich multimedia including full Adobe Flash, high quality audio and full connectivity to every kind of educational peripheral from white boards to cameras to scanners.

Teachers and students who switch from PCs to thin clients report no difference in their experience except the thin clients start up much faster, are quieter and are personalised to their settings even when they log onto different machines in other classrooms.

Given the growing number of schools and colleges replacing PCS with thin clients in the classroom, why does this the myth that thin clients fall short on running educational applications persist?

The reason is the 2006 study by BECTA that did considerable good in promoting thin clients but also set out reservations about both multimedia and peripherals. The problem is BECTA hasn’t revised these concerns in the light of the latest technology nor the experience of teachers and children who are using thin computing infrastructure every day.

Given it is four years old next year, can we expect BECTA to do a formal review of thin computing? At the very least, the 2006 report should come with some gentle warning about how much it has passed its sell by date.

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Quiet Zero Clients Ideal for Special Education Needs Department at Wimbledon School

Classroom teaching at Ursuline High School is now benefitting from a marked reduction in noise as newly deployed zero clients that contain no moving parts such as fans and hard drives have been installed. This has been particularly well received in the school’s Special Education Needs department where a calming environment is especially beneficial to the students’ concentration and progress.

The new IT infrastructure, based on zero clients and WSM streaming software, is delivering improved reliability and significantly reducing pressure on technical resources. Less time will be spent on managing computer images, software installations and large changes to computer configurations such as deploying new operating systems.

Ursuline is a Business and Enterprise specialist school.

For more details please visit: http://tinyurl.com/yzwbrel

For more information on what Wyse is doing the education space please visit: http://tinyurl.com/ygcelcg

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Education Guarantees

Following the Queen’s speech earlier this week it looks like the government plans to offer “guarantees” to pupils and parents when it comes to education.

This announcement has not been well received by the education marketplace; being labelled “absurd” by one newspaper and described as a “whingers charter” by another (A summary of the proposed guarantees is included at the end of this post).

While the idea of guarantees for education is undoubtedly an interesting move by the government it seems that what they have proposed is very general. For example it is hard to argue with the statement that “every pupil will go to a school where they are taught a broad, balanced and flexible curriculum including skills for learning and life” but how we define if this is happening is a whole different ball game.

We are all keen to see improvements in education and whether that comes from improved learning techniques, increased ICT provision or closer alignment between the requirements of the working world and the education process it definitely needs to be addressed.

Setting general guarantees that are open to wide interpretation has the potential to cloud the major issues. With organisations like Futurelab, Naace and Building Schools for the Future working hard to ensure that the use of Information Communication Technologies (ICT)  in schools is becoming an integral part of the education process, it was surprising to find no reference to ICT in these guarantees.

We should be focussing on what percentage of students have access to ICT, how many parents can access information on their children’s education over the Internet and ensuring that students are acquiring the necessary skills to help them in the workplace of the future. These guarantees seem to represent a set of common sense statements rather than a set of policies that can drive education reform.

For more details on the Children, Schools and Families Bill please visit http://tinyurl.com/y9pv6qa

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Bored with Boards

By Sheyne Lucock, ICT Director for Building Schools for the Future (Barking and Dagenham LEA)

The introduction of interactive whiteboards into schools across the UK has been rapid, but many moan that teachers are using them just as projection screens, making them expensive white elephants. This could be because there was never any serious attempt to match technology to pedagogical needs, rather an expectation that teachers would adapt their teaching to use the technology, regardless of how appropriate it happened to be.

‘Traditional’ teaching technology such as blackboards and more recently dry-wipe whiteboards enable teachers to do the following: writing and re-writing; drawing and re-drawing; highlighting, and annotating. However they have always been a backward facing technology in that the teacher and pupil has to keep turning to face the board in order to write or draw on it. The class has always suffered from interrupted sight lines due to the teacher keeping moving in front of the board, and the restricted visible area because the user has to reach all of it. In this latter respect the dry-wipe whiteboard was a poor replacement, in some respects, for the roller blackboard where the ‘active display’ could be rolled up for everyone to have a clear view.

Many innovative teachers, prior to the onslaught of computers, switched to using an overhead projector (OHP). This had the same benefits as the white and blackboards in that the teacher and pupil could write and re-write, draw and re-draw, highlight, and annotate, and had the added benefit of being able to re-use the content as the acetate sheets could be saved. However, it had some significant advantages that made it a much better match to effective pedagogy. It was a ‘forward facing’ technology in that the teacher and pupils could use it while facing the class. It was easier to ensure uninterrupted sight lines as the teacher and pupils remained static instead of moving around in front of the screen, and there was a large visible area on a projection screen that was usually mounted high enough for those at the back to see all of it. In the light of these advantages, few of the teachers using one regularly would have seen any reasons to give it up and go back to using the traditional boards, other than issues with power leads (which shouldn’t be underestimated).

The interactive whiteboard was only a partial improvement upon the OHP in pedagogical terms in that it re-introduced many of the undesirable characteristics that the OHP had eliminated. We saw a return to interrupted sight lines due to the ‘backward facing’ technology, a restricted display size and poor visibility of the lower part of the board (unlike the old fashioned roller blackboard). It even managed to introduce a number of new disadvantages when compared to the OHP, in that there were health and safety concerns around the projector beam (Becta whiteboard health and safety guidance), accessibility issues for disabled users and a high price tag. It would be reasonable to ask why, in the light of all these negative characteristics, whiteboards should have been adopted in schools at all.

Partly this is due to the ‘wow’ factor of what could be described as an illusion that teachers and pupils can actually write on the board and move objects around as a result of some special technology, creating the impression of a ‘magic’ surface. In reality the interactive whiteboard is merely a larger version of the tablets or slates that had been used for computer graphics for many years. The interactivity is a property of the software running on the attached computer, which would update the display in the same way in response to a wide range of input devices. The ‘magic’ effect is produced by doubling up the touch sensitive surface as a projection screen, but this leads to both of them being unsuitable for the task of teaching.

A far more pedagogically appropriate solution would be to keep the touch sensitive surface and the projection screen separate, allowing both to be fine tuned to the needs of teachers and pupils in a classroom. By using large projection screens and wireless slates, the teacher could remain forward-facing, the display area could be much bigger and positioned where all of it is clearly visible from the back of the classroom, and there would be fewer interrupted sight lines as the slate can be used anywhere in the classroom, not just by standing in front of the display. The interactivity remains the same in both cases, the cost becomes substantially lower, wheelchair users (for example) can use the technology with ease, and there is less chance of anyone entering the path of the projector beam. Not only that, but the slate can be passed easily and quickly around the class, enabling more pupils to take part in moving the lesson forward.

You will find that interactive whiteboard manufacturers will offer a wireless slate as an additional extra option, once you have already spent a lot of money on the board, but rarely will they offer the slate as an alternative in the first place. If they do, then they will charge a considerable extra premium on the price. Teachers should challenge the suppliers to come up with the best solutions for the everyday problems in the classroom, not just the ones that make the most money.

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Marks out of Ten for Microsoft Windows 7 in the Classroom?

Microsoft Windows 7 is hitting the shops from today. What are  the implications for classroom ICT?

Merlin John’s education and ICT blog includes a report on a Microsoft white paper on the results of trialling the new operating  system  in several schools. Worthwhile reading their findings and downloading the report but one comment  does standout: Windows 7 slashes power bills enough to pay for a new junior member of staff. 

Twynham School in Dorset reckons it will see a £20,000+ reduction in its annual power bill through  deploying  Windows 7.  There’s no explanation in the article but perhaps it reflects how the new OS is designed to run on newer generations of netbooks that are more energy efficient?  Be great to find out more.

But, you have to question how much Windows 7 alone will bring down IT-related energy bills.  The real problem  of energy greedy ICT  lies in the wasteful power consumption and heat output of traditional desk-top PCs.  A new OS isn’t going to fix this. Look at the experience of those schools who moved away from traditional PC desktop hardware  entirely – while giving teachers and students  getting the same, if not better access to PC applications and data – to find harder evidence of cost savings from new classroom ICT that is inherently more energy efficient, reliable and easier to maintain and manage long-term.

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The Three “R”s of ICT in Education are Reliability, Reliability & Reliability

In-depth focus groups of teachers finds consistent performance, faster boot up and quicker access to apps and data are top ICT priorities for educators

In the summer break Wyse Technology brought teachers, head teachers and school technicians from schools across the UK together to gain a better understanding of how educators view the role of ICT in the classroom. By talking directly to the people at the coal face of the education sector these focus groups provided a valuable insight into the real life challenges and experiences of the modern educator. More details are included in a new white paper “ICT in the classroom – Listening to the Teachers” published by Wyse Technology on Digital Classroom Digest and on the Wyse website  

The focus groups showed that while investment in classroom ICT has been going on for over 10 years the results are not always fit for purpose. While the benefits of effective ICT were widely acknowledged, teachers expressed concern about how classroom ICT unreliability and misuse of technology by students were considered a major barrier to the effective use of ICT in education.

One clear demand expressed by focus group attendees was for better and increased guidance from local authorities when it comes to making ICT purchasing decisions. With a desire to further embed ICT into the learning process moving forward also being discussed ensuring that educators have the best level of knowledge and support possible is something that needs to be addressed.

Iain Gunn, head teacher at St Peter’s Primary School in South weald, Essex, commented, “Ensuring we bought the best ICT for our children was a key decision for me. I’m not an IT expert, so finding the right people to advise us was a real challenge. It was a significant investment for the school and we got it right by listening to the class teachers and personal contacts. It would be great to have a more structured support system at a local or regional level.”

On the general topic of ICT in education it was agreed that it makes learning more interesting and helps to motivate children. There was an underlying theme of frustration with ICT going wrong and a need to establish ICT as a way to sustain the learning process rather than as a flashy gimmick. ICT is currently positioned as a ‘treat’ within many schools according to the majority of the teachers who attended the groups.

David Angwin, Wyse Technology, commented, “Reliability seems to be what classroom ICT is all about these days. Teachers, understandably, want to be reassured that if ICT is to play a major role in the education sector that it will perform consistently. While PCs deliver the functionality that is needed in the classroom, unreliability and the ease with which PC software can be accidentally or deliberately ‘broken’ means they are far from the best fit for the classroom.”

“Wyse has a long history of working with schools in the UK and around the world to introduce classroom ICT that is fit for purpose. A range of technologies are now available that let schools deploy small, silent and energy efficient thin computers in the classroom. These support the full range of curriculum software including advanced multimedia and the computer peripherals needed in language and science labs. Teachers find that they have a better learning environment and avoid the reliability issues they experienced with PCs – and the associated classroom disruption. The next stage for us is to take this message and the findings from our focus groups to the local authorities that the schools look to for advice and guidance.”

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