Thin Client Technology as a solution to a High School Problem

© Annette Devilee
Masters of Learning Science and Technology, University of Sydney

Background

The school that I am referring to here, is a Public school situated in country NSW. The school computer network consists of approximately 200 computers and 1100 students and staff: a ratio of 1:5 computers to users. There are six computer labs with 10-15 computers in each and every staff room has at least one PC and one Mac. There is one part time technician employed to maintain the network and support staff.

Problem Statement.

Teachers are unable to get access to computers for their classes and when they do they experience technical problems. There are several reasons for this: availability, complexity and reliability of the school computers.

  • Availability Specialist computing classes are timetabled in the computing labs and all other classes are required to book the lab when they need it.  However, some classes are timetabled on the same line as the computing classes so they can never get into the labs. Staff often complain that they can not get access to computers when they need them for their classes. Even with a coordinated booking system they are often unable to access to computers. How can the number of computers be increased to improve availability within the current budget?
  • Complexity This school has PCs and Mac computers of all different ages. Every one of the 5 computer labs has a different operating system and software. Users can login to some computers but not others so this is a file management nightmare. “If technical and classroom management issues become too daunting, teachers often opt not to use the technology but rather stick with traditional practices.” (Sandholtz & Reilly, 2004, p. 6). How can the technical demands on the teacher be reduced so that they can get on with teaching and embrace the use of technology in the classroom?
  • Reliability
    • Maintenance & Technical Support.
    • Computers crash, freeze, need to be updated or patched. Staff continually need new software installed. With a network of over 200 computers the part time network administrator/technician is stretched to the limit. How can the number of computers be increased to meet the demand without increasing the workload of the network administrator/technician? The district office has started to take on a more centralised role in managing computer networks.  If a computer breaks down the central office will clean the hard drive and reinstall a new image. This is a potential problem because many of the computers in the school have had extra software installed. The reinstallation by the central office will mean that these extra programs and student files will be lost.
    • Hostile Users-Security.
    • Users can intentionally or unwittingly install viruses into the network through their workstations. Both students and teachers create an endless array of software bugs, glitches, freezes and crashes by loading software or making changes to the existing software such as deleting files needed by the operating system. Students always find ways to “circumvent whatever safeguards the network administrator has put in place” (D. Romm, 2006, para 1). How can we make the network more secure?
    • Aging hardware
    • Computers continually need to be upgraded because new software can’t run on the old computers. How can we guard against enforced obsolescence?
    • Theft & Vandalism.
    • Students make sport of disconnecting or damaging school computers (particularly CD Rom or floppy drives). How can we prevent theft and vandalism in the school?

 

Introducing Thin Client Technology

Thin Clients are computers that have little or no processing or storage power of their own. The server does all the processing.  This means that it does not have a hard-drive. They only have a screen, keyboard, a mouse and enough computer power to handle display and communications.

To the user there is no discernable difference in function or look except that there is no large box at the workstation: hence, a more compact workstation. Users do not see a drop in speed either: all the processing is done at the server so the thin client only receives the mouse clicks and keystrokes and the monitor refreshes the page. This requires very little network bandwidth. The server runs the applications, stores the data, and transmits data within the LAN and out onto the Internet.

Thin client software runs on standard PC hardware. Thin clients can do word processing, database management, spreadsheets and Internet browsing. These are the main activities done in classrooms. At present thin clients are not suitable for multimedia because multimedia-rich applications are bandwidth intensive if fully served however “as the technology improves broadband Internet applications like streaming audio and video will be a viable option.” (O'Donovan, 2000. para 18)

 

Advantages of Thin Clients

“Relative advantage is the degree to which an innovation is perceived as better than the idea it supersedes.” (Rogers, 1997, para 14).  In terms of economy, satisfaction, convenience and complexity, Thin Clients have relative advantages over the current practices.

  • Economy- The cost of a thin client is approximately on third of the PC.  Even if the initial outlay for thin client hardware (generally the cost of the server) is not much less than for a comparable number of fat clients (computers which perform the bulk of any data processing operations itself, and only relying on the server for data storage), the long term savings are enormous. Thin client technology allows for the redeployment of old machines by having their hard drive removed. “The life of the desktops will be increased by a factor of two, if not more, and the only upgrade to consider will be at the server level.” (Harbour, 1998). Thin clients also only need 10-15% of the electricity that a PC needs, thus reducing running costs.
  • Reliability and Satisfaction- With no moving parts and no built in obsolescence, thin clients rarely break down. There is no need to replace a workstation because it will not run new software with higher requirements; the software will run from the server. This centralized management system will reduce the workload of the network administrator.  If there is a software upgrade needed, the technician only needs to update one computer- the server. If a thin client does break down it can be taken away and replaced without anyone losing work saved on the hard drive. “Such computing would be lower in cost and easier to manage than a traditional network with desktop computers.” (O'Donovan, 2000, para 3)
  • Security- The technician only has to secure one machine- the server. Students will no longer be able to delete system files that render the machine unusable. Thin clients are useless if they are disconnected from the server so they are far less attractive to thieves and vandals.
  • Convenience- These computers can even be used in dusty environments without concern that the fan will clog up and overheat, burning out the PC.
  • Simplicity- Thin Client Technology will provide one, uniform set of hardware and software so that will simplify the learning process for both student and teachers. “… the thin client, simplifies the computer hardware considerably and resolves technical issues for teachers by locating the complex hardware in a central office.” (Sandholtz & Reilly, 2004. p. 22)

Thin clients technology has the potential to provide:

  • an increase in the number of computers to improve accessibility,
  • one consistent or universal computer to reduce the complexity,
  • vastly more reliable computers.

 

Implementation Plan

  • Identifying the need.
    I worked as a computing teacher in this school from 2002-2005. These problems became evident through my personal experience as a teacher, working with the school technology committee and through discussion with other staff. The first step in any process of change hinges on “analysis of the organization and the identification of the need for change” (Kanter et al., 1992, cited in Morrison, 1998, p. 17). Now that I am not working in this school, I believe that I have no personal agenda or bias; thus giving me an informed objective view. To ensure that the solution is compatible with the school and staff needs it would a survey should be done.
  • Proposing a solution.
    The next step in the process of change is the identification of some form of “intervention to meet the need” (Kanter et al., 1992, cited in Morrison, 1998, p. 17) and a plan for its intervention.  Thin client technology will meet these needs.  I suggest that this proposal be presented to key staff in the school. Trowler et al. point out that face-to-face communication is preferable to documentation when introducing a new idea. Rogers (1967, para 31) refers to building the awareness or knowledge of the proposed change. The aim is to persuade and gain support from these “senior management and influential staff” (Morrison, 1998, p. 16) so they become the opinion leaders (change agents).
  • The Proposal.
    I recommend a hybrid of fat and thin clients. “Thin clients need not completely replace desktop systems. In many cases, both can comfortably coexist on the same networks.” (Weinstein, 1997, para 11) I propose an incremental rather than radical approach; trialing this technology on a limited basis first. This will mean that thin client technology will gradually supplement (not replace) multimedia computers. The aim initially would be to place at least one computer in every classroom and later to increase this number.
  • Building individual involvement and ownership.
    It's not enough to win over the support of senior management. Everyone needs to be involved in this process of change. Every teacher has to be able to see this need and have a sense urgency for change. Widespread, honest discussion will build individual involvement and ownership. “Channels” of communication need to be established so that this discussion can be ongoing. It is through these communication channels the ideas and support can “diffuse” through the school. Frank & Zhao (2004, para 2) refer to these information channels that exist between people to build “Social Capital”.
  • Developing a shared vision
    Change must have some goal that everyone can focus on so it is important to develop a “genuinely shared vision that provides direction” (Kanter et al, cited in Morrison, 1998, p. 41). This is “a vision for the use of technology for teaching and learning” (Bates. 2000. p. 44). The vision needs to be “a set of concrete scenarios reflecting exactly what we would really like to be doing in the future” (Fritz. 1989, cited in Bates. 2000. p. 44). Most teachers want to be involved in decisions that will impact on their classroom. They want to be actively involved rather than having decisions imposed upon them. The decision to try out an innovation that comes from everyone is more likely to work.
  • Leadership
    Tony Bates (2000, p. 43) emphasises the need for strong leadership if the “barriers of inertia” are to be overcome. He suggests the leadership comes from a unified senior management team working together towards the shared vision. These “Change Agents” need to be actively involved in supporting and facilitating this change. They will be the ones who “provide instructional resources (models, mentors, peers) during the change process” (Ertmer, Addison, Lane, Ross, & Woods, 1999. p. 17). The general plan is for a few people to lead the way. Strategic planning to achieve the vision needs to be done at all levels, especially at the departmental teaching level where change is to occur. Top-down strategies and bottom-up strategies need to be adopted (Morrison, 1998, p.15, Elton, 2003, p. 5).
  • Cultural Change
    ”Part of successful management of change is to identify participants’ perceptions, attitudes, values, beliefs and opinions and to ensure that these are fully informed” (Morrison, 1998, p.15).  People involved or affected by the change need to be motivated. A major cultural change within the staff is required if the challenge of technological change is to be successful. Placing computers in classrooms is only the first step towards integrating technology into lessons. Larry Cuban (2001) in his book ‘Oversold and Underused: computers in the classroom’ clearly argues that the provision of computers is not enough to get teachers to integrate their use. Change is about changing people, their beliefs and their practices; “Change Thinking, Change Practices” (Trowler, Saunders, & Knight. 2003). It is important to “incorporate a dual focus on technological and pedagogical issues during training efforts” (Ertmer et al., 1999, p. 17). Changes in practice will only occur if there is a change in beliefs. Long lead-time may be needed to gain commitment for change. Some people will not change until they actually see these new ideas working. Rogers (1997, para 17) calls this skeptical group the “late majority”. Only then will the school be able to break with the past practices. “True ownership is not something that emerges magically at the beginning, but it emerges during a successful change process” (Elton, 2003).
  • Flexibility
    A flexible approach to strategic planning is needed because strategies often emerge over time. “Evolutionary planning works better than linear planning” (Hargreaves, 1994, p. 10). An inflexible approach to strategic planning does not allow for further consultation and may exclude good ideas that evolve. “Emphasise co-operative and collaborative approaches, consensus-forming rather than conflictual, decision-making” (Kanter et al, cited in Morrison, 1998, p. 41).
  • Reinforcing Change
    It is also important to reinforce change so that people do not revert to their old ways. Individuals, who do become proficient in the skilled use of technology in the classroom, need to be properly recognised and rewarded especially the innovators and early adopters. These “Early adopters are instrumental in getting an innovation to the point of critical mass, and hence, in the successful diffusion of an innovation. “ (Rogers, 1997, para 20) “Both pressure and support – i.e. both sticks and carrots - are necessary for success.” (Elton, 2003.p.3) The stick for a teacher is the yearly appraisal done by the head teacher. One of the criteria on the appraisal could be “Integration of Technology in the Classroom”. This would give individuals a deterrent as well as incentive to embrace the technological change.

 

Anticipated barriers and how to overcome them.

There is a belief amongst many staff in this school that the bigger, more powerful and more complicated a computer is, the better. However, with more powerful computers also comes added complexity. The aim should be to provide what is really needed within the simplest possible system. Changing the social culture and beliefs in the school is important if this is to work. This can be done by convincing the change agents then using communication channels to spread the word.

The suggestion initially met with some resistance because of the district's relative unfamiliarity with the technology” (Harbour, 1998, para 1). It may be necessary to set up a small prototype for demonstration to persuade the school community (Downey, 2001).

The school may need to upgrade servers to make thin client technology work: more powerful and more expensive servers are needed. This is going to be a contentious issue because there are always teachers or departments wanting new, powerful computers they believe they need. The purchase of a new server will seem to be in conflict with their interests for more computers. Strong leadership will be needed to overcome this barrier.

Laggards tend to be suspicious of innovations and change agents.” (Rogers, 1997, para 21) They will argue that when the server is down no one can use the computers. These people judge the proposal by the past with unreliable computers. It will take time for the laggards to see that a thin client network is less likely to crash than a traditional server/client network.

There will also be the argument that thin clients will be slower than fat clients but in fact “thin client computers display data more rapidly than PCs because all processing is done on the server, no database information goes back and forth over the network, a process that typically slows computing processes to a crawl” (Villano, 2003, para 9).

 

Evaluation Plan.

Rogers (1997, para 21) emphasized two main types of evaluation research to measure the impact of an innovation [1] formative evaluation, and [2] summative evaluation.

  • Keeping communication channels open during the entire process will assist in improving effectiveness. Discussion about experiences with the new technology will suggest ways to meet the needs of the users.
  • Once it is fully implement a survey needs to be taken to determine the effectiveness of the innovation.

Riley & Seashore Louis (2000, p. 3) point out that change requires more than the adoption of new innovation.  It also includes:

  • Implementation: Was the innovation ever really adopted?  
    The presence of thin clients in a classroom is easily observable, visible data.  Reviewing records on the purchase and deployment of computers (documents) will provide this information.
  • Fidelity: Once implemented, did the innovation maintain its integrity and purpose? If teachers use technology to enhance learning and to “support the appropriate instructional methods” (Howel & Cannon-Bowers, 2003, p. 22) then we can say that the innovation is successful. This data can be collected through observation, survey or through the server itself by setting up a log of what software is being used, when and where.
  • Impact: Have staff and students been positively and significantly affected?
    A quantitative analysis can be made comparing before and after the changes are made to measure the (1) time taken for staff in the preparation of lessons and (2) the exam results of students.
  • Institutionalisation: Did the innovation become integrated into the school’s mission and organisation? If the provision of computers in every classroom becomes part of the schools mission statement we can say that the innovation is successful.
  • Maintenance: Did successful programmes continue to exist?
    If the use of thin client technology is still widely used in five years time we can say that the innovation is successful. The adopter becomes confirmed by continuing to benefit from the use. If students found it useful to have these computers in all classrooms we can say that the innovation is successful.
  • Replication: Was it possible to transfer the innovation from one school context to another? If other schools adopt this technology we can say that the innovation is successful. Harbour (1998, para 5) found that once they had proven the effectiveness of thin client technology school district officials had “a new take on fulfilling the district's future computing requirements”.

 

Conclusion

By changing from the current practice of buying multimedia personal computers to thin client technology, issues of accessibility, complexity and reliability can be improved. This would take away the technical demands on teachers and provide simple, reliable computers so that they can focus on integrating technology effectively into the classroom. (Sandholtz & Reilly, 2004, p. 20).

 

Footnotes

[1] “Formative evaluation is a type of research that is conducted while an activity, process, or system is ongoing, in order to improve its effectiveness (Rogers, 1995).”

[2] “Summative evaluation is a type of research that is conducted to reach a decision about the effectiveness of an activity, process, or system after it has run its course (Rogers, 1995).”

 

References

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