Network Paradigm Shifts Can Create Ubiquitous Computing Environments Without Increasing the Tech Budget


Shift the current ‘Distributed Network’ paradigm to the emerging practice of ‘Virtualization’.

There are several technical approaches to virtualizing networks but, in general, most involve running software on centralized servers rather than on the hard drives of thousands of computers distributed throughout the school district network. In a virtualized environment the local computer is used only as a device to access the applications that run on the server. Technical advances in the last 18 months have increased the capacity of virtualized desktops to run demanding applications (audio and video), and have greatly reduced the overall cost.

Virtualizing the environment provides the following benefits:

1. Replacement Cycles are Decreased and/or Eliminated.
Since the end-user device is only utilized to connect to the server, it barely uses the local processor or hard drive; thus it allows educators to keep old and outdated equipment in use for much longer replacement cycles. Instead of buying new machines to run the latest software, the latest software, running on servers, is accessed via the old machines on a virtualized network. This allows districts to re-allocate precious dollars from endless replacement plans to adding new machines and increasing access to technology resources and educational opportunities.

2. Hardware Purchase Costs Are Greatly Reduced.
Virtualization also allows districts to choose from a wide variety of devices ranging from inexpensive Thin Clients, Mini-Netbooks, and other low-cost devices; to more traditional desktops and laptops where appropriate.

In a virtualized environment it may be possible to purchase (2) devices for the cost of (1) fully configured desktop. The ability for school districts to increase access to computer devices while not increasing the budget is a huge step forward.

3. Students and Teachers Have 24×7 Access From Home.
Because software runs centrally it can be accessed from anywhere at anytime, especially the home. Students and teachers are able to access all their school applications, their files, and their storage from any device with Internet connectivity. Extending school resources this way increases access to learning resources beyond the school day.

4. Network Support Costs Are Reduced.
One of the largest recurring expenses in a district’s technology budget is the cost of network engineers/technicians that are needed to maintain and support it. Supporting the current distributed network is very labor intensive and schools generally have to hire a full time network engineer for every 500-750 computers. In a virtualized environment most of the effort of supporting the infrastructure is focused on the servers where the applications are running. Because network engineers don’t have to resolve problems on the local computers distributed throughout the buildings, one technician can easily support 1,000-1,500 computers. This produces two areas of possible savings: 1) it is possible to reduce staff already in place; or 2) It is possible to keep the current staff in place and not have to add staff as the number of digital devices on the network grows.

5. Software and Textbook Costs are Reduced.
Many districts purchase one software license for every machine. Centralizing the software allows for metering tools to manage software usage, which in turn, permits the district to purchase just the number of concurrent licenses that they need. Instead of paying for 1,000 licenses for a piece of software to be loaded on 1,000 machines, a district can purchase 500 concurrent licenses which can be accessed from any computer, including those at home. This can be an important source of savings.

Some districts purchase (2) sets of textbooks, one for classroom use and one for home use. Virtualization allows districts to buy (1) electronic version of a textbook which is available from any device at any location. Once again, this frees up precious resources to continue to expand access to digital devices for students.

Virtualization opens the door to realistically creating technology rich and device rich, environments without significantly increasing district technology budgets. While virtualizing the environment requires some ‘up-front’ investment, most of these costs are almost entirely one-time outlays. Similar to the concept of investing in solar panels that reduce our electric bills, the payback period for virtualization is almost immediate.

Given the extensive research into “high volume computer access’ classrooms and their correlation to student engagement, project-based learning, independent learning, and increased achievement, I would recommend that virtualization take priority over the costly and largely un-researched impact of equipping classrooms with “Digital Whiteboards” and document cameras. These technologies tend to keep the focus of class activities on the front of the room, maintaining the traditional classroom orientation, and can only be used by one person at a time. Providing students with devices that connect them to high quality instructional resources and learning experiences will be more likely to stimulate student centered pedagogy and have a greater impact on delivering teaching and learning that is consistent with 21st Century Skills.

Some Additional Thoughts:
I believe that by committing to ‘virtualizing’ school networks we can make immediate and dramatic strides toward creating ubiquitous technology learning environments.

1. The technology budget lines presently targeted for replacing obsolete computers can be allocated for adding new devices instead.
2. The technology budget lines presently targeted for new purchases can be used to purchase 2x as many devices by utilizing Thin Clients and Sub-$500 Mini-Notebooks.
3. The technology budget lines presently targeted for Network Maintenance and Support salaries can be reduced and the savings re-allocated to the purchase of more devices.

Just these (3) items alone bring us, almost immediately, to a much higher student to computer ratio, without a permanent increase in the technology budget. It fundamentally changes our thinking about whether ubiquitous computing is a realistic goal, and the greatly reduces the timeframe it might take to achieve it.



9 thoughts on “Network Paradigm Shifts Can Create Ubiquitous Computing Environments Without Increasing the Tech Budget

  1. Switching from traditional textbooks to online textbooks is too big of a leap for most people, results in a decrease in capability (must charge battery, startup/shutdown, etc), and carries along most of the weaknesses of traditional textbooks because the virtual textbooks are usually purchased from the same companies and licensed restrictively.

    Have you evaluated having teachers/curriculum coordinators create custom versions of open textbooks, then printing copies to literally give to each student? You end up with lighter, cheaper to replace, up-to-date books that are tailored to fit your learning objectives perfectly. Since students own the books, they can write in them, tear out pages, etc, and if they lose one, replacements are much cheaper, maybe $10-15 for paperbound copies printed in large quantities.

  2. Dave,
    I like the customized textbook idea.

    However, I also see a new generation of textbooks being created from the ground up with technology in mind.

    These are not developed for paper printing first and then just put online.

    I read several online newspapers every day. Whether I am on my computer or waiting for a meeting and reading on my iPhone, I find it superior to the newspaper. For example, the Huffington Post has dozens and dozens of important video clips which I wouldn’t get in a paper version.

    Look at what happened to the traditional encyclopedia and the dictionary. Perhaps the textbook, too?

    I’m not convinced that if we had ubiquitous access that we wouldn’t use it for easy access to textbooks with videos, simulations, games, interactive problems, and maybe some user created content.


  3. I am in agreement with your thoughts on virtualization. It’s always a game of catch up especially for a large district in troubled economic times. Educators and students should not have to think about processor speed being the cause of interruption to a 21st century learner. Upgrades and maintenance are valid concerns that do need to be addressed. If virtualization can provide a viable means of ubiquity then it needs to be seriously considered.

  4. Craig,
    One of the biggest problems with changing paradigms, whether technical or pedagogical, is that there are so many people vested in ‘what is’.

    A new paradigm reorganizes things so that the ‘
    folks that have worked so hard to be experts’ get set back to ‘beginners’ again and have to learn a whole new way of doing things.

    In my experience they don’t recognize this consciously. It manifests itself in statements that contain “But’s…”

    “Yes, but…”

    I’ve always felt that having standards and ‘best practices’ was a double edged sword. On the one hand, having ‘best practices’ reduces the need to ‘re-invent the wheel’ over and over. We can learn from what others have done.

    On the other hand, once a ‘best practice’ is in place it is extremely hard to get people to leave it behind and move on to a new best practice when it emerges.

    Probably one issue that stands in the way of ‘virtualization’ is that it is not entirely new. People have been implementing different versions of it for years, mostly through adopting Citrix. The old view of ‘virtualization’ is that it is limited in performance and fairly expensive. Some folks took a look at it and felt it wasn’t right for them.

    However, the technical landscape for ‘virtualization’ has changed a great deal in the last 18-24 months. Server capacity has greatly increased performance, improvements in terminal server have removed the need for Citrix greatly reducing costs, etc.

    How to get people to take a ‘second look’?


  5. Hi Pete,

    Great post. Thanks for the rationale and information. As budget cuts loom, we will be taking a serious look at virtualization, thin clients, etc.

    Lots of vendors out there. Any experience with reliable ones, especially those that offer scalable solutions for larger districts?



  6. Pete,

    Well written article and I concur with most if not all of your assumption. I think that using more open source applications and operating systems within virtualized environments will also drive the cost lower. At Franklinville Central School we’ve recently acquired a VMWare ESX solution which we are in the process of setting up. We’re going to be looking at Virtual Desktop Infrasture (VDI) from VMWare along with using the Ubuntu Linux Terminal Server software to serve thin clients.



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  8. Pete, you say “…Providing students with devices that connect them to high quality instructional resources and learning experiences will be more likely to stimulate student centered pedagogy and have a greater impact on delivering teaching and learning that is consistent with 21st Century Skills.”

    If we still accept the physical classroom paradigm as a collecting place for collaborative social, physical, and intellectual learning in the future (??), I would think that EVERY desktop in a physical classroom would be a literal object, using touch technology such as the new HP TouchSmart computers or iTouch devices, but laid flat and rugged, attached to the net and internet using wireless access and taking advantage of the virtualization of which you speak.

    Smart Desks to fit this environment will be installed in the UK very soon, with a target of selling them within about 4 years.

    Then the whiteboard at the front would be only one piece of a physical space rather than the focal point, perhaps only needed for whole group activities, final presentations and specific student group project displays etc.

    I have been suggesting that someone create a slick video of what might be the future “classroom” space used for learning.. much like Apple did with the Knowledge Navigator. I would enjoy some old fashion science fiction visualizations, based upon a close look at the very near future which probably WON’T be a totally distributed learning environment (in my remaining lifetime anyway).

    The concept of using a mobile iTouch-type device combined with an anchored SmartDesk interests me as a picture of learning that is mobile AND anchored.

    Thanks and have a happy holiday time!

  9. Hello Peter:

    Is there a way I can email this posting to our Tech Director (aside from cutting and pasting)? Would make a good conversation with our District’s Technology Team.

    Happy New Year to you and your family.

    Lou Cuglietto

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