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Are Desktops Dead?

Technology—and how it is used—is changing quickly. But 85 percent of the computers schools expect to purchase this year are still desktops. Is this a sign that districts remain out of touch, or an understanding of exactly how districts are using computers?

Mary Cullinane, who manages the K-12 computing segment at Microsoft, has a somewhat absurd analogy regarding the use of computer labs in K-12 education.

"Imagine saying to your students, 'Okay, class, now we're all going to get up and go down the hall to the room where the pens are,' " Cullinane says. "With computer labs, that's essentially what we're saying."

With tablet PCs that easily transform scribbled notes into typed text, laptop computers that cost less than $1,000, and handheld devices with thermometer attachments that allow students to quickly graph science experiments, Cullinane's description seems prehistoric.

"What I've seen is that [desktops] are just a bottleneck, a barrier to real integration of technology into teaching and learning activities," says Valerie Crawford of SRI Research. The group has evaluated the effectiveness of handheld computers in schools. "The vision of technology now is that teaching and learning become more student centered. That vision can't be realized as long as desktop computer use is very episodic."

But in many districts the realities of budgets, boot-up times, pedagogy and politics make the theoretically possible "anytime, anywhere" computing practically unattainable.

Technology, Unplugged

If the deployment of computers in K-12 is viewed on a continuum, the room with 30 desktop computers is the starting point. The next inflow of resources often brings four or five Internet-enabled computers to each classroom. After that comes increased mobility, with some schools adopting portable learning tools from manufacturers like Texas Instruments and Palm. Others have gone the laptop route, installing wireless networks that allow teachers and students to surf the Internet from their desks, and take the machines home at night.

"Desktops are just a bottleneck, a barrier to real integration of technology into teaching and learning activities." -Valerie Crawford, SRI Research

And though there seem to be stories every day about schools adopting laptops-including the entire state of Maine-portable computers account for a small fraction of the CPUs purchased by educators. Last fall, IDC Research found that 10 percent of PCs in schools were notebook computers. In the same period, Apple computer said that one-third of the CPUs it sold to educators were laptops. Texas Instruments says there are 10 million of its handheld devices in use in education. Educators told IDC that 15 percent of the units they plan to buy this year would be laptops.

"While the share is increasing, if you look at what's in the shopping basket, notebooks are still a significant minority," says IDC analyst Ray Boggs.

The number of laptops is increasing, but most aren't being handed out to students to take home. Instead, they are part of mobile computing labs, special carts that cradle the laptops and are equipped with wireless Internet connections. These mobile labs, which often come with course-specific curriculum already installed, are an improvement over the dedicated computer lab, not least because they free up that lab space for use as regular classrooms.

"That's the application that is really getting everyone excited," Boggs says. "Instead of taking the kids to the lab, now we can bring the lab to you."

Those, like Cullinane, who believe schools should adopt a one-to-one mobile computing model as soon as possible, say that in this new environment, technology will become just another classroom tool, as much as a textbook or pen. And though significant quantitative results are not yet available, there is much anecdotal evidence of the value of one-to-one computing experiments. In the Mott Hall School in New York City, where all the students have laptops, independent researchers from Rockman Et Al found that students with laptops outperformed their non-laptop peers in all four scored areas of a writing assessment. Other studies have shown that routine use of technology in the classroom helps to raise student achievement by engaging and motivating users.

The Good. Now the Ugly

There have also been some oversize failures in experiments that put computers in the hands of each student. Consolidated High School District 230 in Orland Park, Ill., had more than 2,000 of its students purchase or lease Palms in the fall of 2000. The district had the vision that the personal digital assistants and associated add-on hardware and software could be used throughout the entire high school curriculum. The idea was good, the execution was rocky.

"What we found after the first year was that quite a few teachers that originally participated ended up not using them," says Darrell Walery, director of technology for the district.

"If you look at what's in the shopping basket, notebooks are still a significant minority." -Ray Boggs, analyst, IDC Research

Problems with distributing software to each student, along with the reality that lesson plans would have to be reworked to take advantage of the tools, were the primary reasons for the failure, Walery says.

"Teachers just kind of got frustrated with the technical piece not being completely ready to go," Walery says. "There was also a pedagogy issue along with the technical."

Two years later, science and math teachers who maintain classroom sets and distribute them when needed use the Palms. The school also has several wireless laptop carts that are used by many teachers, but it is shying away from major implementations like the Palm initiative.

"The mobile technology is creeping in, and that's pretty typical of what a new technology does in education," Walery says. "That probably was part of what we were bucking up against, trying to do more of a jump start."

Don't Bury Me 'Cause I'm Not Dead Yet

Given results like these, can you believe the hype that desktops are dead? Not yet.

Ignoring for a moment the cost of replacing all desktop computer labs with mobile computing solutions, there are other issues to contend with. One is as simple as boot-up time. It may take a classroom teacher 10 minutes to distribute laptops to a class and wait for all the students to log in to the machines. That's 10 minutes that's not wasted when students file into a computer lab where the technology is ready and waiting. In addition, the wireless networks that allow these laptops to connect to the Internet aren't nearly as fast, as reliable or as safe as hard-wired networks.

Some applications-
such as graphic design
and Web site creation-
demand desktop computers.

Handheld computers don't face these issues, but most suffer from a lack of computing power, tiny screen interface, and more limited software applications. The new wave of Tablet PCs are a median ground between laptops and handhelds, valuable because they allow students to take notes with a digital pen that converts the handwriting to text. But many educators aren't aware of the products, and until prices come down the equipment won't find widespread adoption in schools.

There are also applications where desktop computers are simply the best tools for the job. Classes that require large color monitors, like graphic design, are best situated in hard-wired labs. Also, handheld computing devices often require a powerful desktop computer to manage the handhelds. Administrative functions are also likely to remain firmly on the desktop.

The other reality is that budgets and other issues have forced schools to hang on to slow, outdated desktop computers for years and years.

"I think there are still some Apple II E's out there," Boggs says, only half kidding.

But when districts are faced with the decision of whether to upgrade or replace existing computer labs, most go with portable and wireless technology.

"It is very much at the decision point when you either have to make a major upgrade or a significant investment where the wireless notebook is winning," Boggs says.

And as educators make short strides in creating a new educational model where computers are part of everyday learning, it's possible that the device best suited to the "nirvana" of one-to-one, 24/7 computing hasn't been invented yet.

"I think what's going to do it is some sort of handheld-tablet convergence, where the price gets down under $1,000, the device has a color screen, a larger integrated keyboard," Walery says. "When we get to that product, I think whoever can produce it is going to make a lot of money."

Rebecca Sausner,, is a contributing editor.

Why Schools Can’t be Used as Computer Disposal Sites

Schools used to be thrilled to receive donated computer equipment. But with more and more schools operating their own networks, the cost of computers plummeting, and the speed with which computers become obsolete, a donated computer is more like a white elephant than a white knight. What’s a district to do?

Give ’Em Back

The Plano (Texas) Independent School District hasn’t installed a donated computer in its network in four years. According to Jim Hirsch, associate superintendent of technology at PISD, it is too expensive and time-consuming to refurbish an outside machine to work in the district’s network.

Instead, donated computers, as well as ones that have been phased out in the district’s five-year computer replacement cycle, are being sent home with students. The individual schools are responsible for providing training for the whole family before the computer goes home, but after that, “it’s theirs to use.” Loaded with the same software as the computers at school, these at-home stand-alones provide entire families with a level of technology that they may not otherwise be able to afford. In a district of 51,000 students and 24,000 computers, 400 recycled and donated computers have found new homes since the program began in October.

Educate the Donor, Educate the Kids

The hidden costs of donated computers can hobble a district’s technology budget. One “free” computer could eat up as much as $200 of software and between eight and 19 hours of reconfiguration time. A typical school doesn’t have space to store or work on donated computers. Also, computer donation should not be confused with computer disposal. If a school receives an obsolete or unworkable computer, the school then takes on the burden of getting rid of it, which is the opposite of helping the school. Instead, the school pays for storage and proper disposal.

One thing to do with donated computers is turn them into teaching tools. If you use the student body as computer refurbishers, you’ve both taught the kids some valuable skills and gotten the computers up and running for school or home use. This works best when creating stand-alone desktop machines; this doesn’t address the needs of a school for compatible network computers.

If your district chooses to accept donated equipment: set guidelines for what you will accept, like only machines in working condition no older than three years (which is the outside age limit on a computer if the donating company expects to get a tax credit for it), or only machines in working condition that are already configured to work in a network.

For more information on how to get a computer donation program going in your district, visit —Elizabeth Crane