Rich, affordable, green computing for the classroom (and elsewhere)
Computing technology continues to become more affordable and accessible as the years go by. No longer is it necessary to pay $3,000 for a desktop machine that support rich multimedia software applications capable of supporting interactive teaching and learning experiences. A quick glance at Dell.com reveals that an up-to-date PC can be obtained by the general consumer for somewhere in the neighborhood of $500.00 and would support rich multimedia experiences. However, regardless of the price drops in computing technology over the years, it is not uncommon to find old and outdated computers living within the classrooms, libraries, and computer labs within many of our schools.
For a school, the cost of purchasing and maintaining a single machine goes far beyond the initial purchase price. Typically, school districts employ information technology (IT) departments staffed with full time professionals who work to acquire, install, configure, and maintain the machines that serve the needs of the school population. IT departments embrace practices which allow them to handle these tasks in a much more streamlined and efficient fashion than a typical end user or freelance computer techy. Examples include installing & configuring operating systems and software applications in batch vs. individually using hard disk imaging and deployment techniques or diagnosing and fixing problems remotely via a network connection rather than conducting an on-site visit. Regardless of the tricks and tools of the trade, IT costs can add up very quickly and can present significant challenges to school districts that are on a tight budget. Who isn’t on a tight budget these days?!
For the schools that are on a seriously tight budget, what are their options? How can they offer their students access to and instruction about the technologies that they must become familiar with in order to be knowledgeable and functional citizens of today’s world? I would like to delve into these questions by exploring an alternative to traditional (one computer per workstation) computing known as multiseat computing. Multiseat computing involves utilizing a single computer to serve the needs of multiple users simultaneously. This requires implementing a combination of hardware and software which allows a single desktop computer to be connected to many workstations (each having its own keyboard, mouse, and monitor) and to perform operations requested by all users simultaneously. The desktop computer acts as a server, a shared resource working for many users rather than working for only one user.
The user experience is very much the same as it has been. Upon logging into the operating system from their workstation, users are presented with a personal desktop from which they may launch applications, create & save files, browse the web, print documents, and perform other tasks. The user experience may be tailored to the needs of a specific environment. For example, within a classroom, long term user accounts may be configured to support users’ ability to store their files throughout the school year. Software features allow a teacher to monitor users, access students’ files, grade work, and more. Within a library setting, public user accounts may be configured to automatically purge temporary files and user data upon shutdown to support privacy and simple maintenance. Software features are easy to learn and use regardless of the setting.
Let’s take a quick look at video of two multiseat computing solutions currently available, Windows Multipoint Server and Userful Linux. Currently, there is no Mac OSX based multiseat solution available.
Windows Multipoint Server:
There are costs and benefits to each solution which should be evaluated by persons interested in potentially implementing a multiseat solution. Factors to consider when selecting the right solution for your needs include:
- Hardware requirements
- Support for hardware (printers, scanners, etc.)
- Software application support
- Supported software application feature sets
- Administrative Requirements
- Cost (hardware, operating system, applications, training, energy)
The benefits are likely purcolating within your mind already. Some benefits of implementing a multiseat solution include:
- Financial savings (hardware, software, energy, administration, maintenance, e-waste)
- Computer access & availability to individuals, groups, and orgs who cannot suffice on a 1 machine-per-user model or have limited or no IT support resources
- Specific benefits to teachers, learners, and other types of users
For more information about the cost and environmental savings, refer to this page provided by Userful Linux which compares a 10 user multiseat setup with a 10 user machine-per-user setup and details the manufacturing savings in terms of electricity, produced CO2, chemicals, and water as well as the yearly usage savings in terms of electricity and produced CO2.
After learning about the benefits and savings of implementing green multiseat computing, it is difficult to understand why so many IT departments have not yet implemented this technology! In many instances, the individual machines that are currently being used by 1 user at a time could be utlized as a multiseat server! If you are a fellow Nazareth student, you might find yourself thinking about this the next time you walk through the library and hear all of those computer fans whirring about, keeping all of those powerful computers running cool while students type their papers using Microsoft Word or browse the web using Firefox. You might consider mentioning multiseat computing to your IT department and encourage them to go green!
Beyond the school and the classroom are many other environments that could stand to benefit from multiseat computing, including offices, recreational centers, internet cafes, and homes. I am currently implementing a Userful Linux multiseat setup for a local church interested in supporting their surrounding community. I am using a donated desktop computer (3-4 years old) and donated monitors, keyboards, and mice to create a 3-4 user (to start) multiseat setup. I will be sure to post the results of the project once we are all setup and running! The actual startup cost per seat for this project will be around $50.00 which the community is very happy about.