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How to configure hardware in schools

There are three basic ways that computers can be distributed in schools to meet educational goals. They can be provided to individual classrooms, installed in central computer labs and placed in libraries and teachers' planning rooms. Each of these options, and their combinations, has associated benefits and costs that need to be carefully considered. Below, you will find an analysis of each of these options.

Computers in Classrooms 
One of the greatest potential benefits of distributing computers to individual classrooms is to provide teachers and students with easier and more regular access to these educational tools. This allows teachers to utilize computer and internet based content in their lessons and even lessons around the most up-to-date information possible. Unfortunately, not all schools and classrooms can accommodate computers in sufficient numbers. Providing only one or a few computers in all classrooms of a school will likely have little or no impact on learning since it will be difficult for teachers to make computer use an integral part of their teaching. In fact, providing a classroom with only a few computers can sometimes become an added distraction as students may have to use the time set aside for learning to attempt to figure out who gets to use the computers.

Alternative Computers in Classroom Strategy-COWs 
COWs, or “Computers On Wheels”, are carts that hold a set of computers (usually 10 to 20 laptops), often with a printer, with the possibility to connect to a school network via one network connection. COWs can be wheeled into a classroom when the teacher wants to use computers for a specific activity. COWs can be beneficial because it makes it possible to provide teachers access to computers in their classroom without having to significantly remodel the room, provide special furniture, or reserve space for dedicated computers. Using battery-powered laptops also makes it possible to avoid the need to install special infrastructure, such as increased electrical outlets and capacity. COWs allow schools to optimize the use of expensive equipment by enabling any teacher to request a cart of computers. Since software only needs to be purchased for the computers on the carts and not for dozens of computers in each classroom, the cost for software can also be much less with COWs than with conventional classroom computer installations.

However, the initial cost of COWs with laptops and wireless networking capabilities has a higher cost per computer than conventional stationary computers. Also, because COWs are "communal" property which is used by a much greater number of students, it can be more costly to maintain them, especially when using laptops, than with stationary systems. There is also a greater risk of equipment damage from accidents, hard use or dropping with COW laptops than with stationary equipment. There may also be a greater risk of theft or loss of equipment because of the mobility of laptops, while desktop computers can be secured to the classroom furniture.

Computer Rooms or Labs
Establishing one or more computer rooms or labs is a popular way to provide equitable access to computers for the greatest number of users at the lowest possible cost. Computer labs enable schools to concentrate expensive resources in a common space that can be used for student educational activities, teacher professional development events and community groups. When using computer labs, it is important to arrange computers along the walls of the room rather than in rows so that teachers can view all the students' work from a common point and move quickly and easily from student to student, providing feedback and support. This arrangement can also make it easier and less costly to provide electricity and network access to the computers. The main benefits of using computer labs are:

  • Establishing a computer in a lab or dedicated room only requires schools to install quality electricity, network cabling and servers, effective security, climate control systems, good lighting, and specialized furniture in one or two rooms in a school rather than in many different rooms.

  • Equipment and software costs can be less for computer labs used by all classes than by classroom-based systems.

  • It can be easier and less costly to provide access to the Internet via computer labs than with classroom systems.

  • Computer labs can make it easier to encourage collaborative projects among groups of teachers and students.

However, computer labs can quickly become oversubscribed and competition for use may make it difficult for teachers to engage their students in longer-term on-going projects and activities. Furthermore, scheduling conflicts can frustrate teachers and inhibit their use of computer labs. Also, users, as with COWs, can see computer labs as a communal resource, which reduces their feelings of responsibility and makes the computers more difficult to maintain.

Computers in Libraries and Teachers' Rooms 
When funding and staff resources are scarce, schools can optimize investments in computers and Internet access by installing a few computers in public spaces such as the library and the teachers' planning room. Giving teachers private access to computers and the Internet can encourage them to learn to use these technologies and enable them to carry out planning activities involving the use of computers.

Hybrid Options 
Where possible, the greatest educational returns on technology investments can result by using strategic combinations of the above configuration options. For schools with sufficient room, suitable infrastructure and funds, and technical resources, the strategy of distributing computers to classrooms either as stationary systems or via COWs can be an effective means of enabling easy access to computers and the Internet. Library computers can be used to focus on research activities, while special classrooms can be outfitted with computers to enable and enhance benefits, especially for special needs students, which are difficult to achieve from computer labs. The combination of these options with one or more computer labs can create an ideal solution to providing students and teachers with rich and powerful educational tools.

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Configuration of School Technology: Strategies and Options
This article presents the various issues to consider when integrating computers into education, especially with regard to where and how computers should be distributed, connected and used. It looks into physical configuration, networking technology options and Internet access options.