Thursday, March 12, 2009

Don’t Worry, Be Scrappy: Good, Cheap Tech for Schools, Cloud Computing and More

It’s the perfect time to try cheap new technologies

By Jeffrey Hastings -- School Library Journal, 3/1/2009

When asked to weigh in on what might be the next big thing in educational technology, I first did what I felt an SLJ gadget guy should do: I scanned the horizon for the next gizmo or software advance that would eventually grow legs, rise up, and utterly transform our profession. But what I saw was more about evolution than revolution. Sure, Windows Vista will become Windows 7, USB 2.0 will become USB 3.0, and geekdom will march on, just to a predictably faster drumbeat. Meanwhile, a broader and bleaker brand of change was happening right under my nose; our school system’s tech staff was shrinking, our licensed software was aging, and support contracts for things like our ILS (integrated library system) had been allowed to lapse. It was as if our school’s technology plan had suddenly been condensed into a two-word mandate: save money. That’s when I realized what the next big thing in ed-tech really is: austerity. For many of us, it has already settled in and is pretty much running the show.

Does crisis—even financial crisis—contain opportunity? I think so, especially for school librarians who have been inspired by leaders like Joyce Valenza to adopt new tools, but who have found that, ultimately, it’s tech departments, not library media specialists, that typically call the shots. If you’ve ever felt chained to a tired set of standard software served up mainly through standard desktop computer labs, an extended cash crunch could provide just the shake-up needed to make reinvention happen. Interested in getting back into the loop? Then prepare to help steer change by boning up on the following cost-cutting trends.

Virtual desktops

Employed to distribute the processing power of one computer to several workstations—ideally without users realizing they’re not connected to a dedicated machine—virtual desktops are an increasingly popular way for tech departments to save money on hardware, support, and power consumption. The NComputing X300 virtual desktop kits I reviewed in the February issue were deployed in my library last fall and actually got me thinking about this theme. Since virtual desktops don’t enhance performance more than one-to-one student-to-PC situations, they’re widely reviled as being glitchy compromises to the “real thing.” But, while not a good fit for processor-intensive apps and “power users,” virtual desktop technology allowed me to double the number of workstations on my library floor by being applied exclusively to low-demand tasks like Web browsing and catalog searching. A giant leap forward? Not really, but the cash-cutting measure—thoughtfully applied—enabled a needed expansion while making us leaner and greener, using less power per station, and employing recycled keyboards, mice, and displays. Like it or not, virtual desktops, whether hardware- or software-based, may be coming your way. Be proactive. Find out where they would and would not be an appropriate fit, and you may actually find yourself asking for them instead of being left feeling hobbled by them.

Open source software

For school systems struggling to pay their licensing fees for products like Microsoft Office, free software suites like Open Office may soon become the no-brainer replacement solution. Get to know your options. Likewise, in our business, it may be time to start playing around with open-source library systems so that you can steer that choice, if necessary. With an aging library circ/cat system, an expired support contract, and no plan for a replacement, I’m currently exploring several open-source ILS options, hoping that I can be ready to suggest a low-cost or no-cost fit when the time comes. For David Lininger, a secondary school librarian in Missouri, that time is now. He’s already chosen the open-source favorite Koha as his next library management suite. While the software is technically free, he’ll be spending some of the software savings on one of the many Koha hosting providers out there. That move will shift responsibility for things like records storage, software upgrades, and backups off of his school system’s shrinking tech staff and into “the cloud.” The cloud? Read on.

Cloud computing

Like the wispy white things floating in the skies above, the term “cloud computing” seems lofty and nebulous, but it’s a concept firmly grounded in modern computing reality. Fact is, while everything one did on a computer 10 years ago probably sprang forth from one’s local network or desktop, much of that utility can now be found on the Web. Increasingly, Web 2.0 style applications and storage live in that “cloud,” and upgrades and maintenance take place there, too. That spells potential savings in software, storage, and support costs. Cloud-based service providers are well aware that a bad economy can be good for them; the theme of this year’s Cloud Computing Expo, being held March 30–April 1, 2009, is “Triumph Over the Recession—Connect Yourself to The Cloud in ’09.”


Once a school system has gotten behind a set of cloud-based tools like Google Docs or Zoho, done the training, and made sure students have accounts set up, the stage is set for netbooks and other portable devices to begin replacing less flexible desktop computer labs. Netbooks, cheaper and leaner versions of laptops, are the perfect tool for cloud computing. Their relative lack of processor power and storage isn’t an impediment when the cloud is hefting the load, and their quick start-up and small footprint could help make educational computing a lot more organic and spontaneous. Toss WiFi into the mix, and you’ve got computing that happens wherever and whenever teaching happens, not computing that demands that teaching schlep to it.

Recently, I chatted with our district’s technology director, Paul Pominville, about these cost-saving trends. He told me that those not already being rolled out are being strongly considered. Pominville also agreed that these efforts would not only save cash, but could also benefit students. So what’s the holdup? “You’ve got to realize that there are still plenty of parents who feel their kids are being shortchanged if they’re not being exposed to the very latest version of Microsoft Office,” he said.

As both an educator and a parent, I feel exactly the opposite way. I think we can serve students best by exposing them to as many different computing looks as possible, especially to Web-based tools that encourage sharing and collaboration. Latest version of Office? Who cares?! If we can ride out the economic storm and get our kids and colleagues using Google Docs or Zoho instead, I’d count that as a double victory.

If prosperity means more of the same old ed-tech, maybe we could all use a little downturn.

Author Information
A library media specialist, Jeffrey Hastings writes SLJ’s Test Drive column. Email him at