Thin-client computing project restores web access–and trains students in valuable technology skills

As a history teacher, I discovered the educational power of the internet in 1995. That’s when I introduced my Temescal Canyon High School students to eMail and chat rooms and showed them how to interview kids in Belgrade, Serbia.

Then the bombs began falling–and my students discovered they were dealing with real information. It gave them a different take on the world–and on this dead stuff we call history.

Once you know what can happen when students are motivated, it’s beyond discouraging when the technical resources aren’t there to make it happen. By 2003, the internet offered mind-boggling learning options, but California’s budget for K-12 education was on a downward curve. Our school inventory consisted of 300 eight-year-old, out-of-warranty computers that were ready for the scrap heap. Our enrollment–currently about 2,700 students–was growing at 10 percent annually.

“Computers, like most things, wear out and break. Meanwhile, capacity requirements change–both from an administrative and an educational perspective,” says Temescal Canyon High School Principal Patrick Kelleher. “As we become more accountable under the No Child Left Behind law, for instance, we need enhanced computing capacity for reporting and documenting NCLB compliance.”

It’s a constant struggle to maintain the level of instructional technology we achieved in the 1990s–let alone improve it. Back then, we had the funds we needed to purchase hardware and software, network schools, and train people.

Cash-strapped public high schools–including ours–deal with these bread-and-butter issues on a daily basis. Because I currently wear two hats–history teacher and technology coordinator–I’m on the front lines when it comes to finding cost-effective solutions. When students could no longer surf the web on our antiquated computers, I took the educator’s way out: I challenged 20 or so of my most computer-savvy students to find an affordable way to deliver standard applications and internet access.

Some of them already knew a thing or two about the thin-client network model. It’s an approach well-known in corporate America that is increasingly finding its way into public high schools.

Instead of discarding underpowered PCs, you use them as workstations and network them to a few high-powered backroom servers. All software and peripheral hardware applications run on the terminal server rather than the “thin” workstations. This simplifies installation, reduces maintenance, and provides immunity to computer viruses and other malicious tampering.

Our unpaid workforce consisted of the students themselves. It was a money-saving strategy that trained students in real-world management skills. When we challenged the students to solve critical problems and held them responsible for the results, they came up with bright ideas. They learned the price of success and failure–and faced the ongoing challenges of keeping a system up and running.

The thin-client computing model is replicable at every high school in the United States. Any community has a cadre of students who could do the same thing. At the administrative level, the key is to know what services you want to deliver, and then look realistically at your financial and human resources.

To get started, our student team surfed the web for viable solutions. At, they learned the specifics of the K-12 Linux Terminal Server Project. This is a version of the Linux open-source operating system, designed for thin-client implementations, that schools can use without paying a licensing fee. Our school chose this K12LTSP version of Linux, which is based on Red Hat Linux and is customized for use in education.

The students pulled 100 dusty PCs out of the closet for redeployment in a thin-client network. We went through the full feasibility and development process before committing resources. We needed a test run before spending the money on servers.

Unveiling the prototype before an appreciative audience of administrators at the school-district level was a high point for my students. They also enjoyed the time they spent stripping out hard disk, floppy, and CD-ROM drives from old PCs and converting them into thin clients.

Another part of the learning experience, the students discovered, is acknowledging what you don’t know–and seeking expert help. We wanted to make sure our limited funds were well spent, and we didn’t want to over-buy. To choose new equipment that met our existing needs and allowed for future migration to 64-bit applications, we consulted with our vendor, CDW-G. Based on the account team’s recommendations, we acquired seven e325 IBM servers that were fast and well suited to a thin-client environment. We deployed 200 thin-client computers in 2004.

The students soon realized there was another aspect to successful project management: keeping the system up and running. Once the initial challenge is over, you still have to maintain the system. Graduating seniors have to train the juniors to take over the workload.

A team of about 80 to 100 students is currently responsible for network maintenance. The school now is in the process of deploying an additional 150 IBM server-based thin clients. From a central location, the servers provide internet access and run Windows applications, including Microsoft Word and Excel, and a Windows-based, district-wide testing program. The school also built two computer labs with 40 new computers in each lab.

According to U.S. Census data, there are roughly five students for every instructional computer connected to the internet in America’s K-12 classrooms. A few years ago, Temescal Canyon faced restricted access because of fewer workstation locations. The thin-client solution has allowed us to restore our student access ratio to eight to one.

The next step, Principal Kelleher believes, is to increase the interactive nature of communications between teachers and students and emphasize online research. “We want to improve the dialog about what a teacher’s expectations are–and how a student can meet them. It’s an emerging component of the instructional process,” he says.

As teachers become more comfortable with the concept, a student will turn in a draft of a paper online; the teacher will correct it and eMail it to the student’s home; and parents as well as their children will participate in this educational process. We can now discuss this development because of our increased computer access. And our students continue to look for older computers they can turn into thin clients.

Mark LaPorte is a history teacher at California’s Temescal Canyon High School. He also serves as the school’s technology coordinator.

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