Virtualization helped one district boost student achievement and engagement.

By the time students wake up for the school day, teachers and faculty have already had their first cup of coffee for the morning and are reviewing a schedule that almost always seems to echo the reminder that there just aren’t enough hours in the day. This is the cycle of education.

A few years ago, Empire High School in Vail, Ariz., became the first school in the state to provide laptops to all 350 students and go completely digital—leaving traditional textbooks behind for a more modern approach. The upfront costs for this educational adoption were quite large, but the long-term benefits have been seen in every measurement from decreased financial costs to increased levels of student engagement. There once was a time, not so long back, when the availability of computers at any educational institution was a luxury. Today, computer access is an expected standard. Though for many school districts, the growing student population overwhelms consistent financial shortcomings.

On the other side of the country, Scotland County in North Carolina is home to 36,000 residents, a third of which are under the age of 20. Our 14-site public school system serves more than 6,100 K-12 students. As we are among one of the poorest school districts in the country, only a fraction of our district’s students have internet access at home and many don’t have access to computers at all. For several North Carolina school districts, the answer has been investing in laptops largely with grant funding. Yet after laptops are in place, schools must pay for continuous repair and maintenance, and again find funds for replacement a few years down the road.

(Next page: How desktop virtualization saved the day)

As the director of technology and media for Scotland County Schools, when I first joined the team, I went in search of a viable alternative to the costly laptop approach that we had long relied on. I was seeking out an alternative solution that offered high performance and still accomplished the objectives of one-to-one computing for drastically less upfront and maintenance costs. The answer came in the form of desktop virtualization—a software technology that separates the desktop environment and associated application software from the physical client device that is used to access it.

With desktop virtualization, schools can have one-to-one computer access at a very reasonable cost, and when it’s time for a tech refresh, the costs are minimal compared to alternative options. This should be the only way it’s done.

While reviewing desktop virtualization solutions, I evaluated the cost, performance and sustainability of established companies like Citrix and VMware. Eventually I chose technology from a company called NComputing that’s dedicated to desktop virtualization because its solution continually delivered better user performance at a lower cost, and the ease of initial deployment was extremely simple and seamless.

As a pilot project to test desktop virtualization on a wider scale, we deployed NComputing X550 units at Covington Street Elementary in Laurinburg. This product taps the unused capacity of a PC or server so that users can simultaneously share a single computer. With this, we can run five Windows workstations off a single PC server.

Each student has his/her own ID and password to log into a personal desktop environment with their own specified applications, files and settings. It’s like their own computer each time they use it. They love it. Teachers and students can choose from a number of applications for independent work, group learning or tests.

This is one-to-one computing for literally pennies on the dollar.

With the success at Covington Street Elementary, we’ve rolled out the same desktop virtualization solution to every school in the district for a total of 2,500 seats. Soon Covington Street Elementary will become the first fully virtualized one-to-one elementary school in North Carolina.

With the implementation of desktop virtualization, we’ve seen an increase in student achievement and dramatic changes in behavior. In district classrooms with a Windows desktop access device for every student, teachers have reported that students are able to work at their own pace, solving that once never-ending problem of trying to teach children that are on different paths of a learning curve. With the help of a virtual solution to a hardware question, the result is more individualized learning and more focused, interested students.

According to the principal and teachers at Covington Street Elementary, the students’ math scores, their problem solving skills and how they attack problems are very different from other classrooms, and they believe it’s because of their access to desktop computing. Student engagement went straight up for us. Discipline problems went straight down. Achievement has been amazing.

In terms of a cost savings, the initial cost is 40 percent cheaper than rolling out laptops, and the biggest benefit will be when refresh time comes in three years. Then I will see a 90 percent savings, which is unbelievable. Right now, I’m providing one-to-one access for less than half the cost of a desktop computer. Additionally, I’m cutting down on heat and power, which is ultimately, saving more.

We save half a million dollars every four years, and that’s not counting replacing the batteries, power supplies, and lost and stolen devices we would have otherwise have had to do. And my staff doesn’t have to repair 2,500 individual computers, saving considerable maintenance cost and effort. It’s truthfully the best of all possible worlds.

These days, the students and faculty of Scotland County wake up wondering what they’ll learn and what they’ll teach with the help of desktop virtualization. Though they may not realize desktop virtualization is responsible for their new standard for processing and educating the world around them, I see this whenever I walk the halls and students are focused. There’s a new-found sense of motivation and empowerment amongst Scotland County’s schools. I can only imagine where these students will be in the years to come. Revolutions in technology are changing the monotonous cycles of education and inspiring Scotland County’s youngest generations. We’ve been able to provide a superior education that knows no financial limitations. That alone has made the journey and the road ahead that much sweeter.

You can learn more about our experiences with desktop virtualization technology by viewing my video.

Rick DeLaunay is Director of Technology & Media, Scotland County Schools. He has more than 28 years in the IT industry and more than 10 years with worldwide communications companies. Additionally, he has nine-plus years with major pharmaceutical company and almost 6 years in K-12 education.