Schools give Windows 7 favorable reviews

Compared with Vista, Windows 7 is just plain easier, some say.
Compared with Vista, Windows 7 is just plain easier, some say.

With Microsoft’s Windows 7 launching Oct. 22, two school leaders who have tested the new operating system say it improves on many of the features that were problematic with Vista, while outperforming XP many times over.

According to school IT staff who have tested the software, what makes Windows 7 better than Vista is that it simplifies tasks and improves functionality, rather than trying to wow the user with bells and whistles that have poor compatibility with many applications. Simply put, the program’s success lies in the small details, they say. (Read more about Windows 7 here.)

The positive reviews could ease school leaders’ concerns about migrating to Windows 7. A new report from Forrester Research, meanwhile, provides yet another reason to make the switch.

The report, titled “Windows 7 Commercial Adoption Outlook,” says large enterprises should “plan to completely migrate away [from XP] by the end of 2012 [owing] to application incompatibility concerns.”

The report also states that for the 79 percent of PCs in small to medium-sized organizations that are running XP, the clock is ticking. On April 8, 2014, extended support for XP will end–and at that point, Microsoft no longer will issue security patches for XP.

Forrester’s report also warns that IT staff will need about 12 to 18 months to test Windows 7 for application compatibility.

One school that already has begun this process is the Catherine Cook School, a private independent school in urban Chicago that serves some 480 students in grades K-8. Overall, the school supports about 350 computers, the majority of which are HP or Compaq machines.

The school entered Microsoft’s beta-testing program in April, and about 95 percent of its computers are now running on Windows 7.

The school was an early adopter of Vista, but it did have several computers still running XP.

“We were successful in getting all of these [XP] machines onto Windows 7,” said Bill Mierisch, director of technology for the Catherine Cook School. “In some cases we did a clean OS install, but in some cases we did an in-place move. Installation is easier and, in most instances, faster than previous [Microsoft] OS installs. There are a number of tools available with Windows 7 to allow for some creative network deployments as well.  What’s more, we were able to use our existing instance of Symantec’s Ghost Suite to capture and deploy images en masse, without any changes in how we already use that software. For Vista users, the process of migrating was even easier–as long as SP2 [Service Pack 2] was in place.”

In upgrading to Windows 7, Mierisch said he didn’t want to rely on “proven but aging technology like XP.” Although continuing to use XP might keep things familiar in his school, “it would soon block us out from real innovations in the near future, or require reactive rather than proactive solutions to remain in the digital game.”

He continued, “Alternatively, I could keep Vista on hand, as it has been largely reliable and useful for us, in large part because the improvements that Vista brought to the user experience have really altered the way our end-users make use of their computers on a day-to-day basis. That said, those improvements have been further enhanced in Windows 7, particularly in the way that work and work spaces are organized. Driver support has also been almost completely seamless. A more robust compatibility mode means more legacy applications can run now than could run in Vista.”

One of the features Mierisch is looking forward to using the most is Direct Access, which gives mobile users seamless access to a school or district network without needing a virtual private network (VPN). 

“Something as simple as access to shared network resources was a problem,” he said, “and while we’ve been happy with using offline [or] Sync Center solutions thus far, Direct Access will allow our students, teachers, and staff members even greater access to the rich resources we provide them at school, as if they were on site. Everyone, it seems, is more mobile and more digitally agile, even our kids. [We want] to support the truth that learning happens anywhere and anytime.”

User feedback on Windows 7, Mierisch said, “has been resoundingly positive from all fronts at our school. Perhaps the best testimony to this is the reduced number of support cases we have that are related to software or OS issues. Our IT staff is now … more focused on proactive planning, in large part because our break-fix issues are now far less likely to involve OS or application failures. Hardware breakage is typically easier to fix than software failure, so we are grateful for this shift.”

Mierisch said he was aggressive in getting into Microsoft’s beta-testing program because he did not want to wait another full year to deploy Windows 7 in his school. The software’s commercial release date comes after the start of the academic calendar, he explained, which would have made it difficult to deploy until the school year ended.

“We already license our operating systems and a host of other applications from Microsoft, and … we are afforded choices in which OS we choose without any change in that licensing cost,” Mierisch said. “It simply made sense for us to be ahead of the curve with this particular release.”

‘Ready out of the box’

Alabama’s Hoover City Schools also is deploying Windows 7. The suburban district, with 15 schools and approximately 12,500 students, has 6,500 Dell computers. The district started deployment in August, when the RTM (release to manufacturing) version became available for downloading through the district’s Microsoft School Agreement.

“Before Windows 7, we had a mixture of XP and Vista,” said Keith Price, chief technology officer for Hoover City Schools. “We are intentionally re-imaging machines with a clean install in order to avoid any conflicts between old and new [software], and we didn’t experience any problems.”

Windows 7 “is ready out of the box, with few or no additional drivers needed,” Price said, adding: “The best part of Windows 7 is being able to use resources (memory) more efficiently on the existing equipment.”

The Group Policy Objects feature of Windows 7 “help us to better manage and control the environment our students and teachers experience,” he said. “This increases reliability, performance, and availability.”

Group Policy Objects is part of a Windows 7 feature called AppLocker. With AppLocker, IT administrators can specify what software is allowed to run on a user’s PC through centrally managed but flexible group policies.

Price said the only negative he has experienced so far is compatibility with applications from third-party vendors. However, the district has partnered with Dell Services and Microsoft to perform Application Compatibility Testing using Microsoft’s ACT tool. “This enabled us to remediate applications that would not run on Windows 7, and most of our applications now run on Windows 7,” said Price.

Both Mierisch and Price agree that Windows 7’s security trumps that of XP.

“BitLocker, which helps protect data on PCs and removable drives, with the ability to enforce encryption and backup of recovery keys, … has great potential for faculty and staff,” said Price. “It provides enhanced security for faculty members who are transferring documents that need to remain secure.”

“XP really shows its age on this front,” said Mierisch. “The much-maligned User Account Control in Vista is more elegantly and intuitively applied in Windows 7.”

Another feature they appreciate is the ability to restore the software more easily. If you’re installing Windows 7 and the installation starts to deteriorate, you can go back and see which part caused the problem. A “problem steps recorder” feature lets you go back to the start of a task and re-record all of the steps leading up to a problem through a series of screen shots and hand-typed notes.

Additional features

In a demonstration for eSchool News, Microsoft representatives highlighted the following additional features of Windows 7:

– Easier manageability. Before Windows 7, when users wanted to present from a computer, they would have to go through multiple steps to ensure their presentation would work, such as adjusting the resolution. Many of these steps could be handled by clicking on an icon, but the user would have to know what each of the dozen icons represented. With Windows 7, users can press the “Windows” and “P” keys together to access a menu that lists each of the steps they should check.

“When teachers would plug a computer into a SMART Board [or projector] in the past, they would typically have to decide how to output the video via the software for the graphics card installed on the computer, or buried in a graphics properties menu someplace,” explained Mierisch. “Now, this control is brought … to the OS level, and with a simple shortcut, Windows+P, a simple-to-use–and simple-to-understand–menu appears to guide the choice.”

Other features that make Windows 7 easier to manage are the icon tray and menu search capability. Users can choose which icons they’d like to go in their tray, and they can search for any computer program in seconds.

“The simpler docking of program icons … keeps the taskbar clean and uncluttered,” said Mierisch. “Keeping only the most important elements of the system tray visible and docking the rest … frees up valuable real estate. And file indexing and searchablity are both greatly improved in Windows 7 over both of the previous operating systems from Microsoft.”

– Jump Lists. This feature takes users directly to the documents, pictures, songs, or web sites they access every day. To open a Jump List, you right-click a program icon on the Windows 7 taskbar. This icon also can be found in the Start menu.

What a user sees in a Jump List depends on the program. For example, the Jump List for Internet Explorer 8 shows frequently viewed web sites, while Windows Media Player 12 lists commonly played songs. If a Jump List is missing a favorite, the user can “pin” files there. Jump Lists don’t just show shortcuts to files; sometimes they also provide quick access to commands for activities such as composing new eMail messages or playing music.

– Easier wireless access. To access a wireless network, you just click the networking icon on the taskbar to “View Available Networks,” which displays all wireless and wired options, such as Wi-Fi, mobile broadband, dial-up, or VPN. With another click, you’re connected.

– Easier printer set-up and use. When you connect to any network, Windows 7 automatically will show which printers are accessible via that network, and which printer has been set as the default printer for that network.

– Snap. This feature allows you to view multiple windows at once and move windows from side to side. A quick shake of the mouse rotates the windows until you decide which you want to view.

“A good number of students, I have noticed, are digital multitaskers,” said Mierisch. “They keep lots of programs running at the same time and flip on the fly between them. They are used to living in a world where they can flip from, say, a video clip they want to use in a project, to notes they have taken, to a voice-over they recorded, to a web site where they gather more information. Moving around so much data and information, they need to have system resources available to these applications. Windows 7’s performance is so good and so stable that our kids are able to work in ways that are familiar to them without any real hassle.”

This feature also is a “personal favorite toy” for Mierisch.

“The ability to drag-dock windows … is great,” he said. “Since I spend a great deal of time maximizing a single window or comparing two windows, making this a gestural command rather than a point-and-click command is especially helpful. I have seen several students already comparing items side-by-side in this way, and that is something that used to involve resizing windows if split-screen was not supported in a particular application natively. Again, it is the small items that make Windows 7 most exciting.”

– XP Mode. With this virtualization feature, users who need access to applications compatible only with XP can run those applications in XP Mode on Windows 7.

– Updated multimedia capabilities. The new Media Center supports more global TV standards and tuners, including digital and HD. It also plays more popular audio and video formats–including 3GP, AAC, AVCHD, DivX, MOV, and Xvid. Users also can publish their multimedia to Flicker and other cloud services easily.

– Multiple calculators. Windows 7 includes many types of calculators, including a scientific calculator and calculators for higher education, such as programming and statistics calculators. There is also a conversion tool for standards and measures.

– Touch capability. Windows 7 has built-in touch capability, meaning software vendors can create touch-sensitive content and Windows 7 will support it.

At Mierisch’s school, all of the students in grades four through eight are given an HP TC4400 tablet PC as part of the school’s one-to-one computing initiative, and every teacher uses an HP 2730P tablet PC–so touch capability is an important feature of the new OS.

“With our heavy use of tablet functions, our students were already well-versed with using Windows Journal,” said Mierisch. “Now, with a rewritten (and nifty) version of Paint, that same intuitive and creative use of the computer is right at their fingertips. Even the tablet input features have been improved and are better than XP tablet edition or the native tablet support in Vista (still native now in Windows 7). There is no special OS for tablet users–the features are there by default.”

Microsoft also says it is working on accessibility features for students, such as handwriting recognition software for tablets. Already, Windows 7 is able to enlarge words through a built-in magnifier, and Microsoft has decided to leave the OS platform open to developers of accessibility software. More information can be found here.

In short, the two ed-tech leaders said, Windows 7 outperforms XP in terms of memory, security features, and the ability to search and customize the desktop. And compared with Vista, Windows 7 is just plain easier.

Price said his district would recommend Windows 7 for all schools and districts.

“Frankly, I cannot think of a more worthwhile initiative for any school that runs Windows currently,” agreed Mierisch. “Those running Vista will want the added stability and should see next to zero retraining needed. For those who have been holding off from upgrading from XP, now is the time.”


Microsoft Windows 7

Catherine Cook School

Hoover City Schools

Note to readers:

Don’t forget to visit the Learning Without Limits resource center. Online learning is no longer regarded with the skepticism it was a decade ago–and now thousands of K-12 schools nationwide are turning to online-learning providers for help with credit recovery, enrichment opportunities for gifted students, and even for providing core curriculum classes in areas where there isn’t enough demand to justify keeping a teacher on staff. Go to: Learning Without Limits

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