Board invests further in tech test program
The De Soto USD 232 School Board agreed Monday to an addition investment in a test of a proposed solution to the district's 21st Century Technology Initiative.
Two years ago, the Board approved a policy to provide all district students with a wireless laptop computer. About one year ago, the district started exploring a thin client solution that would save money by replacing fully loaded laptop computers with handheld devices that would connect to software loaded on central computers.
Last summer, the Board agreed to test the system for three months with a $151,000 prototype at Lexington Trails Middle School. But the district was spared the most expensive component of that investment when Hewlett Packard agreed to provide the servers for three months.
Although the Board's agenda only stated it was to hear a presentation of the thin client prototype, it was somewhat unexpectedly asked to approve purchase of thin client software and hardware to continue the testing of the system's viability. After 90 minutes of presentation and mild debate on the issue, a resolution was passed to make the $122,978 purchase.
"This purchase is necessary because we have been using and testing thin client on a free trial basis for the past three months," said District Technology Director Ben Crosier. "If the district did not make this purchase, we would have to send the equipment back and start all over with our research."
The purchase of the thin client core prototype passed with a 6 -1 vote. The dissenting vote came from Board Member Don Clark who expressed several reservations about what he said was a rushed attempt to invest in equipment that might become outdated.
"When I've looked into this issue, I've found that companies are moving away from thin client," Clark said. "Why should we be committing hundreds of thousands tonight? We should have been debating this purchase two weeks ago if we were going to have to purchase this tonight."
Other Board members were less concerned by the necessity of quick action. Confidence was expressed that the initial six-figure investment would pay for itself over time, whether or not the district made further commitments in the technology. The purchase would be made with a state contract and paid for with bond money. Crosier assured the Board that the benefits, both up-front and long-term, outweighed the initial costs needed to thoroughly evaluate thin client in the schools.
"Thin client will reduce our (technology) costs over the long haul because of its extended life span," Crosier said. "This system meets the District's need of giving teachers and students access to their work 24-seven, becaus the teaching environment isn't just from nine to five anymore."
Endorsements of the product came from across the district, as Crosier and Christy Ziegler illustrated the system's appeal through exposure to teachers, students and Board members who had taken time to interact with thin client during tests earlier this month. A group of anonymous seniors from De Soto High School had glowing remarks about their interaction with the thin-client system. They applauded the technology for increasing the convenience of home-based school assignments, eliminating the need for saving material on disks, and its similarities to the computer systems with which they were already familiar. Board members expressed further compliments on how educators would benefit from the system.
"The most frustrating thing is that our core operating system is located in St. Louis," Board member Sandra Thierer said. "We have no control over fixing problems in a timely manner, but this would give us the ability to do that."
Thierer and other Board members urged Crosier and the technology department to do extensive testing of the thin client system at De Soto and Mill Valley high schools to gauge exactly how user friendly the applications were.
Board member William Waye said testing thin client applications at district elementary and middle schools would not be sufficient in providing an accurate measure of its use and success. He asked that Crosier stress testing the system with high school students, the key student population for computer-based school assignments.
"This prototype will be in a room at Lexington Trails (Middle School) where teachers, students and administrators can check out the system," Crosier said. "We hope for prototypes all around the district if all goes well with this one."
Thin client would replace full-blown laptop computers, such as those introduced at Riverview Elementary and Lexington Trails Middle School. Unlike the laptops, the thin client computing devices wouldn't be programmed with software programs. Instead they would access central district computer servers loaded with software programs.
The Board was told in April that the thin client system would cost $10.9 million to install districtwide, while installing laptops in all district schools would carry an estimated $15.7 million price tag.
"Students and teachers would be able to access their work from school on their home computers," Crosier said. "With laptops we need to install everything at each building, but with thin client we load it one time and save the long-term costs of not having to service every building when there is a problem."
The goal is to introduce thin client districtwide by the fall of 2004, but it is dependent upon evaluations this semester. Crosier said he would return to the Board next month after further investigating his proposed $2 million data facility center that would centralize the district's technology services, including thin client.