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Does your school computer lab look like this?

Desk space crowded out by underpowered and oversized PC towers; a tangled mishmash of peripherals cluttering shelves, and maybe even rows of CRT monitors sitting on lab tables.

Bulky, unwieldy, vertebrae-slipping CRT monitors. Yikes.

crt monitors

Bring in the forklift.

Every year between April and July, school administrators are deciding on how to allocate the budget for classroom technology. There is a lot to consider—things like 1:1 initiatives, the flipped classroom model, BYOD and data security, network bandwidth for state-mandated online testing, inventory management woes—and these things are just the start.

For the administrators reading this, don’t stress about the challenges. Instead, understand that new technology can do more now than ever for learning initiatives. Look at how K12 ed-tech specialists are rethinking the school computer lab on the most meager of budgets, and be inspired by their stories.

Small form factor (SFF) computers accommodate growing class sizes

Schools in all parts of the US are struggling with classroom overcrowding.  This creates a slew of technology problems; schools need to add desktop computers in computer labs and STEM classrooms but are running out of physical space.

Dusty Cleveland, an ed-tech administrator for school district in western Iowa, is dealing with capacity issues in his 30-student computer lab. “We have larger classes coming in and they are going to need to share endpoints,” he explains. He has older Dell Optiplex ATX towers, and is looking for smaller computers so he can squeeze in one or two more endpoints at each table.

nuc and monitor

Intel NUC: full-size PC power and smaller than a textbook. It fits on the back of a monitor.

Cleveland is looking at SFF computers that are small enough to fit behind a monitor, thus freeing up space for more seats for students.

SFF computers, also called barebones or mini-PCs, have grown in popularity as inexpensive end-user solutions for basic computing tasks like web browsing and office applications. Using the Mini-PC Barebone configurator tool, IT personnel can match specs to desired performance and budget range, and order in volume.

Intel NUCs are the most popular SFFs today. “They are small and fit nicely on the back of most monitors,” says William Beacroft, an ed-tech admin in Leeds, United Kingdom, who picked Intel NUCs with Celerons for his 30-seat school computer lab, “which were more than capable of running what you need them to.”

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Go with Chromebooks—if your Wireless LAN is up to it

Chromebooks and the Chromebox SFF have enjoyed well-documented success in schools. The key advantages of Chrome devices are cost-savings on hardware, operating system and antivirus software licensing, and easy device management using Google Apps for Education.

Many classrooms have a stack of Chromebooks for students to use during school; other districts might issue Chromebooks to take home and use for the entire year.  In either case, providing a 1:1 ratio of Chromebooks to students makes the traditional way of thinking of a school computer lab obsolete.

Before making the decision to go all-Chromebook, first consider the networking setup at school locations.

While it is a Chromebook myth that they do not function offline, Chromebooks are designed with 24/7 Internet access in mind. This means a classroom must have a wireless LAN equipped to accommodate a classroom full of Chromebooks connecting to the Wi-Fi® network, so make sure the school has the appropriate wireless router and wireless access points (WAPs) to give the bandwidth and range student users need.

You're going to need a lot of bandwidth.

You’re going to need a lot of bandwidth.

Budget-savvy purchasing techniques for the school computer lab

How you buy classroom technology equipment is almost as important as the products that you choose. Doing this the right way can stretch your budget to its fullest.

Rather than purchasing hardware outright, many organizations now opt to lease tech equipment. Leasing keeps expenses low in the short term, and shifts technology depreciation costs to the manufacturer in short product cycles, especially.

School districts can benefit from leasing too. “Find lease-end resellers and get some newer lease end gear,” advises Shane Ingram, an Ontario, Canada-based tech consultant. “SFF machines with two or three years on them will be fine for lab use, and a fraction of the cost of looking new.”

“I give the same advice to small businesses looking to cut corners safely,” Ingram adds.

Most technology retailers work with hardware vendors to provide flexible leasing options, and—plug alert!—NeweggBusiness currently offers 0% financing for leased equipment. Leasing offers extend to all products on with the exception of gift cards.

You should absolutely consider refurbished PCs

Ask ed-tech administrators about how to get the best deals on computers for the classroom, and the most common answer is buy refurbished PCs. Dell Optiplex refurbs in particular seem to be the PC of choice for the ITs that I talk to.

The price-to-performance simply cannot be passed up for refurbished devices. If the words “refurbished” or “recertified” make you jittery, brush up on how buying refurbished devices from an authorized dealer (wink, wink) protects you from getting  ripped off by a lemon.

Learn more about the safest ways to buy refurbs here – 5 Myths About Buying a Refurbished Hardware

No budget? Write a grant proposal

There are organizations in every corner of the world that just want to give administrators money to spend on technology for the classroom.

I am not a grant writing expert, but I know a few good places to look for up-to-date information that can help get your school district grant money.

Get in the workshop and build it yourself

I have a lot of respect for the old-school Frankenstein approach to PC building. That’s what ed-tech veteran Jim Unger had to do with a budget of zero dollars for school computers when heading up IT for a small town district in 2011.

“The machines I started with were homebrew AMD Semperons and Athalons made by a guy in his garage a couple of towns over,” Unger remembers. “I referred to them as vacuum cleaners—they were loud and they sucked.”

Desperate for replacement PCs, he contacted bigger school districts in nearby towns and started collecting their cast-off machines. “Mostly Dell P4s with 512 MB to 1 gig of RAM—I played mix-and-match to get most to 2 GB,” Unger explains.  He did this for about two years before replacing the last of the vacuum-suck PCs.

His superintendent eventually allocated modest funding for refurb Dell Optiplex 745s and 960s, but Unger’s cobbled-together cast-offs remained in use until he left the district in 2015.

What are you going to do?

What changes are on the horizon at the school computer labs at your district?

Vintage school computer lab photo by Wesley Fryer; CRT monitor arc photo by Tim Pritlove. Both from Flickr CC.
Ed-tech: Update a School Computer Lab on a Tight Budget
Article Name
Ed-tech: Update a School Computer Lab on a Tight Budget
Look at several ways ed-tech specialists are rethinking the school computer lab on the most meager of budgets.
Adam Lovinus

Author Adam Lovinus

A tech writer and Raspberry Pi enthusiast from Orange County, California.

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