IT Trends | Feature
5 Reasons Schools Still Need Desktop Computers
Despite the growth of mobile learning, desktops still have a place in the 21st century classroom.
Desktops aren't dead. Even as schools increasingly implement 1-to-1, bring-your-own-device (BYOD) and other mobile device initiatives, many are choosing to retain at least some desktop computers — and others are even upgrading to swanky, top-of-the-line machines. Keeping at least one desktop computer in each classroom is a common practice, and some schools are keeping their dedicated desktop labs, either for general use or for specialized classes. It seems that some classroom needs are still better served by a desktop computer than by a laptop or tablet. Here, school technology leaders from around the country share reasons why you might want to keep at least some desktop computers around.
1) Processor Power
Schools that offer classes in video editing, engineering or CAD drawing need computers with scads of power because the software required for those classes is processor-intensive. For instance, Chico Unified School District (California) has labs for AutoCAD and video production classes that are outfitted with high-end desktops. According to Jason Gregg, director of information services for the district, "Although you can buy laptops that are able to run that software, they're a lot more expensive, so that's definitely a place where it's more cost-effective to have desktop computers."
2) Screen Size
The classes that benefit from the powerful processors also tend to benefit from large computer screens. John Orbaugh, executive director of technology at Tyler Independent School District (Texas), said, "If I'm sitting down in an AutoCAD lab, I don't want to really do that much AutoCAD on a laptop screen, I want a 24-inch monitor in front of me where I can have a little more screen real estate to work on my project, or if I'm editing video I want to have a little more space than I would find on the typical laptop."
In video editing or CAD drawing classes, it's important for students to be able to see the visual details of their work, and larger screens make that easier. And while it's possible to connect a larger external monitor to laptops, districts find that it's often more practical and cost-effective to stick with desktop computer for those situations.
Screen size is essentially an ergonomic issue, but it's not the only one. Some schools are sticking with desktops so they have more control over the placement of the monitor and keyboard, and to provide students with full-sized keyboards with integrated number pads. Phil Hardin, recently retired executive director of technology at Rowan-Salisbury School System in Salisbury, North Carolina, said, "Dealing with spreadsheets and numbers is inefficient on a typical laptop or iPad-type keyboard. We use the extended keyboards on our desktops so students have the numeric keypad there on the side."
Susan Plante is a teacher and the director of technology at Eagle Hill Southport, a school in Southport, Connecticut for students with learning disabilities. She said some of her students find it easier to work with a full-sized monitor and keyboard and to use a mouse. The separate keyboard also makes it easier to teach typing skills, in Plante's opinion. "I focus on kids with learning disabilities, but I think teaching typing is so beneficial for any student in today's world," she said. "It is so much harder to teach them to type when things are all connected. We want them not to look at the keyboard and we want them to look at the screen. It's so much more challenging to say don't look when everything's all connected, whether it be a tablet or a laptop."
4) Wired Connectivity
Those engineering and graphics classes are demanding. Not only do they require powerful processors and large screen sizes, but they also generate huge files. When those files need to be transferred over the network, wireless connections are often too slow or unreliable. Consequently, many schools prefer to use wired connections, and while many laptops support wired Ethernet, it's often more practical to use fixed wired connections with desktops because they can stay plugged into the network all the time.
Ann Dunkin, chief technology officer at Palo Alto Unified School District (California), said, "If students are pulling big files down off the server to work with, in some cases you want to put them on the wired network because they really do have some very high data transfer needs."
Another common reason that some schools are sticking with desktops for wired network connectivity is video streaming. "For us, there's still no substitute for having that hardwired connection to our network when we're streaming video, especially as it keeps getting more and more into the high definition video," said Orbaugh. "To make it a nice experience where something's not stopping, pausing, queueing up a little bit and then playing and pausing, for us right now in our environment, the best way to accomplish that is with a hardwired connection."
5) Dedicated Usage
Oak Knoll School of the Holy Child in Summit, New Jersey, recently dismantled its computer labs and switched to carts of mobile computers that can be used anywhere in the school. But they didn't get rid of those desktop computers. Instead, they repurposed them.
The school has interactive whiteboards in each classroom, and teachers used to connect their laptops to the interactive whiteboards to display learning materials to their class. But that solution wasn't always ideal. For example, sometimes a teacher would forget to close her e-mail application before class and e-mail alerts would pop up in front of students at inopportune moments. To resolve the problem, the school moved the desktop computers from the labs into the classrooms and gave each classroom a computer to be used exclusively with the interactive whiteboard.
Alex Podchaski, director of technology at the school, said, "We've now created a specific purpose for that desktop in a classroom, so we can make sure that the Smartboard is always connected and always ready, and we manage the software. So we've taken the desktop in a very specific direction and have been using it for very specific, dedicated purposes."
Ultimately, the decision of whether to use desktops, laptops or tablets is all about practicality. As Orbaugh put it, "What's the job that you're trying to accomplish, and what's the best end-device to help you accomplish that work?" In some cases, a desktop computer may still be the best solution.
Leila Meyer is a technology writer based in British Columbia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.