Allow room for other materials on computer tables. My tables are six feet long by two feet in depth. These are too small; the children have no room for their papers and the depth d'es not allow for connections on the back of the computers.
I've found that a 30-inch by 30-inch work area per computer works best in a lab situation. One way to decide how deep tables should be is to measure the size of the computer and add 18 inches to the depth.
Use a whiteboard instead of a blackboard -- computers and disk drives don't like chalk dust. A whiteboard can function as a projection screen as well, although I prefer to use a video adapter that displays a computer's output on a television set. With that set up, teachers can show the whole class how to do a new procedure or skill during class. Such adapters can also send output to a VCR to make instructional videotapes, which can then be played back in class before going to the lab, allowing children to see how to do what the teacher is asking.
Don't forget training for specific software packages. Show teachers how to fully utilize the programs they will be using with students. Whatever you do, don't assume that they'll just "get it."
Whenever your school gets new software, it's the job of the computer support person to install it, learn it and train teachers on its use. But don't overlook the training of your support staff as well, which should be the responsibility of veteran technicians. With new software or hardware, negotiate for training in the purchase.
Inservice training programs should be continual, not a one-shot deal where, if a teacher misses it, they're out of luck. Training needs to be on a yearly schedule to account for changes in professional staff. Always evaluate a training program to ensure the skills taught were mastered.
Notebook computers can be an effective tool for teacher training. Load the software they are interested in learning and teachers can take the computer home to learn at their leisure. During the day, with network monitoring software, technical support staff can perform diagnostic work on the network using the same machine.
If there will be several labs in a school district, connect them together for cooperative learning activities. This can be as simple as a modem on the lab's phone line, ISDN connection or as complex as a fiber optic link or T1 data line between all schools.
Include access to the Internet in your lab. Depending on your needs and goals, this could take the form of a dedicated Internet connection or several shared modems. Internet access is an issue all to itself, so I'll leave the subject by saying you need to have a mechanism in place that limits students access. You don't want children to use this resource without some sort of checks and balances. Two programs of potential benefit are SurfWatch and Net Nanny, offered in Mac and Windows versions. Other programs and approaches are available as well.
Sponsor a parents/community night after the lab is up and running and let both students and teachers show off their skills for visitors. Some members of the community, especially those without children in your schools, will view computers as an unneeded expense. Make sure the lab is open and operational during Open House. Have plenty of examples of student work on hand -- maybe some of the most skilled students can demonstrate their knowledge. Invite the media when you show off your lab; they love this kind of human interest stuff.
Planning & Budget Issues
Eight megabytes of RAM is essential to run today's software and operating systems. Minimum memory requirements listed on software boxes are typically for stand-alone machines, not a network, and networking software always takes up some memory. If memory is tight some packages won't run or will exhibit odd behavior. Having 8MB in the computers also saves you from having to resort to using virtual memory, a technique that uses a portion of the computer's hard drive to simulate memory. While it d'es work, performance takes a major hit.
When preparing a yearly budget, don't overlook the inevitable software upgrades. Evaluate upgrades as you would any other software purchase. If the application is a major part of your program then it's worth upgrading as older versions cannot usually read files created by newer versions. If a program is not integral, then sticking with an older version may be fine.
Use only Ethernet or other high-speed networking systems. LocalTalk (for Apple Macintosh) and other low-cost networking systems are just too slow to use with anything except small classroom clusters of computers or for printer sharing.
If you're extending your lab to classrooms, pull additional runs of network cable to each location. This has several advantages, the first being reduced labor costs. Indeed, 65% of the investment you make in wiring will be for labor, the rest will be for the cable. It will cost no more in labor to run four network cables into a classroom than it will to run two. In case you need to expand your network or a cable gets damaged, there is already a backup in place.
With Ethernet use only Category 5 wiring; while this will be more expensive than Category 3, you won't have to replace it to switch to a faster speed network.
Involve the professional staff early on. They will take ownership of the computer lab and network and want it completed. During planning, listen to what the teachers want. Make it clear that the district or school is behind this 100% and wants them to provide input as to direction and purpose. If teachers want small clusters in classrooms, give it to them. Remember that the purpose of a computer lab is to enhance the students' education. Whatever you do, it should be educationally sound. The curriculum should drive the computer program, not the other way around.
When planning, divide the budget into four broad categories: computers, networking, software and training. Use these figures to see where you will need to raise additional money or perhaps implement your program in stages. While every situation is different, this assures that essential items won't be overlooked.
When making changes, change only one thing at a time. That way you know what went wrong and can easily restore it back to the way it was.
Carefully document changes to the network and allow proper time to evaluate the impact. Once set up, most networks will run without needing any changes.
Performance can almost always be improved by judicious tweaking of certain parts of the networking software. Always record all settings before you begin and make backup copies of critical network files.
One way to improve network performance is to increase the memory allocated to the cache on the file server. However, be alert for the "plateau effect," where the server and network's performance plateaus and increasing memory to cache gains very little. Once you reach this, reduce the amount of memory allocated to the cache down to when the plateau begins to occur.
Often you will have no test equipment to help track down network problems. A tried-and-true method is the "divide & conquer" approach, which works with or without test equipment. Divide your network into smaller and smaller segments until the problem is isolated. Once the problem is solved, reconnect everything in reverse order that you took it apart and you're done.
A related technique is to drop machines off the network one by one until the problem g'es away. The machine you just took off the network is usually the culprit. Look for loose connections, cards not properly seated or breaks in network cables, especially around connections. Substitute the suspected faulty part with a known working one to determine if your prognosis is correct.
Use the Groups function of the networking software to cluster your users. On the Macintosh network at my school, there is a Children's Group (all computers in the lab) and a Teachers Group (all teachers in the building). Each teacher has their own private folder into which they save work. They can log into the LAN from any computer and work with their files.
Don't forget to set up a user for yourself and include it in each group. This way you can log in as a member of that group without having to ask someone to reveal their password. On my school's network, I made several users for myself that allow me to access different resources. If I'm working on a problem and get called away, the network is protected from "exploring" by students.
Philip Hess was computer technician for Seville Elementary School in North Hills School District in Pittsburgh, Pa. He is now student teaching at McIntyre Elementary, in the same district, and will earn his masters in Elementary Education in May 1996 from Duquesne University.
Home page: www.nauticom.net/www/philip/
1. Taken from Tidbits #266, a Macintosh newsletter delivered by Internet e-mail, published by Adam C. Engst. For more info, send e-mail to: email@example.com
2. Call (800) 505-0171 and request document # 20702, Apple's "Software Installation Over a Network" sheet.
Products mentioned in this article:
SurfWatch; SurfWatch Software, Inc., Los Altos, CA, (800) 458-6600, www.surfwatch.com
Net Nanny; Trove Investment Corp., Vancouver, BC, (800) 340-7177, firstname.lastname@example.org