July 1, 2003
In this study, we examined the impact ClassLink's thin client infrastructure has on network administration, on the management of student work products and practices, on communication patterns within the school community, and on technology budgeting issues.
For our investigation, we selected Union City, New Jersey, an urban, Northeastern district, where ClassLink has been working for the last three years. Union City is a national leader both in terms of systemic educational improvement and large-scale technology integration (Honey, Hawkins et al. 1998; EDC Center for Children and Technology 2000). Three middle schools volunteered to participate in the study. One school has been using ClassLink's thin client networking solution for three years. The other two have local area netowrks (LANs) not based on thin client technology.
We designed a research program of interviews, observations and surveys to build a broader picture of the relationship between technology infrastructure and the learning environment. By looking at three schools in the same district with comparable student and teacher populations, a common curriculum, and a common approach to technology, we are able to make robust observations about the particular affordances and liabilities of ClassLink's thin client infrastructure.
In preparing to evaluate the ClassLink infrastructure's effectiveness in supporting educational technology in Union City, we needed to develop a list of key functional attributes of any school infrastructure. These functional attributes would help us evaluate our four broad research questions. We reviewed relevant literature to inform our development of research questions and evaluation criteria that would help us appraise ClassLink's responsiveness to the most important needs and challenges that education technology (ed-tech) infrastructures must address. There is a reasonable consensus in the ed-tech community around the vital attributes of an effective technology infrastructure. The literature on educational technology offers a number of analytical frameworks for school technology, but for ease of use we adopted the model of high technology performance developed by the North Central Regional Education Laboratory (NCREL) (Jones et al, 1995).
To develop our research questions, we reinterpreted the NCREL attributes into categories that reflect the way schools actually deal with their technology infrastructure. We hypothesized that ClassLink would impact four major areas of interest to educators and education policy audiences: network management, work practices, communication patterns and budgeting, all of which are crucial challenges for successful technology integration. In each one of these four areas we developed focused questions to guide our research.
- Network Management: Does ClassLink reduce infrastructure barriers to technology use?
Work Practices: Does ClassLink facilitate and support students and teachers in the technology practices central to a school's learning environment?
Communication Patterns: What is the relationship between ClassLink and communication within the school community?
Budgeting: What impact does adoption of ClassLink's thin client infrastructure have on technology budgeting?
An effective, functional infrastructure is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a rich technology environment. In the best technology environments, the technology itself fades into the background, allowing teachers and students to focus on learning (Hawkins et al, 1996). The questions we considered in this study were whether ClassLink reduces common obstacles and impediments to technology integration, and if its central server structure affords other valuable opportunities to teachers and students. In nearly every dimension we investigated, the answer is an unqualified yes.
- Access. ClassLink provides a ubiquitous, interconnected environment that enables teachers and students to have access to their own folders, the same software, and the same resources from anywhere in the building and from anywhere else via the Internet.
- Operability. The thin client environment supports the Microsoft Office Suite (Word, Excel and PowerPoint) and many programs the teachers at the thin client school use in their classrooms. Certain peripherals, software and multimedia capabilities presented a challenge to the architec-ture of the system but ClassLink and the technology coordinator at the thin client school together developed strategies to integrate peripherals and missing software into the school's learning environment. First, ClassLink developed scanner bays that tie scanners into the net-work. Second, the school maintains a number of full-capacity computers distributed through-out the building that can move on and off the network and run software or access peripherals locally. In the Union City director of technology's words, the key to extracting maximum bene-fits from the ClassLink system is to find the "right mix" of terminals and computers.
- Organization. The ClassLink environment effectively supports collaborative work among students by reducing the technical problems of saving, retrieving and organizing group files among students. Thin clients are also a networking solution that easily distributes computing resources throughout a building. The flexibility would be increased by the addition of laptop carts to the thin client environment.
- Engagability. ClassLink frees the technology coordinator and support teams from intensive troubleshooting, which can allow them more time to support and train teachers to integrate the technology into the curriculum. The human infrastructure and the capacity of the technology coordinators play a central role in increasing engagability.