Thursday, October 18, 2007

Cheap Laptop Labs?

Vicki asks:

Is it possible to have an effective, working laptop lab with 20-25 computers -- a projector and printer for less than $30,000 -- or less than $20,000?

I'm not sure, but it is unlikely that using free software is going to be the decisive point, particularly if your school does not have any other experience with Linux.

There are only a few laptops on the market that ship with Linux, which basically means if you don't limit yourself to one of that handful of choices, you're paying for a Windows license whether you want it or not. And you're probably also paying a Windows site license of some sort anyhow. I don't understand how that stuff works.

You can save some money using Open Office, of course, if you aren't already. If you've got per-seat licenses on a bunch of other software (Inspiration, etc.) I could point out open source alternatives, but a) you probably don't already spend a lot on this, and b) if you do, you really don't want one lab which has all different, even if ostensibly compatible, software.

Whether or not you can do this depends almost entirely on hardware costs. There are certainly cheap consumer laptops that will fit in the budget, but they'll be prone to breaking, particularly after the three year point, you'll have to refresh the batteries every two years or so, and generally, you'll spend an increasing amount of time castigating everyone for not taking care of the laptops properly, when in fact you're expecting them to hold up to stresses they weren't properly designed for.

More options will be available Real Soon Now, but currently, this is still a not well served niche.


Vicki Davis @coolcatteacher said...

Thanks for this insight. So many of us want affordable laptop labs -- what a struggle.

So, you think linux, eg. ubuntu is too hard to use for the students? And that the cost savings is going to be overrun by the additional expense of technical support?

Tom Hoffman said...


I don't think usability for students is an issue AT ALL. And there wouldn't be greater long term support costs. But there would be potentially tricky initial set-up costs to get the integration with your existing Microsoft infrastructure working to your satisfaction.

I think the cost savings, at this scale, aren't that big.

Basically, if you said "I can save $1,000 on a $20,000 laptop lab if we get Macs, but we don't have any other Macs in the district, and I want these to be cleanly integrated into our Windows infrastructure." I'd also advise you to not make that move just to save money. It would be the same headaches -- particularly for just one lab.

Vicki Davis @coolcatteacher said...


So, what you think is that the cost savings is negligible -- for now, since I don't have a lot of IT support (I'm it) that I'm better off with a Microsoft OS and perhaps just using Open Office (or Lotus Symphony which I've heard is really nice.)

So, it is about getting it up and running and in the long run the cost savings up front will be paid in support to get it running.

That is a great point. It is tough to know the tradeoffs on these things. Now that I think about it, most of the places really using Open Source have a dedicated IT group who are handling these things. Those costs are pretty much there and the cost savings on software are real.

For me -- having to pay for IT support (when I can't do it) and the hardware/ software -- it is either pay one or pay the other.

Makes sense. I appreciate the time it took to put together these thoughts for me.

If you ever see an opportunity in the future that I could do this -- I would appreciate a shout -- I guess I've just got to find $40K. Who knows?

Thank you, Tom.

Tom Hoffman said...

The cost savings just aren't significant because of the scale and because of the cost structure of laptops.

In terms of scale, if you save 10% on a $20,000 project, that's only $2,000, which is just not worth introducing an unfamiliar platform. It's two computers. If you save 10% of a district's $2,000,000 tech budget, then you're talking about adding three teaching positions. Would you rather have Windows or Linux and three new full time technology integrators (or whatever)?

Also, there is a lot more potential savings moving to, say, Linux thin clients. That doesn't take a big IT staff, but it does probably take a motivated one. In fact, it is pretty common to hear about teacher/tech guys increasing their teaching load after they get thin clients running, because they're freed from constantly putting out fires on individual PC's.

I'm scared to suggest wireless thin clients, though. If they didn't work, they would really not work at all. You'd be putting a lot of faith in your wireless system.

Kassissieh said...

Evergreen School in Seattle has adopted an alternative strategy for obtaining a low-cost laptop lab. They buy "off-lease" Dell laptops for $300 each and provide each classroom with a full set of dedicated laptops. If a machine fails and they can't fix it, they just replace it. At $300 each, the failure rate puts them far ahead of the cost of purchasing new machines. It also complements their school mission to re-use as much as possible in order to reduce the environmental impact of their program. Contact Jimi Robinson at Evergreen School.

- Richard

Gnuosphere said...

"Real Soon Now"

Where I teach, we just began looking at 1:1. I've suggested we put it off for the next year or two but not much longer than that.

My experience tells me you are correct about "usability" not being a problem for students at all. I've taught using Ubuntu GNU/Linux as a platform for 2 years. Most students were somewhat fascinated by the change. They got a kick out of exploring all the software I had installed. They enjoy exploring Gnome and pick it up rather quickly. It doesn't take long for the desktop background and panels to change settings. Students like to play around with installing applets. I could go on... The bottom line is that student usability is not an issue and that GNU/Linux is a lot of fun for learners.