Rising to the Challenge

How are we leveraging the benefits of technology in the classroom while avoiding the pitfalls?

GUEST COLUMN | by Philip Dolan

CREDIT Saint Lawrence AcademyA Catholic, co-educational college preparatory school in Santa Clara, California, Saint Lawrence Academy is one of several dozen schools in the Diocese of San Jose. The Diocese leverages its Silicon Valley location to keep its parishes and schools on the cutting edge of technology. The benefits of adding technology as an educational tool are well known. One of the key benefits is that people can use technology to learn in the way that suits them best. For example, some students may learn better by watching video while others do better with reading articles or engaging in interactive experiences, such as by using various applications. The ability to deliver learning through multiple channels increases student motivation, engagement, and performance.

The pressure has never been greater to do more to prepare our students to successfully navigate our increasingly complex world with fewer resources available to carry out that mission.

The U.S. Department of Education reported that access to technology delivers multiple benefits to students, such as increased motivation and self-esteem, improved technical skills and ability to accomplish more complex tasks, greater collaboration with peers, and increased attention to audience needs from a design and delivery perspective. Technology also frees teachers to become facilitators instead of the sole focus for educating their students, especially as students become empowered to support and mentor each other.*

These benefits are not without some significant challenges: First, traditional desktop, laptop, and mobile devices are expensive and subject to damage, theft, or loss. Second, a single device infected with malware can impact the entire network. Third, it is important to prevent students from accessing inappropriate materials, such as adult content. Fourth, managing individual devices and environment can burden IT resources. All of this adds up to extra direct and indirect costs, this at a time when public and private educational budgets are being strained like never before. The pressure has never been greater to do more to prepare our students to successfully navigate our increasingly complex world with fewer and fewer resources available to carry out that mission.

Implementing a Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) can be a cost-effective way to resolve these challenges and free up the full range of benefits offered by technology… provided that the VDI can deliver acceptable levels of performance to users, that is. To be effective, technology must respond and adapt to the needs of its users, and not the other way around.

Saint Lawrence Academy implemented a VDI as part of our overall Technology program to allow our students to access applications from any device in any location, thus maximizing digital education opportunities for our middle and high school students. We hoped that putting all of our tech-related programs under one roof and adding accessible thin clients, tablets, projection systems, and more would create an educational hub for all of our students—whether they’re focusing on digital media, or if they just want to augment a lesson or project for a more traditional class.

In general, students welcomed these new capabilities; however, those enrolled in graphics-intensive courses, such as digital photography and yearbook, quickly ran into problems with lag caused by the VDI tasking the server CPU with processing and rendering graphics. This significant roadblock cast doubts on the feasibility of expanding our digital curriculum going forward. Then we learned about NVIDIA GRID technology, which promised to eliminate performance bottlenecks by allowing remote users to access GPU resources.

We implemented NVIDIA GRID K1 boards in a Dell PowerEdge 720 server running the Citrix virtualization platform just in time for the grand opening of the Tech Media Center in December of 2013. Our body of almost 300 students had no idea this was coming, but they immediately began commenting on how much performance and image quality had improved, especially when running Adobe Creative Cloud. The applications that once posed the greatest obstacles to the success of our VDI were now running perfectly.

This successful VDI implementation is allowing us to focus on leveraging technology for our current and future educational offerings. Students can access applications and data with full workstation performance using their familiar desktop, laptop, and mobile devices. Our IT department can protect the network against unauthorized access and malware, shield students from inappropriate content, and focus on enhancing services instead of constantly responding to support requests. We have achieved all of this and more while saving at least $50,000 compared to traditional workstation models.

In my experience, nothing beats a VDI for delivering on the promises of technology in education while eliminating almost all of the risks entailed by taking that path.

*U.S. Department of Education. “Effects of Technology on Classrooms and Students.” Retrieved 14 August 2014 from https://www2.ed.gov/pubs/EdReformStudies/EdTech/effectsstudents.html

Philip Dolan is the President of Saint Lawrence Academy and Saint Lawrence Elementary and Middle School in Santa Clara, Calif. He is responsible for the management of school operations, mission advancement, strategic planning, board development, and school fundraising. Find him on Twitter: @SLACeltics

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