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They're fast, flexible and cheap, both to run and to upgrade. George Cole visited three schools that have switched to these new systems in the past year

Over the years, desktop computers have become smarter, faster, easier to use - and also more expensive to buy, manage and maintain. Little wonder then that the educational world is taking a close look at a potentially less expensive option: the network computer.

A network computer is essentially a small box that contains a fast processor chip, a small amount of memory and some operating software. There is no large memory requirement and no hard disk; all programs are stored on a giant server and applications are downloaded when required. Work is saved and stored on the server too. Like a desktop computer, a network computer is controlled by keyboard and mouse.

Another potential benefit of the network computer is easier classroom management. Instead of a suite of desktop computers to manage and maintain, an information and communications technology manager can monitor and control much of the school's system from a single server. And instead of upgrading dozens of individual computers, a school simply needs to upgrade the server.

Unfortunately, the network computer has suffered from a lot of hype and misinformation, with supporters claiming that it marks the death for the desktop computer, while critics argue that a PC is a more flexible option: what you gain in having a low-cost box on the desktop, you lose in the need to invest in a sophisticated and expensive network system.

So who is right? I visited three schools using network computers, to gain an insight into how they run in practice.

Marnell Junior School in Basingstoke has 205 pupils and has traditionally used Acorn computers. It used funding from the New Deal for Schools programme to acquire 16 network computers and a server, which are situated in a new computer room. "We chose network computers because of their price - pound;425 each - and the fact that you can link them to the Internet,'' says Steve Norton, Marnell's deputy head. Using network computers means an end to lots of floppy disks cluttering up the classroom, he says, and printing documents is easier now that the system is centralised. There are other advantages too: "Network computers are small, so they take up less space than a desktop computer, and when you demonstrate something on one machine, everyone else sees the same thing," he says.

Reaction towards the network computer has been positive from both staff and students, says Norton, adding: "Network computers can also run Windows software, if we want to go down this road in the future." Asked about the network computer's disadvantages, Norton says: "You can't run multimedia or CD-Roms on a network computer, but that's about it."

Hinchingbrooke School in Cambridge-shire has 1,800 students and has invested heavily in ICT. There are 150 computers and three computer rooms. Hinchingbrooke uses Acorn as its main computer system, but also has some Apple Macintosh machines and a sprinkling of PCs. The school has been testing a single network computer and server since May 1997, and is now set to invest more in this technology.

"There are several reasons why we're interested in the network computer," explains Derek Eyre, the school's head of IT. "First, I was getting tired of the platform battle between Apple, Acorn and PC. Second, there are jobs which are inappropriate for a desktop machine - you don't need a full-blown multimedia PC to word process. Our philosophy has always been to use the right hardware and software for the job. The thirdreason was price."

The school had originally planned to use the network computer for connecting to the Internet, but this hasn't happened. Instead, the network computer has been used as a prototype for a school intranet, an internal network that uses Internet technology. Year 10 and 11 students have been using the network computer to collect pages from the Internet, which are then stored on the network computer server.

"Our vision is for a school network which has different types of computers connected to it. The network computer has helped us develop this concept," says Derek Eyre.

He doesn't believe the network computer will replace the desktop machine:

"There are occasions when you need a more powerful desktop computer, for example, when running multimedia or high-end graphics. But it's a mistake to simply blanket-buy one type of machine when there are less costly options that can do the job just as well."

Sexey's School in Somerset is a state school which also has boarders and a very large sixth form - there are more than 200 students.

The school uses a mixture of Acorn computers, Risc PCs (Acorn machines which can also run PC software), and PCs. Last year, the school invested in a new computer network. Sexey's has been using network computers since the summer of 1997.

"We knew the network computer was coming and that's why we invested in the network," explains Harry Mills, the school's deputy system manager.

arry Mills says the network computer has made system management easier: "I used to spend a lot of time trouble-shooting, fixing the network or the PCs. If you put protection systems on your computers (to stop tampering with files), the pupils will try and override them and, in the process, often destroy the data on the computer. With a network computer, it's just plug-in and play - I don't have to install any software on the network computer."

Sexey's has put many of its educational resources on an intranet, from which they can be run on the network computers. These also run a mix of software programs including spreadsheets and desktop publishing packages. The school has even tried running its administration software on a network computer and found that it works. However, desktop computers are still needed for running CD-Roms and CAD (Computer Aided Design) software.

Reports of the death of the desktop computer are clearly exaggerated, but the signs are that, in some cases, the network computer could offer schools a cost-effective alternative to the conventional computer.

As Harry Mills puts it: "It's not a question of either-or, but a case of choosing the best solution for the job."

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