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Wise choice

Compiling a wish list for school IT systems hardly seems worthwhile nowadays as there are so few players in the educational IT marketplace - with not a lot to choose between them - and not much cash to spend.

However, this is where headteacher Jim Abraham of Arthur Dye primary school, Cheltenham, started some 18 months ago. His wish list included Internet access, ease of use through Windows, multimedia capability, and straightforward system management which probably meant some sort of network.

Previously Arthur Dye school had a number of stand-alone machines, mostly IBM compatible PCs, offering a range of capabilities. Such ad hoc growth of hardware and software is the picture in many schools. Not only is a mixed machine environment a source of confusion for staff, it is also a nightmare to manage. In his search for an affordable solution that matched his needs, Mr Abraham came across the latest systems from Wyse Technology which at that time, autumn 1995, had just won the "Best of Byte" magazine award at the US Comdex technology show for its Winterm terminals.

In the days of centralised computing systems Wyse was well known for its "dumb terminals", an earlier term for what are becoming known as "thin clients". Users would access a central mainframe or mini-computer through a black-and-white (dumb) terminal which did little but display what you typed and the responses from the mainframe.

As the terminals did little processing, they were cheap and didn't need the upgrades that PCs often do with new software releases. Apart from the terminology, there's little difference between a mainframe with dumb terminals and a Microsoft NT network with thin clients.

Winterm terminals come in a variety of specifications, all of which are designed to run Windows (3.1 or 95). The Winterms, like some of the early varieties of stations on educational networks from Research Machines, have no floppy disc drive.

Generally, network managers are the only people who like them. The plus points are that the IT co-ordinator can control all software introduced to the network from

the server, and that means no games, viruses or anything else from pupils,but users can, of course, save their work on to the system and retrieve it when needed. The Winterm network also allows the teacher to shadow or take control of any user session while helping individual pupils.

The Winterms will run all Windows software, including Microsoft Office. In other words, they can do anything that a networked PC will do - almost. Current Winterms are not multimedia capable, but a new multimedia terminal is due for release.

The real attraction that Jim Abraham saw in Wyse was the cost. Independent findings by Zona Research Inc in the US suggest that a Winterm network is 25 per cent cheaper to buy and that ownership costs over a five-year period could be up to 50 per cent less than the equivalent network with PC clients. mr Abraham hasn't had his network long enough to know if this is true but he reckons that the original cost, of about #163;15,000, was good value for money for a network of eight Winterms, a server and software.

As the Winterms don't do the processing, the server needs to be beefy. The one at Arthur Dye school has dual Pentium processors (133 megahertz), 128 megabytes of memory, a 2-gigabyte hard drive, and a 6-bay CD tower. The system price also included two printers, one of which is colour. The network operating system is Microsoft NT server with enhancements (from Citrix Systems) which enable the use of the Winterms as client machines.

The children at Arthur Dye school were already Windows literate and have had no difficulty in making good use of the Wyse network. The machines are distributed throughout the school and used from the infant class to age 10 or 11. Use of the machines is integrated into the everyday work of the children who use them as information devices to go beyond the limits of the school library.

The Internet has helped the pupils in projects on the Vikings, Egyptians, native Americans, and space travel. E-mail is also used by the staff and pupils. Many of the pupils are now teacher independent in the use of the machines and have extended their IT literacy to include the Internet. Apparently Alta Vista is their favourite search engine and they are experienced browsers of World Wide Web sites.

They are also comfortable with the volume of information that they find on most topics, being prepared to discard that which does not meet their needs.

The school uses Cyberpatrol software to deny access to unsuitable sites.

Mr Abraham has also taken to the network. As a school with no IT technical support it was important that the network made as little demand as possible on teacher time. Mr Abraham has found the network easy to administer, without any training. Although he would be the first to admit that he is no expert network manager, he found setting up users and groups was straightforward.

Arthur Dye school is thought to be the first educational "thin client" network site in the UK; how many others will wish to take this route is uncertain.

The network solution from Wyse does have the benefits of a centralised system, such as more control, and reduced cost of ownership, so it may well prove attractive to many schools. There is of course another benefit in these security-conscious times - no self-respecting computer thief would steal a dumb terminal.

* Wyse Technology, 1 The Pavilions Ruscombe Park, Twyford, Berkshire RG10 9NN Tel 01734 321010.

Les Watson is dean of information services at Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education

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