Computer Lab Management Software
(Published in the TechEdge 2002-03)
(Published in the TechEdge 2002-03)
by Wesley A. Fryer
Cultural pundits have observed that on its face, technology can appear more on the side of "anarchy" than on the side of "control."[i] This observation is validated in educational computer labs, where the level of teacher control over the learning environment is often different than in the traditional classroom. Open ended, constructivist investigations are desirable at times in instructional settings, including computer labs, but the anarchic nature of technology often manifests itself in school computer settings in less positive ways. When students are working on computers in the regular classroom or in a lab setting it can be difficult to get their full attention (have them fully "disengage" from the visual images and content on the monitor) and to make sure they remain on task during the lesson. Distractions abound online for young and old alike: from the temptation to check email to click on a website banner ad.
"Computer lab management software" can have several meanings: it can refer to software like Foolproof or Fortres which "locks down" the computer and only grants users access to limited software features. In the context of this article, however, "computer lab management software" refers to progams used by a teacher in the course of a lesson to maintain student attention and enhance instructional delivery. Screen sharing is a typical feature of lab management software, allowing the teacher's computer screen or another student's screen to be shared with every other computer in the lab. Effective use of computer lab management software can make a tremendous, positive difference when teachers use a computer lab for instruction. A copy of this article is available on www.wtvi.com/teks, including links to the software options discussed below as well as others. Use of computer lab management software is included in the online curriculum for the workshop "Strategies for Managing School Computer Labs and Classroom Computers" on www.wtvi.com/teks/labstrategies/.
Lab Management Software Features
When a teacher is able to use lab management software to present a technology infused lesson, use of the software can completely change the way he/she presents content and teaches skills. Instead of straining their eyes to see small details on the screen at the front of the room, students can look at their own monitor in front of them and comfortably see the teacher's demonstration. When it is time to get everyone's attention, the teacher can "blank" student screens (make them all black) and thereby prevent them from continuing their work. While some lab management software programs offer more advanced features, the following are the basic features that all should include.
- Screen Sharing: Making all computer screens in the room show the same image, usually the instructor's screen. Many management programs allow sharing of other screens as well, so if a student has created something the instructor wants to show everyone, this can be accomplished quickly. When screen sharing is disabled, all student computers return to their previous screens.
- Blank Student Screens: This is invaluable for getting student attention and providing class instructions. The blank screens command causes all computers in the room except the instructor's to turn black (or another color) and sometimes display a message. Some programs offer the option of displaying a custom image. While screens are blanked, students cannot see anything on their own screen or continue to work.
- Remote Control: Depending on the instructional setting, this feature may have more "gee whiz" value than practical use, but many programs allow instructors to take remote control of a student's computer to demonstrate a task. This feature may be more helpful to technical support staff who need to make configuration changes or even installations on remote computers than to classroom teachers.
- Unique Room Codes: Lab management programs, when initially setup on "client" (student) and instructor computers, permit a unique name or number to be assigned for the classroom where the computers are located. This way, instructors can choose to control only the computers physically located in the same classroom. Multiple computer labs or classrooms in the same building can use the same lab management software for computer control with different room codes, and not interfere with each other.
Whether the students using the computer are young or old, access to these lab management features is extremely helpful. As many staff development presenters know, it can be even more difficult to teach technology skills to adults (especially teachers) than to young people. When an instructor wants to limit off task behavior (like surfing websites unrelated to the presented lesson), encourage time on task, or present oral instructions to students, these software tools are wonderful additions to a technology-infused learning environment.
Windows XP Professional and some other Windows-based operating systems include an optional feature, Remote Desktop Services, which allows for remote control of desktop computers. Microsoft has even released a free Remote Desktop Connection Client for Mac OS X (www.microsoft.com/mac/DOWNLOAD/MISC/RDC.asp) allowing Macintosh computers to remote control a variety of Windows-based computers. These remote control features can have instructional applications, but do not permit the same class-wide screen sharing and other capabilities of the lab management software options discussed in this article.
Some management programs offer additional features with wonderful instructional benefits for classroom teachers and students.
- Shut down or restart computers: It can be time consuming at the end of the day to shut down all the computers in a lab or classroom, or to restart them before the next class. Some programs offer the ability to shut down or restart an entire lab simultaneously with a few mouse clicks on the instructor computer. Installed Network Interface Cards (NICs) in each computer must support this feature for it to work.
- Transfer a file to all student computers: If a school file server is available and a "shared folder" has been created allowing student as well as teacher access, files for a particular lesson can be opened from the network. Some lab management programs allow for the distribution of files directly to the hard drive of every computer in the lab, however, and some can even retrieve modified and saved files from the student computers to the instructor computer at the end of class.
- Chat: While some teachers may think this feature is superfluous and unneeded, chat capability included with lab management software can be invaluable for a variety of reasons. First, most students love to chat on their computers: typing text messages to each other like they would in an online chat room. A major difference between an online chatroom and a chat environment provided by a lab management software program is that the participants are controlled: only those students physically in the room can participate in the chat. As a reward for staying on task or completing a lesson, students can be given five minutes of chat time at the end of the period. Students desperately need guidance and instruction on what is appropriate and safe to disclose in an online chat environment, so in addition to motivating students, chat sessions can also provide them with invaluable digital safety skills. For more information about online safety issues, visit www.getnetwise.org.
LanSchool, sold by the Intel Corporation, is a Windows-based lab management software tool with an extremely simple installation procedure and configuration interface. It provides only the basic features of lab management, including screen sharing, blanking student screens, and remote control, but does so in a user-friendly and efficient manner. After installing the "client" version on each student computer and installing the instructor version, a small icon is added to the instructor's system tray in the lower right corner. By right clicking the icon, the instructor can immediately share his/her screen, blank all student screens, or initiate a remote control session with another computer. Only client computers installed with the same, unique classroom code are controlled.
LanSchool is licensed on a per-classroom basis. Depending on how many licenses are ordered, each can cost $795 to $450 each. A fully functional 30 day demo is available online, as well as more information and user testimonials. For more information visit www.lanschool.com.
NetOp School from CrossTec Corporation is also a Windows-based lab management software tool offering basic as well as advanced features. With a slightly more complicated installation procedure and user interface, it also offers more features for computer control than LanSchool. One notable feature is the ability to play (broadcast) MPEG, AVI, QuickTime or Flash 'movies' and animations to student computers during a teacher demonstration. Many other management programs do NOT allow this: the complexity and number of colors included in movies exceeds the software's ability to transmit and share data over the network.
Another comparative advantage of NetOp School is its advanced interaction and collaboration features. Files can be distributed and collected to and from student computer hard drives, programs started automatically on all student computers, text and audio chat sessions initiated, and more. All lab computers can be simultaneously logged off the network, restarted, or shut down with a few clicks on the instructor computer. These features can be a dream come true for educators using Windows-based school computer labs.
Pricing for NetOp school varies depending on the number of computers requiring installation. Call 1-800-675-0729 or email info@CrossTecCorp.com for pricing. For more information and online demonstrations of NetOp School visit www.crossteccorp.com/netopschool.
Apple Remote Desktop
Apple Macintosh Computers running operating systems 8.1 through the last version of OS X can be managed using Apple Remote Desktop software. Screen sharing, the ability to "blank" student computers, and monitor student screens is a simple, point and click process from the instructor computer interface. Advanced features like text chat, file copying to student hard drives, remote wake up from sleep, restart, and shut down are also available.
Apple Remote Desktop includes other features not supported by Windows based management software, like changing certain system settings simultaneously on all computers. Installed applications on all computers can be "audited," allowing teachers or tech support staff to find and immediately delete unauthorized software on network computers. This can include mp3 song files downloaded by students and saved on local hard drives.
Apple Remote Desktop is sold in two versions: a ten client license for $299 or an unlimited site license for $499. More information is available on www.apple.com/remotedesktop.
This table summarizes some of the features offered by the three lab management software options reviewed in this article.
Billions of dollars are spent annually to purchase and upgrade school computers in the United States. Sometimes, instructional needs are not adequately considered by the individuals ordering these resources, however. Access to and use of lab management software by a teacher can make a TREMENDOUS instructional difference in the classroom. Given the total amount of money invested in technology in school districts and the relative benefits of lab management software, the cost of such software is minimal.
Technology integration evangelists should make administrators, district technology planners, board members, and others involved in the purchasing process aware of the availability, desirability, sizeable benefits and reasonable cost of lab management software. By doing so, hopefully these software tools can be made more widely available to educators at all levels providing technology integrated instruction in computer labs or regular classrooms.
[i] Bork, Robert. Slouching Towards Gomorrah. 1997.