Tuesday, 3 July 2012

A Server-Free School

One of my concerns at the moment is designing an ICT solution for primary schools that minimises their requirement for technical support whilst maximising the ease of use and reliability of the equipment and applications. Here's a report I wrote on a pilot project we ran at Partnerships for Schools with E-ACT and one of their primary academies. I hope it will be useful for any primary schools looking for a different and reliable solution.

The Server-Free School - a pilot project for sustainable ICT infrastructure and equipment in primary schools

The ICT Advisers at Partnerships for Schools have responsibility for supporting Academies, Free Schools, Studio Schools and UTCs in planning and procuring their ICT provision. Over the past two years we have become increasingly aware of the need to drive down capital and revenue costs for ICT and have been active in seeking ways of achieving this.

We were concerned that many of the solutions being proposed for smaller primary schools in the Free Schools programme were technically quite complex and required specialist on-site support. We were also concerned that schools were being expected to purchase equipment rather than leasing or renting as is the case in most other sectors.

With these concerns in mind, we started to investigate the potential for reducing the complexity of on-site ICT infrastructure and equipment and taking more services (especially free services) from the “cloud”. We were particularly concerned to trial devices that did not store programmes or content locally, thus reducing the need (and cost) for on-site technical support to install and maintain software. We became aware of the Chromebook laptop from Google and following further investigation decided that this would be the ideal device for a trial project.

We shared our thinking with a group of ICT Directors from Academy groups at a meeting in July 2011 and were subsequently approached by the ICT Director of the E-ACT group of academies which had recently taken over a small independent school in Bristol that was due to be re-opened as an academy in September 2011. The school had spent little on ICT in recent years and its infrastructure and equipment were in need of an upgrade to include WiFI coverage.

Infrastructure Upgrade
The school went out to tender for a wireless network to provide coverage across the whole school site. The competition was won by PW Comms UK Ltd from Lymm in Cheshire. Over the half-term holiday week in October / November 2011 they installed new Cat6 cabling and active infrastructure with 24 Trapeze Wireless Access Points and 2 controllers as well as a 24 port HP Procurve PoE switch. A fibre link was provided between the main school buildings and the adjacent sports centre. The cost of this infrastructure upgrade was £37,600 + VAT

User Equipment
The school previously had an ICT suite with 25 Windows PCs and a single PC in each classroom attached to an interactive whiteboard (a mixture of Promethean and Smart boards). There were also Windows PCs for admin in the school office.

The school decided to get rid of its ICT suite completely and use the room for other purposes. All PCs were replaced with 60 Chromebooks (47 for pupil use and 1 for each teacher and member of the administrative staff. The pupil devices are stored and charged in EcoCart trolleys in the classrooms. 33 further devices for pupil use are on order for April 2012.  All IWBs are now Smart Boards.

Chromebooks have proved to be robust and reliable in everyday use with no equipment failures reported so far. However, the school advises that any school contemplating a similar approach in future should retain at least one Windows laptop to help with configuration of printers and active network equipment. Chromebooks are not suitable for those tasks at present.

All devices use Google Apps for Schools with the Google Docs suite of office applications. The school replaced its old management information tools with the ScholarPack MIS which is a remotely hosted (cloud-based) service. This is accessed by the headteacher, all teachers and the admin staff. The school has found ScholarPack to be reliable and responsive to their requests for additional features to be added to meet their particular needs. The frequent additions and changes to the MIS system mean that there is no printed or online manual but the company responds quickly to email requests for help.

Teachers and pupils find the Google Docs suite of applications easy to use and comment that the facility for pupils and staff to work collaboratively editing a single document has transformed their way of working. This is a feature which the school hopes to make even more use of in future.

Pupils are allowed to install free apps from the Chrome App Store on to their personalised desktop. This approach works well on cloud-ready devices like Chromebooks because no apps or data are stored on the device and the personalised desktop appears instantly as soon as a user is logged on to any Chromebook, even if they have never used that particular device before. It is interesting to note that several pupils have installed apps to help them practice basic maths and language skills. The ICT Manager can ensure that unsuitable apps are not added by pupils.

The Chromebooks are connected to the Interactive Whiteboards (IWBs) and projectors using the USB and mini-VGA ports. This allows the teacher to show web-based material and to use the interactive surface of the IWB but not the coloured pens which come with the Smart Boards.

The school purchased HP Laserjet Pro 1415 multifunction laser printers which support printing across the Internet through the ePrint function. All Chromebooks use the Google Cloud Print app to send work to the printers. This works reliably but when printing long documents through Cloud Print admin users experience frustration as they are unable to complete other tasks until printing is complete and this can take an excessive length of time. As there is no direct network connection between the multifunction printers and the Chromebooks it is not possible to scan directly. However, the printers will scan images to a USB memory stick which can be uploaded on to the Chromebook. If conventional printing procedures do not work, it is possible to email documents directly to the printer. When printing photographs, the staff tend to transfer these to a memory stick which is then inserted into the printer.

The school has recently ordered additional USB devices such as TuffCams and recording microphones and Beebots, Easi-view visualisers and anticipates no problems in using these with the Chromebooks.

Staff Development / Support (on-site and from Google)
Google provided a Google Certified Teacher to lead an after-school training / familiarisation session for all teachers as soon as the Chromebooks were installed in October 2011. This was followed by a second after-school session in March 2012. The staff praise the quality of this training highly and say that it has helped them to make effective use of the Chromebooks. The headteacher comments that “what the trainer helped the staff achieve in a relatively short time was incredible”. The school feels that the gap between the first and second training sessions has been too long and has resulted in some staff questions going unanswered and slower progress in making full use of the equipment and software.

However, the Google programme of training is not tailored to meet the needs of administrative staff and the school feels that this would be a useful addition to the programme. As a result of the change to Chromebooks, the ICT manager feels that a school could manage without on-site tech support. Admin staff could add and remove users and generally oversee the management console in 1 or 2 hours a week. Most staff requests relate to blocking websites given the current situation on filtering.

The school has had to resolve lots of technical issues for itself including understanding how print services need to be configured and even something as simple as knowing the keyboard shortcut to set the CAPS LOCK. It would be helpful if Google were to develop an online forum with FAQs to help schools setting up a Chromebook solution for the first time.

It is also recommended that Google considers adding an official Chromebook Education Forum to Chromebook Central to deal with enterprise deployment issues and highlight OS changes when these take place - “patch release notes”.

Cost and Sustainability
The school purchased its Chromebooks with an up-front payment of £568.42 per device however it is possible to lease the equipment for £15 per device per month for the WiFi only Chromebooks (and £17 per month for the Headteacher’s 3G & WiFi version). This includes access the the Google Chromebooks Management Console and replacement of any faulty equipment for a 3-year period.

The maintenance contract for the network is £2,737 per annum
SWGfL broadband annual recurring charges are £5,487 for a 20Mb fibre connection.

There are no licensing costs for Google Apps or the Google Docs office suite and this has resulted in a saving of approximately £1500 per annum to the school. Many apps are free and those which are paid are usually a one-off charge.

Printer consumable costs are currently higher with the new system. There are more printers than previously and the staff have not yet taken advantage of the fact that documents could be shared electronically rather than printed. They have established a central admin folder for policy documents. Print Management Console allows the ICT manager to assign users to particular printers and to track the number of print jobs.

Electricity usage should be considerably lower with no servers and browser-only devices. The school took meter readings in September 2011 before the pilot commenced and will compare these with readings in April and May 2012 when temperatures are likely to be comparable.

A major benefit of the server-free approach using leased “browser in a box” devices such as Chromebooks is that the school’s costs each year for ICT are predictable and it is easier to budget for an ICT solution that is affordable. The reduction in revenue costs for technical support and equipment maintenance is substantial. In the case of St Ursula’s, the total ICT costs for a 68 device solution would be no more than £25,000 per annum with no “spike” in capital costs when equipment needs to be replaced.


  • The concept of a “server-free school” has been proved and such a solution should be considered by primary schools as they seek to renew / update their infrastructure and/or equipment.
  • It has been possible to find satisfactory replacements for most of the applications which were previously used by teachers and administrators. The cost of many of these replacements is much lower.

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