Distance learning takes on a new meaning at Auckland’s Long Bay College as it tests the Internet’s ability to deliver educational material from the US.
In a trial next month, the school will have 15 thin clients accessing software from North Carolina-based education application service provider LearningStation.com across the Internet. Pitted against this set-up will be another 15 PCs getting the same software from a server on the local area network. Initially the school will access Microsoft Office and teachers will also assess the suitability of LearningStation.com’s range of educational software. The outcome of the trial should answer Long Bay College network administrator Duncan Meyer’s questions about the viability of renting software over the Internet. His main concerns are latency and reliability. The school will use Windows 2000 Server Terminal Services to support the thin clients. Meyer considered running Citrix MetaFrame but found it clashed with the school’s Novell NetWare environment, particularly when it came to authentication. “So we threw out Citrix and we’re using Microsoft RDP [remote data protocol] for the thin clients and Novell workstation clients on the PCs. The last version of MS RDP was a dog but the new one is great.” Novell's ZenWorks controls the whole shooting match while its eDirectory authenticates users. “Students fire up their browsers, which are set to go to LearningStation.com by default. They see a log-in screen and have access to whatever their log-in account allows. They will also be able to access LearningStation.com from home.” But even using thin-client technology the school will need plenty of bandwidth. “It’s about 15kb a session. You only have to put 10 kids on and that’s 150kb. Thirty on and you’re talking half a megabyte.” For its Internet connection Long Bay College uses Ihug’s wireless StarNet service, although Meyer says Telecom's DSL (digital subscriber line) JetStream service, which is not available in Torbay, would have been preferable. Telecom has told him it not will be rolled out to the area this year. The major benefit of the school's set-up is a huge saving in software licence costs. Meyer estimates renting Microsoft Office for each student for one year will cost about one third of the price of buying it. “That has to make a lot of sense. A school this size spends $15,000 on Microsoft licensing a year. The school will also have access to that wonderful library of educational material that it wouldn’t have known about, had access to or been able to afford in the past,” he says. Meyer says the US company can offer software very cheaply because it buys its licences in bulk. “Also there is no workload for an IT person, except to keep the network running.” LearningStation.com approached Long Bay College through the computer rental firm RentWorks, from which the school rents its PCs.