When I was growing up in the 80s and 90s, the computers found in labs at my elementary, junior high, and high schools were pretty hit-or-miss.
Back then schools didn't use servers, logins, or any practical way for lab administrators to lock down desktops. Every computer was set up and managed independently from one another, and the concept of "imaging" systems was still several years away. While the computer lab was better than nothing, classes always ended up being 50 percent classroom learning and 50 percent troubleshooting various problems on a handful of desktops.
Today's computer labs have come a long way. Now many applications and data reside on back-end servers, and desktops can be remotely accessed and managed. But even though there have been some major improvements that help manageability of computer labs, they're still far from perfect.
Administrators still have the task of maintaining operating systems, anti-virus, and other locally installed applications. When problems occur on a PC, such as a skipped OS patch or antivirus update, it can cause any number of operability issues that can be difficult to identify and fix. It's critical that teachers are enabled to give a uniform computer lab experience for each student. If not, it causes a huge distraction and takes away from the actual learning.
That's why I'm a huge advocate of using cloud-controlled thin clients in next-generation computer labs. A low-cost example of such a thin client is the Google Chromebook. By storing all applications, data, and most of the OS in the cloud, you create both a physical and logical layer of protection between the data and your end users. A cloud-controlled desktop stores very little information, and all computers are exact mirror images of each other so they will function identically.
There seems to be some hesitation by many school districts to consider cloud-controlled thin clients in computer labs -- even if they could save the school a substantial amount of money. Much of this has to do with the fact that schools fear that their networks and Internet connections can't handle the additional load. While this is a valid concern, most public schools in the US have sufficient network and Internet resources to satisfy the demands of a relatively large thin-client lab.
Secondly, schools look back at the catalogue of software titles they've already purchased and licensed and have a difficult time letting go. Again, while a valid concern, schools should at least investigate web-based alternatives to applications they currently have. Once they look around, they'll likely be surprised to find plenty of choices online, many of them at much lower prices (or even free) compared to the software they currently own.
In the end, school IT administrators need to start taking a fresh look at how they design their next-generation computer networks. If one of the major goals is to eliminate as many variables from the computing experience as possible, a cloud-based lab approach may be the way to go. Not only will it likely save the school district money, it can also reduce technical distractions.