It’s not often that we write blog posts around MultiPoint Server and how it is implemented in the classroom, especially ones that then link into solar energy, using very low energy to then enhance the use of ICT and save money.

Cadoxton Primary School  in Barry, Vale of Glamorgan has done exactly this and Gerald Haigh, independent writer to Microsoft, spoke to Janet Hayward, head teacher at the school earlier this year to discover the work they have done, helping not just the students grow their IT skills through the curriculum, but look to be more environmentally friendly as well.Cadoxton primary

Do you think you could install 100 computers into an ageing primary school building, seven to ten in each classroom, for a highly affordable £250 a seat and using no mains electricity? You’d assume not wouldn’t you? Until, that is, you saw Cadoxton Primary School where exactly that system is up and running. It’s a highly innovative accomplishment, driven by a head teacher’s determination to see her pupils fully supported by up-to-date ICT, and made possible by the work of a Microsoft partner ready to respond with the creative and expert use of appropriate technology. The effect on learning is dramatic.

You can see something of it in the video that the school’s created for their entry to the NAACE Third Millennium Learning Award. (Two versions. One created by the students,  the other with adult voiceover)

So how’s it done?

The quick answer, as the savvy amongst you may have guessed, is a virtuoso orchestration of Microsoft Windows MultiPoint Server, low energy devices, and the harvesting of solar energy.

But as you’ll also have guessed, having the idea is one thing, putting it into action is another. So, step forward Microsoft Partner Solar Ready Ltd, Sheffield-based specialists in the development and installation of very low energy (12V) electronic devices for IT applications. As the partner’s name implies, a system like that can be powered by DC electricity from solar panels, either directly or via storage batteries.

Cadoxton’s head, Janet Hayward, arrived at the school in September 2011. She came from a school which had been at the forefront of classroom ICT, and was determined to develop at least the same level of excellence in her new post. But what she found wasn’t at all conducive to the vision.

“There was a computer suite, coming to the end of its life. What I wanted was a robust system with a bank of computers in each classroom so children could access ICT across the curriculum.”

Having learned of the Solar Ready approach, she contacted them. Their CEO, Ray Luke, takes up the story.

“Janet has a Victorian building, originally with one round-pin five amp mains supply in each classroom. The usual solution in a building like that is to install a suite where the supply comes into the building. But she wanted learning in the classrooms, and to do that would mean rewiring the building at the cost of £270 per metre of cable, plus £60 for each mains socket - effectively an open cheque. On top of that there’d be internet connection at £150 per socket. Then we measured the electricity use of the existing computers and found they were costing £180 a year each to run.”

As both Janet and Ray point out, this means that in effect, financially, what Janet wanted just couldn’t be done at all by conventional means. A different approach was called for.

The system as now installed by Solar Ready Ltd uses solar collectors mounted internally on sections of the windows. Electricity from the collectors runs to a single cabinet which has batteries and four MultiPoint file servers, each feeding 25 thin client desktop machines distributed round the classrooms, removing the need for a mains outlet and an internet point for each machine. There’s a single 240v mains power socket for backup if the solar energy supply to the batteries and servers isn’t sufficient. Quite remarkably, though, from the moment this system was installed, on December 19th 2011, in midwinter South West Wales, the mains system has not, up to the time of writing, been called into action. So Cadoxton Primary has run its computers on free electricity for the whole of that time, and with days lengthening, that can surely only continue. One key contributor to this is the use of very low energy LG monitors which are significant cost savers in their own right, even in a mains installation. Another is the use of very efficient solar collectors which work in ambient light and are mounted inside the windows.

(A short Solar Ready video of the installation is at here)

At the time of writing, Cadoxton has sixty classroom-based computers up and running. Forty more will be installed at Easter and the eventual total will be 140. The last forty will effectively be paid for by saving of electricity currently being used to air-condition the now redundant hot and noisy traditional computer suite. Cadoxton’s thin client low energy equipment is silent and, in every sense, cool.

Ray speaks highly of MultiPoint Server, which serves all of the school’s needs.

“It has the complete Windows 7 look and feel, and it’s accepted as a standard installation. The thin client set up means there’s no waiting time when a child logs on, and so they see it as really fast modern technology.”

Janet Hayward, understandably, is delighted. The MultiPoint Server system provides everything she wants, and has supported a massive change in teaching and learning in the school.

“I wanted fast internet into every classroom, and it gives us that. There’s lots of excitement. Boys reading and carrying it on at home, all sorts of new packages integrated into every day teaching. It’s making a big impact in all sorts of ways.”

And all of that, as she says, for £250 per seat. (And it costs much less to add more desktops to the existing installation.)

The saving of cash, though, is only important in terms of the opportunity it provides for massively increased support for independent learning in and beyond the classroom. Janet’s commitment to this end is made plain in the last part of her presentation to the 2012 NAACE Conference this month.

“The world is changing and if we’re serious about school improvement we have to harness the use of technology for our children effectively. Research and daily observation shows that when technology is used in an active and engaging child-centred way it has a positive impact on the nature and culture of learning in the classroom and the wider school community. We have to take into account the priorities and needs of our children, creating flexible learning spaces and learning experiences, transforming the overall learning experience for our children.”