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Students trying out mini-laptops provided by One Laptop per Child. ((OLPC Canada))

Underfunded schools in Canada and other countries are using a new, inexpensive, Canadian-made networking software to provide computer access to more students for less money.

MultiSeat software, developed by Alberta-based Userful, allows schools to connect up to 11 monitors, keyboards and mice to a single Linux-based desktop computer. The system allows each user to function as if they were on their own PC.

Using isolated virtual systems, each student can simultaneously log into their personal account but share the resources — like memory and processing power — of the central computer connected through small USB peripherals.

Although a display and input device is still required for each user, having to buy only a single desktop tower for every 11 users means significant savings and allows instructors to more easily oversee their students' progress on the network.

School boards with tight budgets have turned to these mass-deployment technologies as a way to use their money more efficiently.

"We actually found that you can make back the costs of the computers in electricity savings alone over the course of a few years," said Sean Rousseau, marketing manager at Userful.

The Toronto District School Board has proposed cutting its annual computer purchases by 50 per cent to help reduce its projected $42.3 million deficit in its 2010-2011 budget. Rousseau said that schools with similar funding issues have been able to stretch the value of available funding and serve more students.

"MultiSeat lets them deploy the maximum number of stations for the same amount of money," he said. "They can deploy 20 computers instead of 10 for the same price."

The TDSB had not yet responded to the CBC's request for comment at the time of publishing.

PC pilot project

Several initiatives exist — in Canada and abroad — to provide youth with access to computers.

One such project is a partnership between the Belinda Stronach Foundation and the organization One Laptop per Child that will see 5,000 inexpensive laptops distributed to aboriginal communities across the country that would otherwise be unable to afford them.

The first phase of the pilot project will distribute 2,500 laptops to 12 communities, including Ontario's Attawapiskat First Nation.

The computers will come pre-loaded with eight customized programs that focus on topics such as literacy, food and nutrition and music.

The content is supposed to be culturally relevant so as to encourage aboriginal youth to take more interest in their communities' history and traditions.

According to Userful, thousands of schools and businesses in Canada, India, Brazil and other countries are already using its software and have seen both immediate and long-term savings.

Similar software from other companies exists on the market — such as Microsoft's MultiPoint — but installing a customized Linux distribution in place of other operating systems has several advantages.

Using a free, open-source, Linux-based operating system rather than Windows or Apple systems means future updates that improve security and usability come at no cost to the school. Linux distributions are also less vulnerable to malicious attacks and generally operate better on machines with fewer available resources.

In Canada, average classroom sizes range from 17 to 30 students, according to the Canadian Education Association, and with even the cheapest desktop towers selling for several hundred dollars, purchasing and maintaining PCs for dozens of students can be expensive.

And although on the lower-end computers commonly used in classrooms, the number of MultiSeat users is limited to 11, with greater computing power, that number can be increased.

"There are hardware limitations at the moment, but the software itself can support more [stations]," said Rousseau.

Userful says it has successfully run as many as 30 stations off one high-performance machine.

Cheap, low-power netbooks and nettops have proven to be viable options for cash-strapped consumers who only need basic word processing and internet connectivity. Userful's software seems to take this model a step further by eliminating the need for multiple computers altogether.

Corrections

  • The caption for the headline image previous read "powered by a single hard drive." It has been corrected to read "powered by a single computer."
    Mar 04, 2011 10:00 AM ET