Our laptop trolleys are on a bumpy road

Laptop trolleys are great. Or at least, that’s what I thought when we first had the opportunity to get one. I was impressed. Here was this wonderfully mobile technology centre, able to be used anywhere on campus, giving students and staff the opportunity to find new ways of working – perhaps in new locations too.

Our first efforts were a bit primitive. We bought the trolley, consumed a ridiculous number of cable ties securing the mains adapters to the chassis, and then stuffed a Cisco access point in to the thing as well. We even put a printer on top. Although it looked slightly bizarre, when you powered it up and started working with your laptops, it did work pretty well.

Laptop trolley

It looked a bit strange, but it worked. Sadly, this one was broken into.

Soon after though, the road became a little bumpy. Our very first trolley was attacked. That’s it in the picture. Prized open, despite having two large locks on each door. The trolley was secured with heavy cable and lock, so it didn’t travel very far, but the contents were exposed from other damage.

This unfortunate incident didn’t deter us, and we pressed on, buying a number of new trolleys for other areas of the campus. As the fleet grew, a number of peculiarities became obvious.

Mobility had been a key motivator for our purchases. We want to see learners experiencing technology without having to use a well equipped but very expensive IT suite. We want to see the learning environment becoming a flexible space for teachers and learners alike. The thing is, our trolleys don’t move. What happens? Well, since laptops are small and easily carried by many, its far more typical that students are led to the trolley, given a laptop and sent back to their desk. This is okay, but does sidestep the idea of having a mobile classroom that can be transported around campus to a place of need. Instead we now find ourselves in the position where trolleys are typically regarded as ‘owned’ by a department or faculty. Certainly not the intention when we conceived the idea; far better to share such a resource effectively between all those groups who may benefit from access, isn’t it?

Performance and reliability have never really been a huge issue with desktop computers (at least in our case). We’ve always been able to deliver a fleet of highly effective computers in the classroom, with low failure rates and generally good performance. When you go mobile, the case can become very different. Let’s just review the typical student approach to the laptop. At the start of the session, the trolley is unloaded, laptop switched on and you get on with some work. No problems here, but what happens at the end of the session? Students are eager to leave, the next class is approaching, but wait – we have to get this laptop back in the trolley first! Quick – close the lid and stuff it in the trolley! Oh dear. This is not good for a laptop battery. If the laptop isn’t off, the power state becomes unreliable for the next startup. In a low power or sleep state, certain things don’t always work when you resume. Most common in this example is that a wireless card will not reconnect to the network unless disabled and restarted. But there’s another problem. When you don’t switch off the laptop and leave it in a low power state, it continues to generate heat. Put twenty laptops into a single trolley and that’s quite a lot of heat. Now, the thing about batteries is that they don’t like heat. It reduces their effective lifespan, and it can do this very rapidly. In only a matter of months, those laptops that you expected to be working effectively for a year or two on battery really might not be much use for more than an hour a day.

The concept of creating mobile classrooms with numerous laptops is a great one; flexible learning spaces are a wonderful thing. Having used, maintained and managed their use for some years now, I’ve yet to be convinced that laptop trolleys can be sustainable in the long term. There’s just too much room for simple faults and trivial errors to make them practical. There must be a better way.