Sun Microsystems of Canada Ltd. will announce Thursday donations worth a total of $2 million to a number of educational institutions in an effort to boost its presence in Canadian classrooms and research labs.

The donations will be distributed

to both the post-secondary and K-12 sectors and will include servers, software and Sun Ray appliances. The University of Toronto is among the recipients.

“”It’s to expose our technology in the classroom – to the students, the parents and the administration,”” said Charles Mair, director of business development for Sun Canada’s Global Education and Research division.

Or, as Grace Caulfield, Global Education and Research e-learning manager for Sun in Palo Alto, Calif., more bluntly put it: “”The student that is today’s learner is tomorrow’s customer.””

Mair said he preferred the terms “”researcher and employee”” to “”customer,”” but he acknowledged that Sun sees such donations as an opportunity for Sun, as well as a responsibility for a company founded 20 years ago by Stanford University students.

For K-12 students, Thursday’s announcement will extend, on an albeit smaller scale, a Sun Ray initiative in Saskatchewan to school boards across Canada. Two years ago, the public and separate and public school boards in Moose Jaw and North Battleford began implementing what is now a total of 3,300 Sun Rays attached to a server configuration that includes Sun Enterprise 1000, 250 and 450 servers. Sun Rays are essentially dummy terminals that access applications running on a variety of platforms.

Prior to the implementation, North Battleford’s separate schools had seven students competing for each of its 280 PCs, according to Tom Hawboldt, technology co-ordinator for North West Catholic School Division 16 in Saskatchewan. The board now has a total of 900 computers – 760 of them Sun Rays – reducing the student-to-computer ratio to between two and 2.5 to one. As well, Hawboldt said the Sun Ray approach allows him to maintain the board’s IT infrastructure by himself, and has cut the board’s IT costs by up to $70,000 per year.

“”We’ve gotten to the point where computers have become for us an everyday tool,”” he said.

Indeed, Sun’s education strategy involves moving computing beyond lab and library walls. Sun Rays can be found in each library, administrative office, classroom and on every teacher’s desk in the North Battleford and Moose Jaw school boards.

“”They can’t afford today the appropriate number of computers to turn the PC into a learning device,”” said Sun national educational technology specialist Ted Jawniak. “”If the computer is going to be transformed from something to learn word processing on to a (true) learning device, the number of those devices is going to have to increase.””

Last September, Sun pushed its strategy beyond school walls with the launch of the School of 3rd Millennium project at the College Sainte-Anne in Lachine, Que. The francophone education portal, powered by Sun Enterprise 420R and 200R servers, allows students and faculty to access teacher-developed subject-specific educational communities and assignment databases through Sun Ray appliances on campus.

The University of Wisconsin System’s dot.edu department, provides instructional design, software training, hosting services and a 24×7 help desk for online course development to K-12 and post-secondary institutions within and outside the state. The university’s students are some of the 126,000 users of Digital Online Technology.Educational Design Utility (dot.edu), but they also help the Sun-server powered department service the needs of the system’s K-12 users.

“”The importance of the model is that it shows users what an ASP model can do for an educational environment,”” Caulfield said.

What is also key, according to Heinz Schwarz, science and engineering group manager for Sun’s Global Education and Research divsion, is making the resources easy to access. In an address at the University of Toronto Wednesday, Schwarz said easy-to-navigate portals help facilitate advanced research, especially for bioinformatics researchers who are not typically fond of Unix commands. Sun Fire 6800 servers and the Sun Grid Engine power the High Performance Computing Laboratory, a joint grid initiative by Carelton University the University of Ottawa and Queen’s University. The universities are developing a portal that will automatically locate available compute resources for researchers.

“”We want to organize the computational resources and at the same time we want to make access and use of this easier than it is today,”” Schwarz said.

Sun has donated to the U of T an Excelerator Pod, essentially a rack full of computers for implementing portals. John Di Marco, research lab mananger for the U of T’s computer science department, said the Pod will aid the lab in its software development initiatives.

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