The guidelines for the F.C.C. e-rate discounts include a requirement for districts to conduct a technology inventory(1). As discussed in the section below on Technology Obsolescence, it will be very helpful to provide adequate information to district decision-makers and the community about the status of the district's equipment that delineates between current/recent models (>3 years) and older models (<3 years). The inventory should also information about the status of the district's technology infrastructure in relation to its enunciated goals (we have X number of computers, we need Y number of computers to reach our goals. (See Equity)
Technology Infrastructure Goals
The district technology plan should include a description of the district's overall technical infrastructure design and goals(2). The federal criteria related to technology uses the term "types of technologies." For the purposes of a district technology plan, this should not be translated to mean an equipment acquisition list which would be outdated very rapidly.
Common educational technology infrastructure goals to achieve a technology-rich school environment are(3):
District wide area network providing high speed digital connections to every school and to the Internet.
Local area networks in every school with connections to every classroom sufficient to support the curriculum-based uses of technology in that classroom (e.g. teacher computer, mini-lab, etc.).
One multimedia teacher workstation, with classroom printer, per teacher and a reasonable number of LCD displays necessary to support instructional presentations.
One multimedia student workstation for every four or five students.
A library/media center mini-lab with sufficient computers and research resources (CD-ROM tower, scanner, etc.) to support the student population in the school building.
Sufficient workstations to support administrative and support services activities.
Can a district achieve these goals in a 5 year period of time? Obviously, not without sufficient funding. The technology infrastructure goals of a technology plan should set forth what is needed and information on projected costs. The implementation strategy will need to be adjusted based on what funding is actually provided.
A district's top priority must be establishing their network infrastructure and providing all teachers with their own workstation with access to this infrastructure. Teachers will not learn to use technology if they do not have a computer readily available on their desk. Providing access for teachers opens the door to a wealth of information and professional development opportunities not only related to technology but across the curriculum. Teacher access to technology also facilitates organizational operations and district communications.
Where the student workstations will be placed within the school building should be determined by curriculum needs. Decisions are best made at the school site and within curriculum departments, with district level guidance and coordination. Don't decide that all of the district's classrooms should be outfitted with mini-labs simply because it sounds like a good idea(4).The district's teachers will need to decide how they will be using technology to assist students in meeting performance standards and design the classroom and school infrastructure to support such activities. As teachers change their instructional activities, the infrastructure needs will also change.
Schools will also require a sufficient number of student labs with 30+ computers to support school population and meet curriculum needs. The types of technologies to be included in the labs will be determined by the curriculum needs (e.g. labs for English classes require different technologies than those for science classes). Establishing mini-labs in the school library for student research projects should have a high priority.
The network design for the district WAN and school LANs should be accomplished by a trained network engineer. Some times, districts want to pinch pennies in this regard and assign this responsibility to a technology literate teacher or community member. Bad idea! Whatever the district may save initially, they will likely pay for later. Even if the district is only able to establish the network in a portion of the building, it is helpful to obtain a design for the entire building. This will ensure that the initial components will be compatible with the desired end product. The network design will also address building improvements that will be necessary to install the LANs in the schools, including electricity, heating and cooling, lighting, sound, and general facilities. In many older school buildings, installing a network will require dealing with asbestos.
Districts are being encouraged to participate in Net Day activities where community members come into the school to do wiring. Having a network design by a network engineer prior to such an activity is the only way to ensure the effective use of community involvement.
It is important that the district technology plan convey the understanding of the need for constant upgrading of the district's technology infrastructure. Too often, technology plans convey the idea that a set amount of funds will be required to achieve the technology infrastructure goals and this is all the funds that will be necessary. To provide assistance to district decision-makers in understanding the ongoing investment that will be necessary, it may be helpful to translate the district's infrastructure goals into general financial terms. Here is a formula that may be helpful in this regard:
# of teachers and administrators. ____+
# of support staff who require computers. ____+
1/5 of the total number of students. ____+
Equals the total number of computers required to achieve infrastructure goals. (A) ____=
Divide A by 5
Equals the number of computers that should be acquired every year if the district intends to achieve its infrastructure goals in 5 years. This also equals the number of computers that should be acquired every year thereafter if the district maintains a 5-year replacement schedule. (B)____=
Multiply B by $5,000
$5,000 is the cost of a computer, related peripherals, software, repair and maintenance for a 5 year period(5). Equals the annual amount the district will need to budget every year to achieve and maintain the desired infrastructure goals. ____=
Note: This formula does not include the initial costs of network installation or the ongoing costs for connectivity, support, training, and professional development.
Technology Infrastructure Priorities
Since technology will be phased into districts in the coming years, it is important for the district to establish priorities for the placement and use of the equipment as it is acquired. The following is a recommended list of priorities for districts:
- First stage priorities:
- District wide area network with Internet connection.
- School local area networks.
- A workstation for every teacher and administrator.
- Library/media center mini-labs.
- Selected classroom mini-labs and school computer labs closely tied with technology-integrated curriculum development efforts. Some of these prototype implementations will include cutting-edge voice and video technologies.
- Second stage priorities:
- Expansion of classroom mini-labs and school computer labs to achieve student workstation technology infrastructure goals in accord with curriculum integration efforts.
- Ongoing upgrade of existing technology.
- Third stage priorities
- Ongoing upgrade of existing technology.
- Shift to next level of instructional technology -- the technologies that were considered cutting-edge in the first stage.
Technology Standards and Acquisition
The Federal criteria addressing compatible technologies refers to a requirement that districts commit to acquiring "open systems technology" as compared to closed "proprietary technology systems". Open systems technology is based on standards that have been publicly described and documented. Software or hardware based on these standards will work compatibly with each other. Proprietary systems do not allow this kind of flexibility and are to be avoided. Both Apple Macintosh and Windows-based systems are open systems technologies.
Districts should establish a process for the acquisition of technology based on district adopted current technical standards for equipment and software. The district standards will ensure that newly-acquired equipment or software will be compatible with each other and, to the extent possible, with the existing infrastructure. Bulk purchasing can lead to reduced expenditures for equipment. The standards and acquisition process will also ensure the wise expenditure of staff resources for implementation, support, repair, and maintenance.
Technical Support Services
District technology services include:
Network Support Services
Network support services, sometimes called Network Operations Center (NOC) services, include those activities that are necessary to maintain the effective functioning of the district network. Every network needs a network administrator, but not every district will retain staff to perform this function. The technical infrastructure of smaller districts will not be substantial enough to warrant retaining staff. These districts may contract with the regional education service organization, a nearby larger district, or a private firm for such services. It is important to retain or contract with an individual or entity that has a sufficiently high level of expertise to administer the network. If the network is unreliable, staff will avoid depending on it.
Network Information Support Services
Network information support services , sometimes called Network Information Center (NIC) services, are the technical assistance services provided to educators who are having some kind of problem with their computer, software, network connection, etc. Just-in-time support addressing technical concerns is a critical factor in influencing the acceptance of technology. Users, especially new users, need to know that someone will be there to hold their "virtual" hand when they have problems. If such support is not provided, the inclination will be to avoid the computer.
Equipment Upgrade, Repair, and Maintenance Services
The district will need to develop a strategy to manage the upgrade, repair, and maintenance of computers, including how costs will be managed (a district budget item or a school budget item). The upgrade, repair, and maintenance services should be managed in accord with the district policy on obsolescence.
Distributed Support Services Structure
An efficient organizational structure for the provision of network operations and network information support services in a district is through the establishment of a distributed support structure where the school technology coordinators provide first-line services. If they are unavailable or are unable to solve the problem, then the problem can be raised to the district level of services. Many districts also establish a telephone help desk to field basic technical support questions.
Students, if provided with appropriate training and supervision, can also be utilized in the provision of network operations and support, and equipment repair/ maintenance services. A School-to-Work program where students could receive basic training and education in network operations and support and repair/maintenance activities and have the opportunity to work as interns in the school would be an excellent way to provide local expertise and prepare students for a variety of technology-related community college or university programs and careers. However, because of the confidentiality of data on school network systems and other management issues that can arise with student workers, a student program must be supervised by qualified staff.
Some software decisions will be made at the district level, other decisions will be made by schools or by teachers. The technology plan should set forth an intention that the district and/or the schools will establish a software acquisition process that is not overly bureaucratic, but that also ensures that district resources are spent wisely. For example, ability to reduce expenses through the use of site licensing will be undermined if each teacher purchases a single copy. It is also important to have some process to facilitate curriculum software review or to ensure that the acquisition of certain software will be in support of the district's curriculum objectives. Establishing a level of uniformity in district productivity software, such as word processing software is essential to maintaining effective NIC services. The acquisition process will also need to consider ways in which the district will protect against copyright infringement.
Technology obsolescence is a major concern in education. Relentless innovation is the standard for the technology industries. Unfortunately, the result of such innovation is a very short life cycle for technology products and the need for constant updating and/or replacement. Schools, faced with limited funds and sometimes cumbersome bureaucratic acquisition processes, are rarely able to effectively cope with such a rapid rate of change. But they must.
The bottom line is that technology is a constantly moving target and technology investments in the future will require shorter, and more dependable replacement cycles than currently exist.
It is important to incorporate strategies for dealing with obsolescence into technology planning and implementation. The following are strategies that can be used to address technology obsolescence:
Planning for Technology
Technology should be acquired in accord with a well-conceived technology plan that includes an assessment process. While the long-range technology plan may set forth overall objectives and operating parameters, shorter-range plans that are responsive to current needs and resources will more effectively guide the acquisition process.
Make sure the district's current investment in technology is being used effectively and productively and is contributing to improved student performance and administrative productivity. Requests for funds for new equipment should be accompanied by documentation about the impact of past investment.
Provide adequate information to the decision-makers and community about the status of the district's technology infrastructure.
Never speak in terms on finality about the costs of technology -- "Our district needs $X to establish its technology infrastructure." Rather, speak in terms of initial and ongoing investment needs -- "Our district needs $X to establish its networking infrastructure and will need approximately $X per year to build to and maintain the recommended level of equipment."
Make sure the annual equipment budget includes funds for equipment repair, maintenance, and upgrading.
Acquisition of Equipment
Keep up-to-date about equipment life cycles by reading the trade press, talking with colleagues, and requesting specific information from vendors. By keeping up-to-date, a district can avoid purchasing equipment that has reached maturity.
Maintain district-level control over the acquisition of equipment in the form of technical standards and a coordinated acquisition process. This will result in lower costs for bulk purchases and assurance that the equipment acquired is compatible with existing and future technology.
When a district is preparing a bid for equipment, make sure that it includes detailed specifications about technical requirements. Be extremely wary of bargain-basement prices. Acquire equipment that can be easily upgraded.
Phase in purchases. The standard process for acquiring technology has been driven by the capitol assets bond process, which results in a massive infusion of equipment at one time. Unless the district has also planned and budgeted for a massive infusion of training and support, much of this equipment will sit unused or minimally used. Then, some years later, the district will be faced with a large inventory of aging equipment that is incapable of meeting current needs. As the district move into the new era of technology in schools, it will need to move to an annual acquisition process that is well coordinated with curriculum planning and professional development.
Make sure that the level of equipment is justified in terms of the planned curricular uses of the equipment. A first-grade class learning keyboarding, does not need a Pentium computer lab. Less expensive Internet access devices may be usable for some curriculum activities.
Dealing with Older Equipment
"You gotta know when to hold them and know when to fold them." In non-lyrical terms, it is important to know when equipment should be upgraded and when upgrading would only be a waste of resources. A general standard is that if equipment can be upgraded to extend its life for at least an additional two years and if the costs of upgrade are less than 30% of the costs of a replacement, then upgrading makes sense. If not, the equipment may be able to be repurposed to serve some use until it is time to call for the undertaker.
Be very careful when dealing with donated equipment. (See below)
Establish a systematic approach to memory upgrading. By upgrading groups of computers on a regular basis, a district can purchase in bulk through a bidding process to lower the costs.
Develop an effective repurposing plan. Older equipment can be repurposed to serve useful functions within the educational environment. But successful repurposing must be done in accord with a plan -- identifying a specific useful curricular purpose and supplying the software and training necessary to serve this purpose. Older equipment will likely not run the latest versions of software. The district will need to apply creative approaches to obtaining the rights to use older software in ways that do not violate copyright laws. One approach would be to contact software companies and request a site license to use their older software on this equipment.
Software upgrades are even more frequent than hardware upgrades and can cause a variety of headaches. This is especially true when the newer software requires an equipment upgrade, typically a memory upgrade, to work properly. Fully evaluate the impact that software will have on hardware when planning a software upgrade and prepare a budget that includes all of the costs.
When acquiring software that is regularly upgraded, negotiate for a schedule of contracted upgrades at the time of initial purchase. Or pay a maintenance fee that covers all updates for a period of time.
Some districts have or are considering the establishment of computer refurbishing programs to supplement district purchases of equipment. Companies are requested to donate used equipment to schools. The equipment is refurbished by students as a learning activity and then dissemination in schools. Government agencies are also a source of donated equipment.
A refurbishing program can provide several benefits. It can provide a low cost way to increase the number of computers in the schools. It can also be a good learning opportunity for the students. Where such a program is most likely to work well is in communities with high tech companies that need to upgrade their equipment in very rapid cycles. If a company is upgrading their equipment in 2-year (or less) cycles, then the donated equipment has a reasonable additional life span for use in education.
The refurbishing program does present significant concerns. These concerns and a strategy to address the concerns are as follows:
Concern: Public (and district decision-makers' ) perception that a truckload of donated 386s has solved the district's needs for technology
Strategy: Don't over sell the program. Always speak in term of supplementing, not solving, district's equipment needs. Establishing an ongoing assessment of progress towards technology infrastructure goals that differentiates between state-of-the-art equipment and old equipment, will be critical to avoid misperceptions that refurbishing program has adequately addressed the need.
Concern: The district will receive a high amount of unusable junk.
Concern: The program will lead to a redirection of district maintenance and repair funds to the donated computers.
Strategy: Establish the refurbishing program as a separate program and require that it is financially self-sufficient. After computers have been disseminated in the district, they are eligible for repair and maintenance by the technical department only if the technical department has determined that they meet district standards. If not, they can be returned to the refurbishing program for repair.
Concern: The quality of the learning opportunity. Refurbishing work can become non-educational and repetitive activity for students. There are limited future work prospects for student able to refurbish 386's.
Concern: Inability to get software for older computers fosters copyright infringement.