An unusual day, part 2 (or "My lease is up! Now what?")

Part 2 of my unusual day, ending with a very different direction and a lot of ideas to stretch my shrinking budget.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

Here's where my day went from unusual to really informative (check out Part 1 of this story if you haven't already). For the three years of the lease at the high school (the first time the district had made a serious investment in technology outside of a new school), I've been really happy that a pretty considerable line item for technology has been sitting in the books. Of course, if it got cut, then Hewlett Packard would come and take their stuff away, but it's still been real progress in a school that had limped along with badly outdated technology for too many years. My plan had always been to return the equipment at the end of the lease (the end of this school year) and refresh. I wasn't sure if I'd use thin clients again, rolling labs, some sort of hybrid model, or do something completely different, but the goal was to maintain that line item and make it stretch as far as possible with another lease.

Then my HP rep came along today as we were discussing virtualization options for the new lease and quoted me a really low price to just buy out the lease and keep everything. Most of it's in good shape, but the price was so low that it was worth dealing with recycling or repairing some damaged goods. I won't quote the price since there's contractual mumbo jumbo involved, but suffice to say that it's just too low to pass up.

The problem, however, is that it becomes very hard to justify starting a new lease when we have pretty functional machines already in place. I could tell myself that we'll just take a year's break and start a new lease in FY12 for a full refresh, knowing that state aid in FY11 will be mighty hard to come by. We all know the realities of budgeting in this environment, though. It becomes all too easy to go back to limping along when budgets are tight. And yet I need to be fiscally responsible and do my part to keep the district financially solvent, too.

Interestingly, my unexpected meeting with the teachers today gave me some real food for thought as I ponder this dilemma. What if we leave many of these systems in place, take a responsible but moderate budget hit, and instead focus on some really useful classroom technologies? The teachers in my session today, regardless of their technological backgrounds, universally wanted regular access to SMART boards. Most of them have seen just how compelling and engaging they can be in class; computer labs are great, but interactive whiteboards can be integrated into classroom activities every single day.

Interactive response systems were also high on their lists of priorities. We collect lots of data on kids and have NCLB-style assessments down cold. However, actually managing the sort of everyday formative assessments that make it easier for teachers to modify and differentiate instruction is another matter. Simple "clickers" and the training to use them in class give teachers a powerful tool.

They would like to see a Moodle implementation (or something like it). While there are ways to do this very cost-effectively, it still takes money, time, and training. However, I was thrilled that the teachers were so eager to embrace tools like Moodle to drive better interactions with students and improve workflows and communication in class. It's also a good use of those off-lease servers if we still decide to at least refresh our terminal servers.

Ubiquitous LCD projectors or large-screen monitors were top requests, as was access to systems like Turnitin.

Go figure...a couple hours spent talking to teachers can do more to help define requirements than any number of calls with engineers or brainstorming sessions with the district techies. We'll see how this plays out, but I'd like to see 2010-2011 be a year of expanding classroom tech for our district, even in the face of shrinking overall budgets as the effects of the recession continue to trickle down to states and local governments.

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