How I'd spend a few 100k...

We recently had a visit from the state and they were less than impressed with our technology integration. Apparently I'm now supposed to tell them how I'd fix things if I had money.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

A recent visit from state auditors resulted in a laundry list of problems with our technology implementation, all of which were directly related to funding (or the lack thereof). It seems the state believes our computers are too old, our infrastructure is outdated, our ergonomics stink, and not enough students have access to reasonable levels of technology. I think they've been reading my blog.

It's not as if we didn't know that we needed to improve student access to technology.  I'm the one who spends too much time every day just keeping computers functional and not enough time teaching students and staff to fully exploit the technology we should have (but don't).  The problems in our school (and our district for that matter) are not a result of a lack of vision or planning on my part (although as I've noted in previous blogs, and as Marc Wagner has nicely put it, too many past administrations have thought like consumers rather than CIOs).  The problems are simply the result of dismal funding.  Wanna know my tech budget for our high school this year?  $4,400.  And no, I didn't forget any zeros.  That money is basically gone, already spent on replacement parts, ink (if grudgingly, see Got Ink?), a UPS, some printers (networked laser, thank you very much), and some new backup hardware.  I'm keeping a bit in reserve for when big things break and hoping that oil prices keep going down so that it doesn't get burnt up in our boiler around February.

So the state auditors wanted to know what I'd do if I actually had some realistic, reasonable funding.  They want to know our vision.  It's not clear why, since I'm not holding out a lot of hope for this type of funding (at my school or district-wide, since the needs are, believe it or not, even more critical elsewhere).  However, I thought I'd share my wish list with you since I have to write it down for the state anyway.  What follows is, IMHO, a pretty conservative take on Ed Tech in a relatively modern high school.  I'm not talking Bill and Melinda's vision here - I'm talking about a solid foundation of technical tools to enhance basic and special education as well as provide fundamentals in computer technology for students in this century.

1. Well-equipped mobile labs: Although our student labs are well-utilized, they are pretty miserable in terms of equipment, especially in terms of performance and reliability.  We are also still fairly limited on space.  In the past, I've never been a big fan of "laptop carts," since for the price of an average cart you could build one heck of a desktop lab.  A few things have changed my mind though.  Most importantly, the cost of laptops has dropped radically in the last year, making these carts more obtainable, cost-effective, and competitive with desktops.  The second is utilization.  While our computer labs are often used by classes, they do sit unused for at least 1 period a day on average.  Similarly, desktop computers located in individual classrooms are handy, but often go unused.  A neighboring school district, however, recently purchased 2 laptop carts (over twice the total number of computers in our primary lab) and has found that the carts are used every period of every day.  Teachers schedule them like any other AV equipment and report the ease and frequency with which they can use them right in the comfort of their own classrooms.

2. Robust, redundant server architecture: Most private companies the size of our school have a server room with dedicated power, 24/7 observation and maintenance, and a variety of redundant mechanisms to ensure the functionality of mission-critical applications and storage.  I'm not asking for xenon fire suppression and racks of blades, but an aging file/print/web/application server sitting in a book closet and another application server sitting in the superintendent's office don't exactly make for reliable computing.  As it turns out, our student management system really requires at least three servers to run effectively (1 web, 1 database, 1 application); that server sitting in the super's office just isn't quite cutting it.  I really hope he remembered to put in the tape last night to back it up.

3. Solid, modern networking: We've done a lot in recent years to improve our networking infrastructure.  However, our school is fairly sprawling, pushing the limits of Ethernet/Cat 5 cabling.  A fiber backbone would do wonders for speed and reliability, especially as network traffic continues to increase.  It wouldn't hurt to take the bundles of Cat 5 out of students' reach while we were at it.

4. TRAINING!!!: All the technology in the world is useless if teachers, administrators, and students don't know how to take advantage of it.  A real training and professional curriculum would ensure full utlization of the new resources described above and help teachers feel as comfortable with the technology as their students.

5. In-house technical staff: And last but not least, a solid group of people who can provide quick support when things go wrong.  These could simply be well-trained champion users, but current wait times for technical support are simply too long (I'm just one guy after all, and these darned students of mine keep wanting to learn.  Don't they know I have computers to fix?).  Just as important is solid IT leadership, not only to direct the activities of these staff, but to engage in real IT planning and to develop the training described above.

So there's my wishlist.  Oh, and by the way, can this all be lifecycle-funded while we're at it?  Thanks. 

Editorial standards