It's that time of year again - Where should you be allocating your budget?

I love gear, gadgets, and hardware. Who doesn't? But teachers, students, parents, and administrators need to embrace a learning platform first.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

Budget season is rarely much fun for schools, whether K12 or higher ed. For the latter, it's probably more fun at Harvard than it is at East Podunk Community College, but there are few schools that aren't hearing the familiar drumbeat of doing more with less. We hear this every year, of course, and the last two budget cycles, sans stimulus funds here in the States, have seen cuts to staff and programs virtually across the board. Add to that the impression held by half the school boards and parents in many communities that students can't possibly be getting a "21st Century Education" unless they have iPads in their backpacks and you have ulcer material for many ed tech leaders and decision makers.

This year, though, there are some interesting technologies that just might make the more-with-less mantra a bit more attainable. And no, I don't think that $400 iPad 2's are among those technologies, although no budget conversations at this point are complete without at least a thought to 1:1.

What intrigues me this year, even more than price drops on iPads, stable prices on new iPads, or the rash of new hardware from companies not headquartered in Cupertino, but rather the maturity and generally low cost of learning platforms. I would argue, in fact, that scarce funds would be better spent on pedagogically sound blended and e-learning SaaS tools than on new hardware.

Yes, you need hardware to access these tools, but because most of them are browser-based, just about any hardware will do, whether student-supplied "BYOD" PCs or the latest iPad. Userful, for example, has been doing some very interesting things with multiseat Linux deployments that can bring a lot of PCs to schools at very aggressive prices. Chromebooks are dirt cheap and, because of the nature of Google Apps, can be easily used in lab or cart settings with no concern about the security of student files and dead-simple management of student accounts.

The latest ultrabooks are incredibly slick, HP workstations (both mobile and desktop) are my favorite machines for content creation of any sort and can meet the needs of any students in secondary or post-secondary ed, and I can't wait to get my hands on the new iPad being delivered this Friday to really see what ridiculous resolution and four cores can do for the student experience. None of this, though, means very much without the right learning platform to guide students and give them a destination where they can access resources and social learning and get help from instructors, their peers, and even from response to intervention algorithms in software.

While not all platforms are created equal (not by a long shot, actually), reasonable investments in systems that support assessments, tracking of student data, and student-teacher-parent interactions, along with investments in professional development to ensure that teachers are fully able to leverage these systems will pay dividends that hardware alone cannot. I raved last week about Dell's Next Generation Learning Platform because of its focus on educational best practices and a very secondary approach to supporting hardware. The same, in fact, could be said of Google Apps if teachers use it for management and assessment or integrate one of several learning management systems available in the Google Apps Marketplace.

Moodle, Coursekit, and many others can be had for relatively small investments. The student information systems that schools invariably must have to report data to state and federal agencies increasingly incorporate more and more learning management features and organizations like Moodlerooms and Remote Learner layer powerful services over Moodle and other LMS platforms.

The point is that by making major investments in hardware as we come into the FY13 budget cycle without making relatively smaller investments in platforms and teacher training is putting the cart before the horse. If your school already has this very necessary infrastructure in place, then it's time to start deciding on approaches to 1:1. Will BYOD devices be subsidized to ensure access? Will the school own devices? Are tablets adequate? Will Chromebooks or ultrabooks serve students better? Is true 1:1 premature, with thin clients or mobile labs providing a more cost-effective solution for now? If funds are limited (and no doubt they will be), how can they be stretched to ensure maximum access to learning resources?

Many schools, though, lack this all-important infrastructure. I'm not talking about networks and servers here either (although a robust wireless network, solid bandwidth, and gateway tools are obviously critical). As I have for some time now, I'm talking about platform.

Google spent last week highlighting open educational resources (OER), particularly using Google+ and other components of the Google ecosystem as platforms for access. Again, the point? Both the platform and many of the resources can be had for free, with the only required investments coming in the form of teacher training. When budgets are tight, turn to the platform first, where it's a forgone conclusion that you'll get the most bang for your buck.

For that matter, when budgets are flush (I'll let the chuckles die down before I go on), build out cost-effective platforms and save the money to do 1:1 right. Just make sure that the platforms are there to begin with and have the buy-in and adoption of staff before handing students hundreds of iPads (or whatever). Otherwise you'll end up like Zealand, Michigan and countless other districts who don't come anywhere close to the "transformation" that these devices promise.

So to answer that original question, where should you be allocating your resources in FY13, you need to be looking at platform and infrastructure (both physical and educational) first. Then you can start having fun buying shiny things all covered with that new hardware smell.

What are your major initiatives for the year? Share them in the talkbacks below or on Twitter.

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