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The new old school conundrum

We have a mix of aging and relatively new schools in our district. However, the newer schools actually present some serious tech problems related to public perception of the buildings.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor on

We have two beautiful schools in our district, both built within the last 15 years, well-maintained, and a pleasure at which to teach and learn. Our other schools in the district are aging fast; one is 100 years old and the high school is over 50 years old. From a tech perspective, I'll deal with the 100-year-old school any day. Here's why.

How old is 15 years in computer years? I'll give you a hint: it's ancient. Cabling, for example, installed 15 years ago is probably Category 5, may have deteriorated badly, has probably been added to in a variety of ways over the years, and might be labeled. Data connectivity in schools 15 years ago was a given, but it was hardly critical as it is today. It was also most likely designed for 1-2 drops per room, not 5-6 computers connected to mini-switches.

Obviously the hubs installed back then are traffic nightmares if they haven't been replaced and isolating points of failure (since everything should be failing right about now) is like finding a needle in a haystack. Exactly which cable is shorted? Which jack has gone bad? Which switch is dropping packets?

Sure, these kinds of problems can often be handled by regular maintenance, but the perception (both of teachers and parents) is that relatively new schools shouldn't need wiring replaced. They shouldn't require major infrastructure upgrades. We should be able to put all the computers in a classroom that we want and have them connect quickly. It's a new school, right?

Wrong. In an old school, people expect things to break. You need new networking equipment to get that old high school up to snuff? Sure, of course, that makes sense. Let's get some volunteers out to start pulling new cable. Wait, you want to do the same thing at the new elementary school? We just built that place 12 years ago! Why are we having so many problems there?

It's all about perception. Two years ago, our "new" (12 years old) middle school hadn't seen a significant technology refresh since it was built. Not only had the teacher/tech there done a great job keeping things looking nice, but the school committee still remembered just how many hundreds of thousands of dollars had gone into "technology" (computers, servers, equipment, networking, etc.). It took a real shift to realize how quickly technology becomes obsolete.

No doubt, the network cabling in your school buildings can last a long time. Computers, if meticulously maintained (and if you're willing to deal with a slow Mac OS or a light Linux distribution) can eek out 5 or 6 years. However, it's our responsibility to help parents, administrators, and our school committees understand that buildings are made to last for 50-60 years, while computers are designed to last for 3 and networking equipment begins to hamper student access to resources within 5. It's all about the regular refreshes. The difficulty of selling this idea just happens to be inversely proportional to the age of the building.

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