As part of our 2008-09 School IT Survey, eSchool News and SchoolDude.com conducted a virtual focus group to learn more about the particular challenges of school IT support–and how district IT managers are coping with these challenges.

Participants were recruited from among respondents to our national survey, and they were chosen to reflect a variety of perspectives. They’re all district-level technology directors at public school systems or regional service centers. Here are the panel members:

• Douglas Casey, Capitol Region Education Council, Conn.;
• Jan Hartmann, Colstrip Public Schools, Mont.;
• Gary Kohl, Ladysmith-Hawkins School District, Wis.;
• David Oakes, Gallup McKinley County Schools, N.M.;
• David Palme, Portland Public Schools, Mich.;
• Charlie Reisiger, Penn Manor School District, Pa.;
• Vern Richardson, Animas Public Schools, N.M.; and
• David Silverstein, Miller School District, S.D.

The online panel discussion took advantage of EDRoom, a secure, private web space where district administrators, school-level educators, and others in the academic community can engage in deep discussions on any topic.

When EDRoom is used for research or journalistic purposes, it is modeled after a traditional focus group to generate group interaction. As with a traditional focus group, a moderator presented questions for discussion. A key advantage over a traditional focus group, however, is that the online conversation took place over the course of an entire week, and participants had flexibility as to when and where they logged on. Panel members took part in the discussion by reading and typing at a computer–without ever leaving their seats, and at times that were convenient to them.

What follows is an excerpt from the discussion.
 
Q:  Which IT-related issues are most important for your district to resolve to ensure its strategic success?

Gary:  In a K-12 environment, funding is always the first and last topic of discussion. It is a moving target in Wisconsin, because the budgets have to be set many months before the state tells us how much funding we will get. Even a small negative adjustment places a huge damper on future planning.  

Douglas:  This one is easy: Funding. Funding drives professional development, support, and strategic planning. Without adequate funding, we cannot afford the costs of training–both direct [and] indirect costs, such as getting substitute teachers and aligning training needs to district performance objectives. Support also takes a hit with reduced funding, given the likely reduction in force that we will see if we pass over a [certain] threshold. Strategic planning should produce results, and those results always demand human and capital resources, both of which take money.

Vern:  Funding IT is our biggest problem. As the technology coordinator of a very small district, I have one hour designated for tech work. We have a technology specialist who gets to do tech work about an hour a day, also. She has other duties such as e-Rate [coordinator], transportation coordinator, free and reduced lunch coordinator, and grant administrator. My [other] duties include high school math and computer tech teacher, coaching duties, and activities bus driver. … Strategic and long-term planning is made more difficult by not having clear and adequate funding for IT. We forge ahead, anyway.

David S.:  Wow, is there any school in which funding is not critical? We receive state funding by the number of students, and the local funding comes from property taxes. Unfortunately, we are in a rural area with a decreasing population, so our state funds decrease yearly and the property taxes are capped by state law. With decreasing budgets, prioritizing becomes the biggest item. Much of [our] technology budget goes for non-capital items, like salaries … which need to be increased. The purchase of hardware can come out of our capital outlay, which is a different fund and in this district is sufficient.

Charlie:  Funding is of critical importance to our district. In addition to the existing budget issues we all face, Pennsylvania school districts are also wrestling with sustainability issues surrounding the [state’s] Classrooms for the Future project. [This] project has provided millions of dollars to deploy laptops into high school core subject classrooms. Our district was granted about $600,000 for laptops. The award is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, we have received a huge infusion of equipment. On the other hand, our board is now faced with a $600,000 replacement/upgrade every few years to sustain the project after the grant money has dried up. Add to that the current freeze on new spending (due to the wounded economy) and we have the makings of a significant long-range equipment replacement problem.

Jan:  Strategic and long-term planning seems to be in a constant adjustment mode. Just when you think you have what you need, something else pops up. It is hard to know what will happen when technology is evolving at such a rapid rate.

David O.:  Even though technology has been used in classrooms for 25 to 30 years, teachers are still at various levels of comfort. Even recent university graduates do not have a strong skill set for using the technology effectively in the classroom. Constant availability of professional development, from large group training to one-on-one instruction, is needed throughout the school year. I have two staff members assigned to fill this need. I could use two or three more.

Charlie:  End-user support [also] remains a critical area of need. Tech staffing in our district … has simply not kept pace with new initiatives, projects, and hardware.

 

 

Q: Which IT-related issues have the potential to become much more significant in the coming year?

David O.:  As classroom applications move toward [being] web-based, the infrastructure necessary to support them must be at the top of every school district IT department’s list. Bandwidth must be available and manageable for effective and meaningful use of [IT] resources.

David S.:  The most significant factor [for us] in the future is professional development.  If staff members are not trained properly or are not enthusiastic about the use of technology in the classroom, it will fail. … Teaching 21st-century skills, especially cooperative and project-based learning, takes additional staff training if it is to be effective.

Vern:  End-user support is probably going to be the most significant issue facing us. With such limited time for tech work and with an ever-increasing quantity of technology installed, we just do not have adequate time to devote to all the problems that accompany these gains.

Gary:  Funding will always be the top issue, but all the funding in the world is useless if we are unable to train the staff or have enough flexibility in our long-range plans for the adoption of new tools and techniques for the classroom. Many (but not all) administrators will profess the need for technology integration and [staff] training, but are unwilling to try it themselves. The result is always the same: a totally unrealistic plan to "magically" instill wisdom and adoption of new ideas, methods, and technologies. If they are unwilling to try new software or learn how to use new technology, how can they even think about a plan to have others do it? Typically they … assume that if someone is shown how to do something in a one-hour staff development [session], that means [he or she is] totally trained and needs no more [instruction]. Try that in a classroom with students, and see how far it goes!

Charlie:  Gary is spot on: Real change is not accomplished in a one- (or three-) hour workshop. Professional development delivery must become fluid and ongoing. Barriers to this model are varied: budgets, calendars, union expectations, et cetera. However, until districts become serious about conducting proper professional development, they simply can’t expect reform initiatives (technology or otherwise) to succeed.

Jan:  Faculty professional development is always a difficult thing to get accomplished. Our teaching staff members have many demands on them, and finding the time and energy to stay after hours or preparing for a substitute is very hard. We are a rural school and [often] have trouble getting enough subs. … There is usually one teacher who learns the ins and outs of a [particular] software program. That teacher then becomes the mentor for other teaching staff.

 

Q:  Where is your IT department spending most of its staff time? If you could reprioritize staff time to focus on other areas, where would you have them spend the time?

Charlie:  This is an easy one–my team members spend about 70 percent of their work week on hardware or software desk-side support. This figure is derived from help-desk data. The balance of [their] time is spent proactively working on large-scale projects or with teachers on classrooms projects. Waving a magic wand would let me flip that ratio so my team is spending 70 percent or more time on classroom technology [integration] and innovative new projects that would create better internal efficiency.

Jan:  Most of my staff’s time is spent on end-user [or] workstation support. I would reprioritize my staff’s time to be used for training and working with [teachers] on projects using technology. … My staff members could teach a class and model how to use technology to enhance the learning process. At the same time [they] are teaching the class, [they] can teach troubleshooting to the teaching staff and students. In the long run, this could lessen the help-desk tickets.

 

Q:  What communication strategies have proven successful to ensure that your superintendent and other district leaders are informed about the potential strategic roles of technology, as well as your IT budget and staffing needs?

Charlie:  As a district administrator, I feel it is my role to actively inform and educate other district leaders (including the superintendent and school board) on the strategic and educational advantages of IT. This communication takes the form of regular school board briefings and presentations, discussions at cabinet meetings, presentations at administrative council meetings, mass eMails, letters in our district newsletter, blog postings, web-site updates, and just about any usual communication channel. … A little bit of up-front communication and education go a long way toward communicating the importance of IT–from both an operational and educational perspective.

Jan:  Our school district has embraced technology as an integral part of meeting the students’ curriculum needs. I have biweekly meetings with the superintendent. The technology committee meets on a bimonthly basis. With the No Child Left Behind requirements, technology is [seen as] a way to meet the needs of students–especially in a rural setting.

David P.:  Every few years, we update our district’s long-range technology plan. Traditionally, input has been limited–and access from the community even more so. This year, we tried something different: a wiki. I put our tech plan on the web at http://ppstechplan.wetpaint.com/?t=anon. The wiki [gives] anyone the ability to modify our tech plan. Of course, all input is subject to review before being written in permanently.

 

Q:  What approaches have proved successful to retain as much of your IT budget as possible? Is it possible to cut costs without affecting IT service and quality? If so, what strategies have proven effective?

Jan:  One way we have tried to meet [our] rural districts’ needs for support is for the area districts to share their [IT] experts to help each other out. We have created a co-op of school districts, and [we] try to address each others’ needs.

Douglas:  I would love to have a ratio of computers to support staff lower than 600 to 1, but that’s my reality and it won’t get better any time soon. So I need to look at building other resources, such as identifying those teachers on whom their peers rely because they know how to get things done. In most educational environments … there exist informal, secondary support personnel who just know how to solve problems as mundane as changing toner to slinging back-end application code to get their peers up and working. We are looking at providing rewards and stipends to these folks, who not only provide value through their capacity but also the unique perspective of educators. As much as we know technology, we IT specialists don’t know on a visceral level what teachers need, so drawing on educators to help each other … provides a great mix of functional and technical expertise.

Charlie:  Our general-fund operating budgets have been flat for a number of years. That said, we are increasingly tasked with more projects and needs than existing funding permits. In terms of cost cutting, [we] employ three primary cost-containment techniques: (1) Open-source software. Moving toward variants of OpenOffice alone [has resulted in] a considerable cost savings. We also utilize Linux where possible on the server side. (2) Minimal outsourcing. High-level work is performed in-house, [and] no consultants are required. Specifically, this includes network and programming work. We invest in our IT team staff, not expensive consultants. (3) Bidding and aggressive vendor negotiations. This is amplified by pursuing alternate vendors such as Allied Telesis over Cisco. (Actually, we love AT gear–[it’s] very stable, and much less costly than Cisco.)

Gary:  I wear the hats of technology coordinator, network engineer, long-range planner, hardware repair, software support, electrician, phone systems [support], fire alarm [support], … et cetera. This is a typical arrangement in the smaller K-12 districts. We have over 700 computers with 19 servers in three remote buildings. I have to stay very creative and work long days to keep our equipment in a usable state.

Nine years ago, 70 percent of our computers were aging Apples. At the time, each staff member was allowed to buy [his or her] own software titles and decide equipment needs. It was a disaster! It was a tough sell, but I was allowed to put policies in place that required all software purchases to have dual-platform capability. I also took the hardware purchasing away from staff and placed them in an advisory role. They had to show a need in their curriculum for the technology and a willingness to learn (and use) new things. The results have been fantastic. In 2001, only 11 staff members used eMail for anything. Today, all 190 staff members use it on a daily basis.

[Our] main approach to the ongoing budget crisis is to balance the technology wants of the students and teachers against the true educational value and usability of the items or software requested, and do as much in-house IT work as possible. Nine years ago, my school district of 1,200 students was spending over $160,000 a year on IT and subcontracted items (not including internet or phones). I am proud to say that I have been able to trim this to a yearly $55,000, with no loss of services or additional downtime on equipment. It has definitely not been easy; but … this allows the money to go where it really belongs–to the education of our students.

 

Q:  Are you currently using a Software as a Service (SaaS) provider? If so, for what applications? Has this proved helpful in reducing costs or saving on staff time?

Charlie:  Our district does not utilize SaaS to a great extent. We find that maintaining our applications in-house gives us greater control, expanded interoperability, increased security, and a significant cost saving over SaaS models.

Jan:  We currently have our PowerSchool and PowerTeacher [applications] hosted by Pearson. Other programs we are in the process of starting to use are OdyssyWare … and Apangea [Learning]. With the small number of students using these programs, it is cost-effective to have them hosted online. We do not need to have the hardware space available or use technology staffs’ valuable time.

David P.:  [We use an SaaS provider for our] reading, gradebook and attendance, [and] finance [applications]. … It is one less thing I need to worry about on the local machine. These programs can be updated at one time on one machine, [and] maintenance is the same; if it works for one, it works for all. System uptime is higher, allowing staff members to trust the technology more–[which means they] use it more. We believe these applications help the staff save time that can be devoted to more instruction.

Gary:  We do not use SaaS and probably will never do it. Our problem is reliability of the internet [and] data connections. Because of the rural area we are located in, the lines are very susceptible to damage from construction and wildlife. We had multiple outages last year [owing] to excavating errors, beavers, and other animal damage. The infrastructure is just not healthy enough yet. I also like the fact that we have better control of our data with an on-site system. It still makes me nervous that someone else has total control over your private, sensitive, and mission-critical data.

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