Establishing a Strong Technology Infrastructure
Keeping a school district’s technology infrastructure up and running is a complex and costly task, but it impacts virtually all day-to-day functions of students and staff.
Mark Gura and Bernard Percy
UNLIKE THE ANNUAL MOTION PICTURE industry awards, there is no educational technology Oscar for best supporting role. Though a district's technology infrastructure supports and enhances education, it gets no curtain calls and is often upstaged by one-to-one notebook PC initiatives, student robotics programs and other technology stars. Yet, the show simply cannot go on without a well-maintained, up-to-date technology infrastructure.
Education decision-makers need to understand the important role the technology infrastructure plays in teaching and learning, but this is a complex and confusing subject, especially for people who are not technologists.
Infrastructure involves a dizzying array of options: a large number of computers connected by a network, servers loaded with various multiuser software applications, and expanses of cabling, as well as traffic-directing hardware elements such as hubs, switches and bridges. In addition, there are Internet service provider (ISP) connections and wireless technologies.
To better understand the current state of school technology infrastructure, we interviewed two professionals: Mike Hall, deputy superintendent of information technology at the Georgia Department of Education, and Barbara Grohe, superintendent of the Kent School District in Kent, Wash.
Ed Tech: How well understood are the issues concerning basic technology infrastructure?
Hall: Infrastructure issues come in many varieties, and they are often misunderstood. One common challenge in establishing a technology infrastructure is the lack of appropriate strategic planning and a reactionary implementation.
Unfortunately, many districts cannot hire a network architect and don't have the funding to implement an end-to-end solution. This leads to a fragmented process that results in equipment incompatibility and poor performance. Many laypeople think that once the basic infrastructure is in place, it will be there forever. As a result, support, refresh and usage are not given the consideration they deserve.
Grohe: The issues are rarely understood by users, who believe that if the system is running, the problem has been resolved. Those who understand the critical nature of updating and upgrading technology are stunned by the cost implications. Unfortunately, the more aggressive you are in the initial implementation of technology, the greater the burden you create for upgrades and replacement.
Ed Tech: When technology and its impact aren't clearly understood, a funding gap often results. This problem is partly due to the expectation of administrators that funding technology is the same as funding other resources, but that is often not the case. What problems develop from this lack of understanding?
Hall: School systems are notorious for doing one-time projects. A school system will get a windfall and put in a basic infrastructure, but then it won't fund the support, refresh and training needed for this infrastructure to be maximized.
Grohe: These expenditures are generally quite large and have a limited constituency of support. The fact that schools usually have lengthy periods of time before they replace buildings, buses and textbooks makes the relatively short time span for technology upgrades seem generous. The tech upgrades must then compete in the budget with other programs' needs and replacement cycles.
Ed Tech: Does replacing this basic infrastructure conflict with funding other technology-based programs and services?
Grohe: Striking a balance among replacement, maintenance and innovation is an additional challenge to the balance needed between instruction and infrastructure. The tech department's ability to plan systematically over the long run for all these areas is critical to getting these budgets approved.
Hall: There is no glitz in funding infrastructure. Because technology is normally not a line-item expense, leaders often are forced to make choices, and they sometimes make inappropriate choices by choosing programs that are marketed as the “silver bullet” and yet won't run on the outdated infrastructure.
Ed Tech: What types of applications could districts use if they were to upgrade? Which applications that would help the district carry out its core business more effectively are not possible because of technology inadequacies?
Hall: Let's take look at function. Administrators and teachers need data to improve instruction. To do this, the infrastructure has to be fast and reliable and provide the type of flexibility seen in a data warehouse that will allow raw data to be cleaned and redistributed in a useful way. The infrastructure also has to have the bandwidth to deliver rich content, including voice capabilities, and it should provide mobility, filtering, security and scalability to allow for increased usage by all stakeholders.
The large majority of districts across the country don't know what they are missing or what it's like to offer one-to-one opportunities (and do away with textbooks) or provide usable data to all decision-makers in real time.
Grohe: When IT infrastructure issues negatively impact the ability to proceed on important curriculum and instructional alignment measures, the loss is significant. Marked improvement in achievement becomes less likely. Technology is then seen as having little or no instructional impact—and the ability to generate support for additional expenditures becomes even more difficult.
The following section discusses some of the programs and applications for which districts must provide an up-to-date technology infrastructure. School management generally understands technology's potential to streamline managerial functions.
However, they may not understand how these technologies can be applied to the core business of school districts—teaching and learning. To take full advantage of the opportunities mentioned below, schools must have an adequate technology infrastructure.
Managing information: Today’s data-driven instruction movement has pushed educational technology beyond its former preoccupations with motivation and enrichment. Instructional experts now understand that the success of teaching basic literacy and mathematics depends on the collection, analysis and informed use of robust bodies of data.
Securing data: Keeping test scores and other performance and personal records as digital files offers tremendous advantages: ease of retrieval, speed of information transfer, saving of crucial space and security of records.
Enhancing teaching and learning: Technology and the Web offer access to greater quantities of richer and more varied content than what's available in a hard-copy environment.
Facilitating and transforming communication: Systems that use e-mail as a central function can overcome classroom isolation. Portal solutions, like Web-based intranets, offer related and seamlessly integrated functions including secure e-mail, Web publishing, electronic list servers and threaded discussions.
Offering professional development: When administrators think about PD and technology, they usually focus on PD in technology use and integration. However, technology also can be used to better deliver and manage PD in literacy, math and other subject areas.
Even when PD content and trainers are available, teachers frequently are not able to attend sessions because they are busy teaching. Today, helpful technologies such as Webinars, asynchronous courseware and online tutorials allow teachers to take PD whenever they have time.
Redefining the instructional environment: Ubiquitous computing will enable students to take advantage of the security and robustness of their school network, which offers fluid movement among individual desktop machines, handheld devices and group activities centered on LCD-projected images.
Tech infrastructure and No Child Left Behind: The white paper Closing the Equity Gap: Addressing NCLB Compliance with Access Infrastructure Software by Eduventures points out that the challenge of NCLB can be met in large part by updating technology infrastructure.
One vexing dilemma facing school district superintendents and their cabinets is that they must make important decisions regarding the use of technology and acquire equipment to support that use without having the level of expertise required for informed decision-making and visionary planning. The technology staff, on whom they depend for insight, often has extensive knowledge of technology without experience in instruction. The gap formed by these reciprocal knowledge shortfalls is where districts often go astray.
As technology applications become mission-critical resources for running school systems and for supporting teaching, the foundation on which they rest—the basic technology infrastructure—must be understood, planned and kept current.
Following are helpful resources that provide a more thorough understanding of the issues involved in technology integration:
• Closing the Equity Gap: Addressing NCLB Compliance with Access Infrastructure Software (Eduventures white paper)
• Impact of Clicks on Bricks: VET Facilities Planning in an Information Age, Final Report (by JL Whitaker Associates, published by New South Wales Department of Education and Training)
• “NetDay Cyber Security Kit for Schools”
• “Online Education: Putting the Pieces Together” (District Administration article by Odvard Egil Dyrli)
• “Electronic Assessment” (Learning & Leading with Technology article by Ken Cardwell)
• An Educator's Guide to Evaluating The Use of Technology in Schools and Classrooms (U.S. Department of Education)
A former director of the Office of Instructional Technology of the New York City Board of Education, Mark Gura currently works with Fordham University's Regional Educational Technology Center. Bernard Percy is the former editor in chief of Converge Magazine and the author, with Gura, of Recapturing Technology for Education: Keeping Tomorrow in Today's Classrooms.