Meeting Tech's New Demands

Meeting Tech's New Demands

School districts are finally discovering the power of networks to help deliver relevant information

The academic lives of college students revolve around computer networks, with nearly every institution offering course descriptions and schedules online, class Web sites, student-teacher chat rooms, work and grades delivered via e-mail and more.

By comparison, K-12 schools are still practically technology-free zones. Oh they have some computers, an average of just more than two per "instructional room," according to U.S. Department of Education statistics for 2000. But many of these are concentrated in labs or classrooms used to teach computer skills, leaving regular classrooms with a couple of computers at the back of the room, literally and figuratively. Schools do have network infrastructures, thanks to E-rate government funding. However, those computers and networks have made little difference in the way schools operate or communicate.

"The effect of computing technology over the past 25 years on primary and secondary education has been zero," states a recent report written by three educators: Elliot Soloway, School of Information professor at the University of Michigan; Cathleen Norris, University of North Texas professor; and Terry Sullivan, University of North Texas research assistant.

"The good news has also been the bad news because government funding for IT for schools was all about stuff," observes Stephanie Hamilton, K-12 marketing manager for Apple Computer. "The money was there for hardware, but the funding didn't require any kind of planning for effective use. So many schools find themselves with an infrastructure but no good instructional plans for how to use it."

That is beginning to change, in large part because of external forces such as the No Child Left Behind legislation and other accountability pressures on schools to show measurable results. The government is not the only one demanding more from districts; parents who are used to accessing real-time data on their work computers from any location, want similar access to educational performance data about their children. Thus schools are confronting new requirements to collect, combine, compare and communicate information not only to government agencies, but also to student families and the general community.

Customizing Data

"Education is late to the data collection and distribution game, but we're making progress," says Jesse Rodriguez, Hewlett Packard consultant and former IT director for Tucson Unified School District. "Once any report would have to come from central office. You'd wait four weeks, only to discover the data wasn't organized in a manner useful to you and it was a month out of date. But more and more, individual schools and departments, as well as parents and the community, are able to access current information from many different locations in all sorts of customized formats."

To make this kind of dispersion and access available, information is being stored differently. Data that was once limited to a centralized administrative server is now being distributed and stored at many different sites, allowing information to be accessed and retrieved from a variety of locations, both within and outside the district. Network Attached Storage-a device plugged into the network that adds huge amounts of storage capability, with easy configuration and simultaneous multiple-platform accessibility-helps districts achieve distributed storage. "Wherever storage is needed-at a school, a district office, in the data center, in administrative offices, anywhere on your network there's a network connection-with this storage, anyone you want can access the data," says Michael Groft, Dell K-12 systems consultant. "And set-up is easy: Take it out of the box, plug it in, and you're up and running in less than five minutes."

These new demands require computer systems to be much more robust and reliable than in the past. They must be scalable because of the potential for thousands of new users entering the system to access the data, which now must be available on demand. "Before, if your school's Web site was down, it was an inconvenience, but really no big deal," Rodriguez says. "But now, when parents check to see if their child is in school today, or want to check on their child's performance and assignments, they want the data available based on their schedule, which might be nine or 10 at night. And they don't want to have to wait for it." Under these demands, no more can school districts get by with "Mickey Mouse" systems, says Rodriguez. "You can no longer get away with a server cannibalized from a bunch of spare parts."

Larry Nelson, K-12 global group manager for Sun Microsystems, points up the role the new expectations play in pushing schools toward providing Web access to distribute information and technologies. "Schools are getting taxed more and more in time and requirements for data reporting and access," he says. "But often they have legacy systems that they cannot replace as quickly or as often as they would like. By using the Web and Web services, they can keep their legacy systems while providing the broadly distributed data access that is increasingly demanded of them."

Up to Date in Georgia

One K-12 district that has made impressive IT strides is fast-growing Forsyth County (Ga.) Public Schools. Its system cost $16 million to start and includes a fiber optic network. Funded initially with $8 million from a district bond referendum, Forsyth's IT system receives additional millions every two years from a special purpose local sales tax. The district now spends about $600 per student annually in instructional and administrative technologies, including support personnel, according to Bailey Mitchell, director of technology services. "But we strongly believe that it is worth the investment."

Every classroom in the 19,000-student Forsyth County district has four or five desktop PCs, and every teacher has a personal laptop that can be hooked up to the classroom television for PowerPoint or other demonstrations. Up to 30 additional wireless laptops can be rolled into classrooms on their own "base module," giving students Internet access right at their desks. Every teacher has a telephone with voicemail. Teachers take attendance by clicking on photographs of their students arranged in neat rows on their computer monitors, and they can determine whether a missing student is absent or skipping class right on their laptop. Grades are electronically compiled, with report cards generated by computer. Teacher communications with parents are launched via e-mail with the click of a mouse.

Parents who were once stunned by the quarterly abysmal reports of their teenagers are now kept up-to-date daily, if they wish. Thanks to an online service called Parent Connect from NCS Pearson (www.ncspearson.com), parents can monitor their kids' schoolwork in real time, just as investors track the ups and downs of their stock portfolios. By logging onto a Web site launched last fall, parents can access a tally of their child's course grades, as well as updates about whether they have turned in homework or skipped class. Failing grades and discipline problems generate e-mail alerts to parents.

"It's probably the best tool that they've ever come up with," says Terry Threadgill, an insurance broker from Cumming, Ga. He brings home highlighted academic performance printouts to discuss with his children during dinner.

Mitchell says the district's enterprise system is one of the most advanced in the Atlanta area, which includes large corporations such as Delta Air Lines. "We have a fiber-optic-based OC-12 connection to every school, which means we can send the equivalent of an entire CD-Rom to each school every second," he says. "In a minute, we could send the equivalent of an entire library of information."

School-to-Home

Hundreds of schools nationwide are launching software programs that give parents access to everything from daily quiz grades to class project due dates. Some districts also aim to use such online programs to show they are following government mandates in education. For example, the Campbell County School District in Gillette, Wy., details on its parents site the state standards for student achievement in every course.

At first it seems that home-access systems work only for affluent families with well-educated parents, but Hamilton says that isn't so. "We're finding that 70 to 80 percent of all parents take advantage of our PowerSchool features, even those who are blue collar and have no computers at home," says Hamilton, a former high school teacher herself. "They can use computers at work or at the library. When it's important to them, they find ways to do it."

Bandwidth can be a problem, too, as it was for Plano (Texas) Independent School District. "The bandwidth wouldn't allow us to deliver multimedia curriculum to the desktop," explains Ramsey Milton, director of technical support services in the 51,000-student district, which had a T-1 frame relay network. But with $16 million in bond funds, Plano recently implemented a wireless system. "Bandwidth is no longer a problem," he says. "We now use a multimedia-based system that streams over 1,000 different audio and video titles, each sub-indexed, allowing you to drill down to the particular clip you want. With our current capabilities, any of these titles are available at any desktop in the district, which all connect to Web resources, too."

Plano has just begun its home-school connection program. Participants include those families who are buying broadband access through the school at a discounted rate. Teachers who have their own ISP connection can get remote access to their school desktop to access grades, software applications and other programs.

Heightened infrastructure demands translate into heightened demands on IT staff-both in numbers and capabilities. According to Milton, districts must make a commitment, not only to the levels of pay required to attract and retain IT professionals with the requisite skills, but also to the number of positions it takes to support the infrastructure of the district. "Not all school districts have made that commitment," he says.

Judith Harkham Semas, judithharkham@semas.com, is a contributing editor based in San Jose, Calif.


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