Under pressure to keep spending down but also keep pace with rapid technology changes, many districts are future-proofing their schools—trying to get the most out of their tech spending by providing solutions they will be able to use now and in the future without major, expensive infrastructure overhauls.
"Anything we do, we try to make sure we're not dead-ending," says Paul Gust, district technology director in the Saugatuck (Mich.) Public Schools, which is using the latest advances in interactive whiteboards. We don't want to jump into something without being sure it has a viable future."
In the Folsom Cordova (Calif.) Unified School District, it's called "future focus," says Chief Technology Officer Joe Jenkins. "It's not so much a hardware-specific mentality; it's trying to make the technology more flexible and utilize wireless infrastructures," he says.
A future-proof facility is "the escort to a probable future," adds Frank Locker, president of Frank Locker Educational Planning, a consulting firm in Dover, N.H. He defines it as "inherently a flexible building that can be used as appropriate today but allows future reinterpretation and reassignment of programs and functions," anticipating and supporting change without expensive remodeling.
The idea is growing in popularity across the nation. Implementing and maintaining the right technology infrastructure is not a technical issue but a "strategic issue that requires thought and leadership," Peggy Munkittrick, senior director of product strategy for Schoolwires, wrote in a white paper, " e K-12 Unified Technology Model for Creating a Technology Framework in Support of Strategic Initiatives," which Schoolwires released in July 2010. As districts develop their technology plans, she continued, "it is essential to consider how their technology infrastructure can more effectively leverage the Web 2.0 technologies."
Wireless is dominant in schools today, so running cables everywhere is no longer imperative, says Robbie Ferris, president and CEO of FirstFloor K-12 Solutions and of SFL+a Architects in Raleigh, N.C. e main challenge, he says, is to provide enough outlets so students can recharge their laptops. But with PDAs, iPhones, and some laptops with batteries that last up to 10 hours, "technology can get to the point where we won't even need all those outlets, because students can plug in when they get home," Ferris says.
Ted Finch, a technology analyst with FutureProof, a sustainability consulting firm, points out that, increasingly, many students are using their own laptops at school, rather than desktop PCs in the school building. "To future-proof schools to cope with this trend, it is becoming less important to wire classrooms for Ethernet and more important to set up a strong wireless network across the campus" to accommodate the increasing number of laptops, he says. To future-proof such a wireless network, he adds, "assume one laptop per child, in every classroom, library, common space in the school, then ensure that the wireless network can handle that many laptops at once, and with enough bandwidth for every student to access streaming media concurrently, all with a strong signal throughout the school and possibly extending outdoors in some areas."
But some districts, like the Cumberland County (N.C.) Schools, are still using wires. "Everything is still hard-wired," reports Tim Kinlaw, associate superintendent of the district. Accordingly, classroom plugs for students' laptops are part of a new sustainable building design prototype for K12 facilities that Ferris at FirstFloor K-12 Solutions has introduced in the New Century International Elementary School, which opened this fall. Even with its wiring, other features of the building, including a ground-source geothermal system that provides cooling and heating, and solar photovoltaic power systems with windows designed to maximize light from the outside, promise to significantly reduce costs now and in the future, and require little change in infrastructure. Kinlaw says the new school is projected to use about 50 percent less energy than another elementary school in the district, producing annual savings of $60,000 while also serving as an environmental teaching tool for other schools and their students. "If you really want to future-proof a school, you have to design it to the greatest extent possible to impact student performance and reduce energy consumption in a big way," says Ferris. The New Century school uses "a sustainable, state-of-the-art and cost-effective" design, he says.
Other technologies are helping districts improve infrastructure efficiencies and reduce costs in functions like communication and alerts. e Northeast Metro 916 (Minn.) Intermediate School District has adopted Honeywell Instant Alert, a Web-based emergency notification system, to quickly notify parents and staff members of situations ranging from school bus accidents to school closings because of weather. Instead of using telephone calling trees, the district reaches its audiences with voice, text and e-mail messages delivered through telephones, cell phones, PDAs, pagers, computers and fax machines.
Faced with a tight operating budget, school administrators also use a file attachment feature to deliver nonemergency information to parents, such as reminders of meetings, that previously were mailed or delivered by students. "We used to send out a Thursday folder with lots of papers that students would take home in their backpacks," says Kristine Carr, the Northeast Metro district's director of administrative service. With the file attachment, Carr says schools have cut printing, paper consumption and mailing costs, although she cannot provide actual savings figures. As more districts invest in the latest advances in virtualization, some are finding they can lower costs with zero clients instead of thin clients. Thirty-five zero-client stations in the Westerly (R.I.) Public Schools are predicted to save the district nearly $160,000 over a three-year period. Unlike thin clients, zero clients, small silver portals the size of a Big Mac box, have no internal processing, reducing maintenance and service costs usually associated with individual PCs. Zero clients are like "a portal between the user and the keyboard," recording key strokes back to a virtual machine running securely in the district's data center, explains Mark Lamson, Westerly Public Schools' director of technology.
Smartboards and projectors are among other technologies that have changed. "Interactive smartboards are standard now," says Ferris, and "projectors have gotten so advanced, you can mount them right on the wall. Just three years ago, we would hang the projector from the ceiling and shoot it on the wall. Now you can mount some of them just six inches from the wall and they still project the image." e Vallejo City (Calif.) Unified School District had purchased interactive board systems in the past, but they were expensive. Roy Li, the district's director of technology, searched for alternatives that might fit better in terms of functionality, cost and the "future vision of the product."
He found what he was looking for in the eBeam Edge for Education, an interactive whiteboard solution from Luidia, and the district bought 250 units. Each receiver unit, about the size of a board eraser and lighter than a box of chalk, takes minutes to install either with integrated receiver magnets that make attaching it to a metallic board a snap, or with a stainless steel mounting plate for attaching it to nonmagnetic surfaces. The portable unit activates an image area up to 9 feet by 5 feet and is compatible with standard projectors and both Windows and Macintosh computers.
Gust, of the Saugatuck Public Schools, and other administrators also see a viable, cost-effective future in eBeam, citing its retrofittable design that allows schools to use existing whiteboards and surfaces, streamlined installation, the ease of moving the units from one classroom to another, and attractive cost, which allows districts to outfit many teachers and classrooms with interactive technology. Brookfield (Conn.) Public Schools is using similar interactive whiteboards from Mimio. "I was impressed by the portability, and there's almost no installation," says Tracy Tishion, K12 technology resources specialist for the district. "We can easily upgrade to new products and won't have to go out and buy a whole new package."
In the Cloud
Some districts are adopting cloud-computing solutions to reduce future infrastructure needs and costs while providing new instructional capabilities. Li, in Vallejo City, says he is partnering with Google on a cloud project to allow teachers to set up virtual classrooms.
The New York City Department of Education estimates it will save up to $5 million annually on e-mail infrastructure through a cloud solution it is receiving from ePals SchoolMail that integrates technologies from Microsoft Live@edu, a no-cost platform accessible through popular Web browsers for Windows, Mac and Linux operating systems. Under the arrangement, announced last July, the district will not have to maintain software or hardware for the system, which will be available to the city's 2 million students and parents. ePals won the competitively bid project to provide SchoolMail to New York for five years beginning with the 2010-2011 school year at no cost and without advertising of any kind to students.
The move to the cloud is consistent with the district's strategy to "take advantage of the technology out there and not be left behind," says Bruce Lai, chief of staff in the office of the chief information officer in the New York City DOE. "What cloud computing promises is that instead of having your own data center and putting in a bunch of hardware, you can take advantage of the Googles and Microsofts of the world. They run their own data centers much more efficiently and cheaply than we can."
As cloud computing grows in popularity, the education division of the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA) has established a working group to explore what it means for school districts.
Karen Billings, vice president of the education division, says the group is just beginning its discussions. It will consider the instructional implications of cloud computing—"what it means in terms of empowering teachers to operate with more up-to-date information and instructional settings and whether it's a way to engage learners," Billings says.
Even as more district leaders begin future-proofing their schools, Locker, of Frank Locker Educational Planning, says he doesn't feel the concept has moved into the "general culture." Most districts, he says, are "highly focused on current practices and meeting current trends. Even some pretty sophisticated districts are running with some pretty outdated technology infrastructure and hardware. So we have a lot of catching up to do."