High creeks, prickly pear cacti, and dry live oaks dot the central Texas land around the Round Rock Independent School District. Diverse, sprawling and growing rapidly, the district comprises 48 campuses across 110 square miles. Administrators credit a business-inspired, total-cost-of-ownership, technology standardization program with their ability to keep pace with student needs.
"Standardization means using one or two vendors and sticking to the same manufacturers and brands as much as possible," says Ed Zaiontz, executive director of information services. "It's been key to maintaining a quick turnaround in our 5,000-to-one computer-technician ratio."
As with many districts, RRISD acquired technology piecemeal in the early years, so when Zaiontz arrived in 1983, he found a mixture of Apple, IBM, Tandy Radio Shack and others. Standardization began when Zaiontz limited purchasing to Apple and IBM computers, and then 12 years later further limited purchasing to Dell PC s. The decision was more about security than quality. "Apple was struggling financially back then, and we were reluctant to invest in case they went out of business. On the other hand, there were plenty of PC companies to use as backups in case our vendor folded."
The policy has both streamlined processes and saved money. Dell-certified staff technicians can get parts easily and fix computers quickly, and a high-service level agreement allows the district to be reimbursed for home-done fixes.
An organized tech-support system guarantees a four-hour turnaround — impressive in a district with 20,000 computers computers. Site-based campus support specialists are the first responders, troubleshooting and sending unsolved problems to district-level technicians. "If I had to support several brands, I'd need to hire more tech people or take a lot longer to get things repaired," says Zaiontz.
Staff also benefit from standardization. Mary Jo Humphreys, director of instructional technology, says it facilitates sharing of training and curriculum materials.
"When our site technology specialists can craft one comprehensive can craft one comprehensive set of training materials for all 5,000-plus educators, it maximizes our resources." Standardizing electronic whiteboards, personal response systems, document cameras and other technologies remains a district goal.
Standardizing is not without its challenges; both Zaiontz and Humphreys report an ongoing need for conversations with staff. "New administrators may question why they have to buy a certain PC when they can go to Best Buy and get a different one for much less. Then I explain about lifetime parts guarantees, durability, on-site repair and other considerations," says Zaiontz.
The ever-evolving nature of technology in itself makes it hard to keep up, says Humphreys. For instance, the district recently upgraded from Samsung 850 document cameras to 860s, which have different issues and capabilities and require new training documents.
Dovetailing with District Goals
In Humphrey's ideal world, all technology and software would be interchangeable, and site licenses for upgrades would include entire districts, but for now, standardization offers the most benefits.
Superintendent Jesus Chavez appreciates the bottom-line savings of standardization but also how it empowers staff to train one another. "We are a district that believes in collaboration," he says, "and the standardizing of software and equipment helps fulfill our mission by facilitating educators working together."
Susan McLester is a freelance writer based in Berkeley, Calif.