Now that the holiday feasts and gatherings of friends and family have receded, it's time to plan for the new year. K-12 schools and districts of every size face fresh challenges in 2002-both inside classrooms and out.
So this January, school IT directors and district chief technology officers have some thinking to do: What upgrades should they invest in for 2002?
With a nod to TV's Late Show with David Letterman, here are the "Top Ten Ideas for Technology Upgrades"-arranged in no particular order except for the last entry. Unlike Letterman's "Top Ten" lists, of course, this is serious stuff. Final decisions will depend upon what is already in place, future plans and budgets.
10 Extend Reach Wirelessly
Wireless networking continues to improve, benefiting schools especially. For example, Apple's newest AirPort Base Station, which will handle a mix of both Mac and Windows PCs, now supports up to 50 simultaneous users and features an integrated firewall. Its additional 10/100BASE-T Ethernet port is also welcome. Plus, AirPort 2.0 software, which ill upgrade original AirPort Cards (but not base stations), delivers 128-bit data encryption for professional-level security and even works with America Online (5.0 or above).
One option worth exploring is an iBook Wireless Mobile Lab (www.apple.com/education/cart/). This combines an AirPort Base Station with either 10 or 15 iBooks for students, an iBook for the teacher, a printer and wireless print server, plus software and Ethernet cable. Roll the self-contained cart into any classroom for an instant computer lab. It's simple, flexible and elegant.
9 Step Up Security
Safeguarding school data becomes increasingly critical as more information is collected. Hardware firewalls and anti-virus software should already be standard in schools, but are they up to date? Check for firmware upgrades for a firewall, router or hub and for new versions of anti-virus software. And download new virus definitions at least once per week. Last fall, Norton and Symantec issued new definitions almost daily trying to keep up with malicious worms and viruses.
Both Microsoft's and Apple's newest versions of their operating systems-Windows XP Professional and Mac OS X-feature very robust security tools. But bigger news awaits. Stung by numerous publicized security gaffs, Microsoft has finally reversed course. When their .Net Server family debuts early this year, all of the security layers will be locked down (not left open) by default. Meanwhile, investigate the new security options embedded within Mac OS X or Windows XP Pro to see what works best for your situation.
8 Enhance Network Capacity
Campus LANs can be easily swamped by success. If one needs to handle more users, then add to or beef up the servers. If it's voice and data over the same choked line, then upgrade to fiber-optic cable. But if it's mostly data overwhelming your network's capacity, consider network attached storage.
Basically big, fast hard disks, NAS servers only handle file storage and services. They work with any client device and are a fraction of the cost of a Windows NT server. The top-selling brand is Snap Servers, from Quantum Corp. (www.snapserver.com/solutions/). Sizes ranging from 40GB to 960GB, and prices from $500 to $15,000. Most can do backup duty too, as RAID devices. Snap Servers feature Web browser-based configuration, FTP access, and they can import NT security.
7 Upgrade (Certain) Computers
Rare as it is to suggest upgrading CPUs, motherboards and RAM, now is the time if ever there was one for schools. Intel and AMD keep duking it out, releasing ever-faster CPUs while also cutting prices on their notthe- latest models. In November, Intel's 2GHz Pentium 4 and AMD's Athlon 1900+ for desktops had reached rough parity. By my rule of thumb, if it triples the speed at a third of the cost of a new PC, it's worth going under the hood. This will surely void warranties, however, so be certain before beginning.
Adding RAM to computers may be the best value of all these days, plus it's easy. Prices for computer memory declined by almost two-thirds during 2001 and then stayed there-at $7 to $10 per hundred megabytes. For Apple system memory, that translates to some $30 to $40 for a 256MB module and even less for most Windows PC RAM.
It's also fortunate timing since both Windows XP and Mac OS X require a minimum of 128MB of RAM. School computers should have twice that much, at least, to be able to take on any project or program. These prices for RAM won't linger forever, so if it's practical, don't hesitate another week. Try www. pricewatch.com for the lowest prices.
6 Add Video Tools
Digital cameras, camcorders and Web cams really do have a role in K-12 classrooms. Consider the skills needed to shoot a music video, for example, or even to compose a decent photograph. Teachers have long used creative expression to draw out students' talents and enthusiasm. And this new set of tools is hugely popular among students.
Prices for Web cams and digital cameras are quite modest ($50 to $100 for Web-quality images), so any school can afford at least a couple of units. Higher-resolution cameras and digital camcorders best suit older students or adult staff. Purchase any of these, place them in teachers' hands, and watch the projects flow.
Microsoft and Apple understand the allure. Windows Media Player for XP, for example, plays back audio-video clips from CD, DVD, downloads or streaming from a Web site. For its part, Apple bundles iMovie2 and iTunes2 with its new computers (download for free at www.apple.com/macosx/). iMovie lets novices create digital videos with music, animations and transitions. iTunes handles music files-playing songs, burning audio CDs, creating play lists, and packing the new iPod. Finally, Mac OS X Version 10.1 adds iDVD 2, which authors and burns DVDs while you keep working.
5 Upgrade Software Selectively
Review the campus' collection of software to determine which applications need to be upgraded-and why. Many vendors offer a way to download and install updates right from the Web. Moreover, minor enhancements are often free.
Upgrading to Mac OS X Version 10.1 seems an obvious choice. It's stable, fast and boasts cool built-in functions. If their hardware can handle it, most IT managers in K-12 will want to upgrade at least the servers.
Deciding to move to Windows XP Professional, however, seems less clear, especially for Windows 2000 users. But two new functions-System Restore and Device Driver Rollback-will certainly appeal to campus IT staff. To inform deliberations, Microsoft Education's Web site (www.microsoft.com/education/) offers a comparison chart, lists of compatible education software, plus a downloadable Platform Decision Tool for school administrators.
Academic licensing policies should also be reviewed-and before July 31st if you're a Microsoft customer. That's the deadline to sign up for a Software Assurance option, entitling you to any new version of the product released during a set period. Microsoft has a trio of licensing plans for K-12 users: one is subscription based, two others use volume pricing. Under each, teachers and staff can legally put a second copy of a limited set of the applications on their home or portable computer for work purposes.
4 Align Software to Curriculum
Just as software drives hardware choices, so should curricula dictate software selections. Match both content and style to specific learning objectives by grade level or type of student. Next, and equally important, align teachers' in-service and other staff development to the instructional software and the curriculum it supports. Only then is the package complete.
3 Pick well-behaved programs
It managers save everyone a lot of headaches when they choose programs known to "play well" with each other instead of forcing a shotgun wedding.
Team up windows XP and office XP, for example, then add Encarta Class Server to manage and deliver. Or pair an iMac/iBook campus with Apple powerSchool for automated registration, reports and Web acces to student records by parents and school staff.
2 Improve Technical Support
Remote Assistance, built into Windows XP, seems perfectly matched to K-12's small support staffs. It allows a colleage to share contal of a remote machine to help fix technical problems. Indeed, this might be a good reason to upgrade the OS.
For a more actual "feet on the ground" feel, many schools turn to the resident experts: students, education vendor bigchalk, for example, sponcors generation YES, a trio of programs that train high school students how to support technology on campus maining the technical infrastructure, while Generation www.Y pairs students with teachers to develop technology-enriched curriculum.
And the number one "Top Ten Idea for Technology Upgrade" is:
1 Put More Computers in Classrooms
Teachers admit-and recent research confirms-the greater the number of computers in K-12 classrooms, the more often the get usued by students in acts of learning Period.
Terian Tyre, firstname.lastname@example.org, is special projects editor and freelance writer based in Oceanside, Calif.