All the teachers in Cheltenham Township School District were clamoring for new desktop PCs, convinced that it was old, slow processors making their classroom computing crawl. But Gary Bixby, director of support services and facilities management, knew that new machines wouldn't solve their problems.
The situation began several years ago as the 4,700-student district in Pennsylvania did what a lot of other school districts have done as they continued to embraced educational technology: they added applications and functionality every year.
Cheltenham added LetterGrade, an attendance and homework application that allows parents to log into the school network; they added new computer labs that hogged bandwidth; they added MapNet to coordinate student transportation; teachers used distance learning sites to enhance curriculum; and they began to really look at their student performance data down to the teacher level.
"With the onset of NCLB we saw additional obligations for examination of data in real time and for engaging parents in the educational process," says Cheltenham Superintendent Christopher W. McGinley.
But all these additions slowed the district's network to a crawl. There were daily complaints from teachers about wait times in the classroom.
"We found that the demands we had placed on the system led to very slow data transmission," McGinley says. "It was time to look at the data transmission issue in the broader approach to communications."
Or, as Bixby puts it, "We were at 64 percent capacity on our network at 8 p.m. on a Thursday night. It was a pretty clear indicator we were in trouble."
Does this sound familiar?
So much of the focus of educational technology today seems to be on applications and devices--from online formative assessments to principals toting PDAs tied to the student information system to allowing parents to log in to the school network to check homework. Add to these the NCLB demands for collecting, analyzing and formatting student performance data and, like Cheltenham, you've got a sure recipe for network overload.
One network technology consultant, a former Chicago area K-12 superintendent, divides the districts he works with into two distinct camps.
"Where I draw the differentiation among the schools we're working with is those who are just looking to report the assessment information they have to the state and feds, and those who really want to use the information in real time for data-based decisions at the teacher's desktop," says Terry Tamblyn, vice president of educational services at Bridger.
In Cheltenham, McGinley gave the directive that he wanted to take a "big step, rather than a small step" in upgrading their network.
The resulting upgrade, about one-third complete, is an Internet Protocol telephony network that runs over fiber optic lines that had been run to the district's buildings roughly five years earlier but never used.
"On the T1 lines we were really restrained to a maximum of 784k, when we went to fiber we were guaranteed a minimum 10 MBs," says Bixby.
"From my perspective, it stopped the teachers from complaining," says McGinley.
Now that they had a fiber connecting the schools, they also had a high enough quality of service to carry voice traffic over their network. Inside the schools, project vendor Alcatel installed new IP telephone switches and IP phones on every teacher's desktop. The phones offer some 500 features, chief among them are those that enhance security in the district. Now McGinley can instantly broadcast messages to classroom computers using any distribution list he's created, either sending instant messages to their desktop PCs or recording a voice message that goes out to each phone.
This means McGinely can set up a command center anywhere, and soon will be able to reach every employee in the district in case of an emergency. The network also allows members of the school's emergency response team, including police and fire officials, the same ability to broadcast messages via the phone or computer network.
"Cheltenham is a very interesting example of the network aspect because they are providing a single set of features across the whole district," says Chris Vuillaume, a vice president of marketing for Alcatel. "That's one of the values of IP, providing a common foundation for every single school."
Much of what's new in K-12 networks revolves around convergence, the idea that instead of having a telephone network, computer network, PA system, video security network and wireless network, the load from all of those can be handled by a single robust network.
"From a wiring perspective and a management perspective, management of older systems can be very costly," says Phylis Hawkins, education solutions manager at Cisco Systems. "What we're seeing is schools moving toward consolidation of multiple networks on a single infrastructure, and IP facilitates that."
Convergence at Cheltenham allowed the district to get rid of the costs associated with 100 centrex lines, money that was reinvested in putting IP phones on every teacher desktop.
Cisco Systems calls the Fairfax County, Virg., schools shining stars in the converging K-12 network world. It's easy to see why. Fairfax has loaded its wireless IP network with its data traffic, voice traffic, broadcast video, video conferencing and on-demand video services that are controlled centrally.
"Fairfax is a strong believer of wireless technology," says Hawkins. "These functions that have been converged onto IP are now available across the district wirelessly--voice, video and data. For students and staff this provides access to resources from anywhere. For example, video is available to the student's wireless device, no tapes, no DVDs or televisions."
From an NCLB perspective, Fairfax County conducted 40,000 summative assessments online last year, in compliance with Virginia's requirement that all statewide tests be done online. This is an operational challenge that demands the highest levels of network availability and bandwidth.
"This is our third year doing online testing," says Maribeth Luftglass, assistant superintendent and CIO for information technologies for Fairfax County Public Schools. "We have not had any issues, we credit that a lot to the quality of our network."
That quality network stretches across 242 sites, 81,000 computers and 165,000 students. It includes high-speed connectivity at all sites, as well as a virtual private network that allows employees to use decision support systems and testing systems from home. And they're not the only ones logging in from home--Fairfax County has 189,000 students, parents and teachers registered on its Blackboard system.
"Kids can submit papers and homework through digital drop boxes, we also use Blackboard to teach online courses, which can be bandwidth intensive," Luftglass says.
And though it's been functioning on a high-speed ATM network for years, all these applications and users pushed Fairfax County to upgrade again. This summer the district will go to a transparent LAN service network, or TLS, which means a service provider interconnects school's LANs in such a way that they appear to be interconnected by a LAN segment, says Hawkins.
"Students and staff that are geographically separated can then communicate with one another and access remote servers as easily as if all the students, staff and servers were located in the same building," she adds. "This type of service helps to alleviate the complexity of managing a WAN."
This upgrade, which will allow Fairfax to continue to use its existing Cisco switches, demonstrates the other big buzzword in networking these days: leverage.
"Migrating from ATM to TLS will save us about 40 percent of our annual telecom network costs, plus preserve our investment in Cisco gear," Luftglass says, estimating that the district's telecom costs will drop from about $8 million to somewhere in the $4.5 million range.
Leverage is also a major networking theme in Fresno, Calif., where Alan Autry is mayor and some elementary schools in the 80,000-student district have a 70 percent mobility rate each year. The district has also installed a VoIP network, but has found that it needs separate T1 lines for voice and data in each school. Before, data and phone transmissions were carried on factional T1s.
"What we were finding is that the data demands were becoming where the bottleneck was," says John D. Forbes, district coordinator for technology in Fresno.
At the heart of those data demands is PowerSchool, the student information system accessible from any teacher desktop that is also connected to student test data.
"PowerSchool really has brought real-time information to teachers," Forbes says. "As soon as a student is scheduled in a class, what comes with that is data--from last year's test scores to where they are with English language development. Before, the teacher didn't have any of that information unless they walked to the office and looked for that infamous file that floats around the district."
The other component of that, related to NCLB, is that Fresno wants to see individualized data from its classrooms.
"Forty of our schools are in the bottom 10 percent when you compare them with other like schools, and we're not proud of that," he says. "But we need to get data from the classroom, from all 100 school sites, and see who's doing anything that works."
Another major technology issue that districts face, which can now be solved with advanced networks, is compatibility. There's the big picture dilemma of whether major applications will work together, but also the micro-picture of whether every computer in the district is running a compatible version of software.
"Many of these great applications are browser driven, and across the district in 23 schools you might have four different browsers and four different versions of each that aren't compatible. We've seen that become a real issue," says Tamblyn.
Fairfax County hopes to tackle this issue with the implementation of Microsoft System Management Server, which will allow IT administrators to take an inventory of programs on any individual computer remotely, and handle upgrades and other technical support.
Going entirely wireless is great, if the network you create is solid enough to support your user base. Fairfax County is a good example of this. There are 7,500 wireless access points throughout the district, allowing teachers to easily use a cafeteria and laptops to administer formative assessments without commandeering fixed computer labs that are used for regular classes.
"Teachers all have wireless laptops, so they don't have to be connected via a cable to do research or work on practice tests," Luftglass says, noting that her district spent most of a recent $20 million bond issue on upgrading the fixed and wireless network infrastructure.
But in other places, wireless implementations have not lived up to requirements.
"We found ourselves relying less on wireless for mission-critical applications," says Forbes, in Fresno. "It was simply the reliability of the network."
Issues like these arise when districts have unrealistic expectations about wireless networks, experts say. No wires doesn't mean no hassle.
"As a rule of thumb a [wireless] access point is about as difficult to manage as an IP switch," says Thomas Ohlson, director of marketing at Roving Planet, a Colorado-based consultancy that specializes in the management of wireless networks. "You have the upfront cost of installing a wireless LAN, and the ongoing costs over a year can meet or exceed 100 percent of that upfront cost."
Firefighting, or Strategic Planning?
The bottom line with network upgrades is always the budget. Whether your district is chasing a bond referendum or E-rate funding, the temptation is always to implement piecemeal solutions. But tech consultants warn against this approach, urging solutions that embrace convergence, leverage and scalability.
"The cost often becomes a cyclical issue because the main issue is not addressed and instead school districts end up fire fighting the symptoms instead of the problem," says Kathy Thomas, manager of education strategy at Dell. "Utilizing resources most efficiently is a challenge but school districts need to look toward solutions that offer standardization and employ scalable solutions that allow them to maximize the resources available. This can all contribute to lowering the total cost of ownership."
Rebecca Sausner is a contributing editor.