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Core capacity: Going beyond required tech upgrades

How districts can prepare technology for Common Core assessments and beyond
The Oyster River Cooperative School District in Durham, N.H., recently upgraded to gigabit wired connectivity and replaced its legacy Wi-Fi with Aruba Networks. Above, Carolyn Eastman, assistant superintendent, meets with IT Director Joshua Olstad.
The Oyster River Cooperative School District in Durham, N.H., recently upgraded to gigabit wired connectivity and replaced its legacy Wi-Fi with Aruba Networks. Above, Carolyn Eastman, assistant superintendent, meets with IT Director Joshua Olstad.

Implementing technology upgrades required for Common Core assessments can be more opportunity than burden for districts seeking the most academic achievement from their IT spending.

The new assessments demand a certain amount of bandwidth and updated operating systems, but by upgrading Wi-Fi networks, hardware and software beyond what the online assessments require, experts say districts also can make substantial improvements to everyday instruction—which, in turn, could lead to higher achievement and test scores.

“There are a number of clever CIOs and technology directors out there saying, ‘this is a terrific opportunity, because I’ve wanted to upgrade devices for a long time and we just haven’t had the money,’ ” says Geoffrey Fletcher, deputy executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA). “ ‘Now, this is making our school district do what it should be doing anyway.’ ”

With field tests of the assessments beginning in February 2014, here are the key areas on which schools need to focus as they continue to beef up technology to conduct the exams and teach to the Common Core years into the future.

Speeding up networks

The first step districts should take is to test the capacity of their networks to determine if they can handle the assessments. At the same time, districts should try to forecast what they’ll need in the future to increase use of digital textbooks, online curriculums and other technology, Fletcher says.

Schools and districts should test networks at the busiest times of day. That’s because, during testing, other students and teachers will be using the network for everyday instruction; so will administrators conducting school business, Fletcher says.

“The load on the network is going to go up significantly as there’s more digital content being used, and that digital content is typically not just print, there’s video—and moving pictures take a lot of bandwidth,” Fletcher says.

The nonprofit EducationSuperHighway is among the organizations and services districts can tap to test bandwidth.

Fletcher and most other experts agree that districts should go beyond the minimum bandwidth requirements set by the two testing consortia, Smarter Balanced and PARCC.

School leaders also have to test how Wi-Fi networks work within the building. Depending on where network hubs are located, signals may not be as strong in all classrooms. Boosting wireless capacity should be considered “as mission critical as all other aspects of infrastructure,” according to Jeff Mao, learning technology policy director for Maine’s Department of Education.

Schools also should make sure students can connect from everywhere on campus. “It is not uncommon to see students in Maine schools gathered in every nook and cranny of a school working on projects, debating ideas or recording something for a publication,” Mao says.

Finally, districts also should strengthen or create data connections between all school buildings and administrative offices to more quickly transfer the critical data that will be generated by the Common Core and the assessments, Mao says.

Updating devices and OS

The testing consortia have been collecting information on, among other things, the operating systems that schools are using. A troubling piece of data is that about 50 percent of the schools that have reported in are using Windows XP, which will not be supported by Microsoft after April 2014.

That means Microsoft will no longer release software patches, security updates or other upgrades, leaving computers running XP less secure. And, as other programs and applications are updated, they will cease to be compatible with XP.

Smarter Balanced, for instance, will allow Windows XP through the 2015-16 school year, but doesn’t recommend its use after April.

Schools, therefore, will have to abandon some older systems and upgrade to at least Windows 7. And more advanced operating systems will require more powerful machines—not all PCs can run Windows 7.

As for mobile devices, the tests will require iPad2s running iOS6 or higher and Androids running at least 4.0+. Costs for upgrades can vary widely—while a district has to buy licenses to run Windows 7, Apple’s mobile operating systems can be downloaded free once a device is purchased.

Further specifications for software and hardware are available from PARCC and SmarterBalanced.

Still, Mao and Fletcher say schools should be making these upgrades, regardless of the testing requirements.

“It is important to consider the cost of supporting (legacy) systems as compared to investing in new equipment and software,” Mao says. “Support costs increase as technology systems age, just like old cars. At some point, you may be investing too much time, effort and money into a legacy system.”

Schools need to make long-term plans for upgrading hardware and software. Many businesses operate on a three- to five-year upgrade cycle while some districts replace technology every five years, Fletcher says.

“They should have that cycle in place and if they haven’t done one, they really ought to do one quickly—and it should be part of the regular budget,” Fletcher says.

Training for new tech

Districts also will have to ensure that students, teachers and administrators are comfortable using the assessment system and the upgraded technology that will come with it. If students can’t navigate the web, their test performance will likely suffer, Fletcher says.

This will require teachers to make significant adjustments in the classroom. Teachers can no longer lecture for most of a class and relegate computer instruction to letting students play games for the last few minutes of class, Fletcher says.

Teachers must spend more time online with students. For example, the Common Core standards and the assessments will require much deeper computer and web skills, such as searching for information and then writing comparisons on the computer.

“The most important thing is to ensure students and teachers are comfortable using the technology as part of everyday instruction,” Fletcher says. “Because that’s what the assessments are really about—they’re intended to mirror the kind of instruction that’s important to help students fully understand the depth of the Common Core.”

Schools can accomplish this shift in teaching without significant investment, and without requiring teachers to become technology experts. For instance, teachers don’t have to know how to make a podcast, but they should know they can do a Google search to find tutorials on making a podcast, Mao says.

“Simply knowing that having students create a podcast or movie will enhance and improve their learning is enough,” Mao says. “The teacher isn’t being asked to create the podcast, the student is. Students have more time, and together they will figure out how to use the technology.”

Finding funds for upgrades

States and districts are looking to a range of alternatives to fund technology upgrades, whether it’s bandwidth, devices or digital content. Federal eRate funding can help pay for increased bandwidth. Meanwhile, some district leaders are going to voters to approve bond issues while other school systems are finding state funding support to upgrade technology.

Districts also can band together to purchase services or hardware in bulk, and therefore reduce costs, Mao says.

Indiana, and some other states, have changed laws to make technology an instructional expense, rather than a separate or special budget item. This has allowed Indiana districts to use textbook funds to purchase digital textbooks, Fletcher says.

“Then Indiana took the next step and said to school districts, you can use textbook money to purchase the technology to run that digital content,” Fletcher says.

That means a district can buy tablets with money that, in the past, would have paid for new textbooks.

“Every state’s reality is different, and has its own set of unique idiosyncrasies,” Mao says, “but what we have in common is a growing understanding and recognition that devices, digital content and broadband are not technology-related expenses, but instructional expenses. “In the world of budgeting, schools need to see that reality, and begin to examine how different funding streams may be applied.”

Matt Zalaznick is senior associate editor.