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Keeping Track of Technology

The latest IT asset management programs can do more than just inventory.

In 2005, Cynthia Shieh, chief financial officer of the Los Gatos (Calif.) Union School District, noticed a serious problem: More than $100,000 of technology equipment had gone missing that year. Her report to the superintendent, Suzanne Boxer-Gassman, at the time led to a state investigation of the district the following year, which found that equipment with a total value of some $300,000 had been disappearing over the previous 10 years.

The investigation by the state Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team found that the “inventory shrinkage or loss of district assets were due to a combination of suspected thefts, administrative errors and miscommunication,” according to the report summary. D.J. LaForge, a district technology staff member, was arrested and charged with theft. LaForge, who had no criminal record, was sentenced in January to jail time, fines and community service for stealing equipment and selling it to a local reseller.

New Superintendent Richard Whitmore, appointed in May 2008, immediately assured the community his administration would do better. “I recognize the important fiduciary duties I have assumed and pledge to manage the district’s financial and physical assets to assure the longterm health of the district,” he stated in his introductory letter.

Epidemic of Asset Loss

Such losses are not isolated incidents, though they are not necessarily the result of outright theft. A lack of consistent and accurate auditing and record keeping of district IT equipment can lead to confusion between administrative departments, including redundant purchases, transferred equipment being mislabeled as stolen, computers and other equipment simply being lost, or a variety of other scenarios. A recent study by Quality Education Data and Follett Software found that total district asset losses approach $15 billion annually, almost 4 percent of total K12 spending, nearly $2 billion of it attributed to the loss of or damage to computers and software. Andrew Wright, director of technology for the Brighton (Colo.) School District 27J, recalls his growing district’s recent inability to keep up with a continuing influx of computers. “We had a series of spreadsheets that we hoped were correct. We never had a complete handle on our technology inventory,” Wright says. “Teachers moved computers around, computers were sometimes lost ? all making it really difficult to make new purchasing decisions.”


Increasing Need

Many administrators are finding their districts in a similar situation, as new technology is constantly entering schools. The continued expansion of one-to-one computing initiatives, for example, has added thousands of laptops nationwide. New software is purchased regularly, and all sorts of other devices continue to increase in popularity, as districts take advantage of a wealth of new classroom technologies: interactive whiteboards, digital cameras, projectors, document cameras and more. At the same time, however, the number of IT staff members responsible for this technology in districts has largely remained flat or even declined. A 2007 survey by eSchoolNews and asset management company SchoolDude found the mean ratio of computers to IT personnel was 550:1; in 2008, that number had jumped to 612:1. In contrast, the Technology Support Index, a recommendation developed by Chip Kimball with the International Society for Technology in Education and the Gates Foundation, describes as having “low efficiency” any district with a computer-to-technician ratio above 250:1, while a “high efficiency” district has a ratio of less than 75:1. And these numbers do not factor in the many other devices in districts across the country that IT staff or other administrators are expected to keep track of and maintain.

As a result, many district administrations have been unable to keep track of their own technology purchases. Crucial asset information often goes unrecorded, or inventories are not maintained frequently enough to be accurate. The Follett/ QED survey found that some 59 percent of schools are still using manual processes to keep track of assets, with administrators entering thousands of pieces of data into simple spreadsheets or even paper logbooks. The Putnam City (Okla.) School District was using outdated software to record hardware purchases, and handwritten records to record software purchases as recently as 2005. “We used these huge notebooks to keep track of them all,” recalls Teresa Long, a fixed assets clerk for Putnam City schools. Updating the lists was confusing, organizing important information was nearly impossible, and more technology was being purchased all the time. “We moved everything to a spreadsheet once, but that entire file was lost when transferring between computers, so we went back to notebooks. Everyone recorded information differently,” she adds. “It was really a mess.”

IT Asset Management Software

Many districts like Putnam City have turned to various asset management software programs to track and keep accurate records of their IT inventory, while helping fewer IT staff manage more technology. The district purchased the Series4000 software suite from Real Asset Management International (RAMI) in 2005. The products in this series now provide inventory control for the district via software and a barcode system, where every hardware item in the district is tagged and can be scanned quickly during an annual or biannual audit.

A separate program from RAMI tracks crucial information about all software purchases. “We love the reporting. Now we can organize information by any criteria we want,” says Long. “For example, we can instantly see a list of all district computers, organized by which processor they have installed. This information is crucial to making purchasing decisions.”

An Evolving Segment

While such software has helped some districts successfully keep track of their technology for the past several years, the latest generation of programs has grown even more sophisticated while becoming more affordable, and include functions beyond enhanced inventory control.

Now able to be connected to a local network or the Internet, new IT asset management programs enable not only a variety of instantly updated status details chosen by the user, but also include other capabilities that allow fewer staff members to manage ever-growing numbers of devices remotely. NetSupport DNA, for example, offers various customizable alert functions. Instant e-mail notifications can be sent to administrators if any hardware or software changes are made to any computers in the network, if a PC is moved, if a new computer enters the network, or if a flash drive is inserted into any district machine. DNA also offers control functions to allow IT personnel to resolve technical problems remotely.

Extron’s GlobalViewer Enterprise software provides real-time information on district A/V systems instead of computers, such as projector lamp life and connection status, but it also enables remote control functions like scheduling powering on or shutting down to save energy and reduce wear and tear. “Asset management is becoming resource management, providing not just the inventory aspect but also remote technical support and control of all sorts of technology,” says Lee Dodson, vice president of marketing for Extron.

SaaS and Hosted Solutions

Like most other types of software, asset management is also rapidly moving entirely online, with some companies now offering “SaaS” (software-as-a-service) versions, fully hosted on company servers. This trend has put the technology in reach of even the smallest of districts, because SaaS versions are available for an annual subscription that is often a fraction of the cost of most traditional software, and they require no installation or maintenance.

Follett Software’s Destiny Asset Manager, for example, tracks not just IT but other crucial district assets like furniture, textbooks and multimedia, and is available in a fully hosted, Web-based version that can be accessed from any Web browser. RAMI offers Asset4000i, a Web-based version of its Asset4000 management software program, which includes all the same features but is remotely accessible from any Web browser.

The Brighton district now uses fully hosted online asset manager SchoolDude. “It’s been amazing,” Wright says. “We now have an exact inventory and exact software compliance information at all times, and the SaaS structure made it fast and easy to implement.”

An Intelligent Future

The future of remote asset management programs will continue to include other network connected devices besides computers, such as projectors, A/V systems and printers, which could then all be centrally managed remotely. Some envision a future where this same structure could also apply to areas beyond IT, a scenario where nearly every piece of technology in a district—from HVAC units to refrigerators to buses—is not only network connected and remotely managed but also “intelligent” and automated.

“For example,” says Lee Prevost, president of SchoolDude, “one of our district clients has a network-connected boiler that generates its own work order and requests maintenance automatically on a runtime schedule, or if it breaks down. Total asset management technology like this is the future for schools, and we’re heading there fast.”

Officials at the Los Gatos Union School District implemented a number of reforms to ensure that their $300,000 in losses wouldn’t happen again. “We worked on developing inventory processes for a full year, and we now use technical support software from Web Help Desk, which has an asset management component and alerts us to the movement of absolutely anything,” says Maggi Reser, director of technology. “In addition, an outside firm audits all our inventory twice a year, and we reconcile their number with ours. So far, the numbers have been perfect.” Reser’s advice to other districts? “You have to have this process in place.”

Kurt O. Dyrli is products editor.