There are so many factors in deciding the best way to spend money on technologies in schools today. With shrinking budgets and rising costs more consideration is being given to the return on investment and total cost of ownership when buying something new. As someone who has guided technology spending in schools for the past 17 years, I have learned the importance of getting a bang-for-your-buck every time you buy technology. If you are able to string together a series of quality purchases over years, your school will end up landing in a place where you are doing far more than other schools while spending far less.
When it comes to technology in schools, I lean heavily towards the philosophy that "less is more". More technology does not equal better student learning. My recommendation is to keep it simple and focus on practical tools that everyone can use that will impact student learning. Don’t get me wrong, I am an advocate for smart boards, but they are well down on my list. Dry erase boards are far more practical and "everyone can use them" without additional training and they cost far less. I think the most important piece of technology in the school is the one in the hands of the teacher. If you do not currently have powerful technology for teachers then that is where to start. Then add projectors, speakers, and wireless access.
On the topics of wireless networks, servers, filters and firewalls, it is important to identify what your priorities are then meet them without apology. If your desire is to provide high speed wireless access to teachers so they can reliably pull multimedia into the classroom then don’t open your network up to students. This can very easily be accomplished by getting a router that filters the MAC address of requesting devices and only allowing access to those devices you enter. You do not owe students and parents the same access as teachers and staff, especially when the cost of adding them impacts the teacher in the classroom. It’s a nice gesture but if it interferes with your mission, don’t do it.
As for filtering the internet, there are many approaches, but none more secure than a white list of approved sites that you control (I like OPENDNS.com). Remember your school’s priorities. This is not about if you agree or not with freedom of the press, or that you disagree personally with censorship. Internet access in schools should ultimately be about supporting the mission of the school which is tied to administration, instruction, and ultimately student learning. I’d even go as far to suggest starting with no access and develop the discipline of having teachers and staff request access to sites that support the mission. This is the approach we took at the school I’m currently at and it took about two years to get it where we needed to be and the past four years have been adding a only few sites a month that are almost always tied to a classroom assignment or project.
As for servers, It’s time for schools to move to the cloud and leverage tools like Dropbox, Google Docs, Evernote and other online tools. I like Dropbox and Evernote because they scale to multiple platforms including desktops, notebooks, tablets, and cell phone apps that make your information more accessible, even when you are not connected to the web. The other really valuable upside is that the information is backed up and you do not fall into a disastrous situation if a hard drive fails on a local server. Even with highly competent technology people, backups do not always get restored in a catastrophic scenario, like when hard drives fail.
Having developed and led several successful technology plans, I have allowed myself to be guided by the following principles:
1. Low Maintenance: If it takes more people to maintain adding it then the total cost is probably not worth it. High maintenance means more expertise, more time, and more money is required. Avoid high maintenance purchases, you’re better off buying pencils and paper for the classroom.
2. Quality Construction: Don’t buy poorly made products. Look at the things you’ve had over the past five years. There is a durability to it, the products you buy should be durable. Everything from headphones to mouse pads. Ask yourself this question: "Will this last more than five years if I use it every day?"
3. Easy to Use: If the tools you buy take extensive training to use, then reconsider how practical it will be to get everyone trained. There is nothing more wasteful than to spend a lot of money on a product that people don’t use because they have not been trained. It is usually worth it in the long run to spend more on intuitive products that everyone can use then to get a bargain on tools that require more than an hour of training.
4. Practical Application: Make sure the reason you are buying a product is because it fits the application. Don’t fall into a scenario where you buy something cool but you don’t have an application for it. Focus on tools that will help you do your job better or more efficiently every day. Remember white boards work every day.
5. Be "Open" minded: Be careful about buying products that lock you into one way of doing things. You are better to think about open architectures and interchangeable tools. Probably the single most under-utilized tool out there is OpenOffice. It is free and does nearly everything other suites do. Our schools have powerful multimedia computers in our media center because we did not spend $15K on an office suite and opted for OpenOffice instead.
6. Built-in recovery: Leverage the cloud for backups and also consider adopting a policy to rebuild computers back to original when you have problems. Requiring storage on the desktop in a tool like dropbox and using a FOG (Free Opensource Ghost) server can save you hours of troubleshooting by simply rebuilding the workstation and configuring dropbox so it will copy the backed up files to the freshly installed desktop.
7. Buy "Leading Edge" not "Bleeding Edge": The easiest way to blow your technology budget is to fall in love with the ultimate new product. This is probably the nuber one reason why so many schools have spent so much money with so little to show for it. The best product to buy is not the latest one, but the previous version that can leverage many of the improvements of the latest one via updates and firmware upgrades. Usually there is a significant price break for a nearly identical product and its hardly ever worth the extra cost. In truth you are really paying for research and development of their next product line and the ability to say I have the latest and greatest.
I know this is a long way to go to support the claim "Why the iPad2 is the best technology purchase in education today" but hear me out. You have to know what technology is really valuable, and underpriced. I always ask myself "What is the most underpriced piece of valuable technology out there and what is the best way to buy it?" Nearly always bulk purchases are best. If you go back through this article and read the criteria and principles to use for quality purchases, the iPad2 meets nearly every criteria.
I have recently proposed buying 100 iPad2’s for our entire faculty. It will improve student learning, and move the staff to a very portable tablet environment so I can prepare for my next move of tablets for students and electronic textbooks. We’re not there yet but this is a significant step in that direction. The price of $40K for 100 iPads for teachers is a steal when you consider what you get for the money. The iPad2 is low-maintenance, intuitive, durable, practical, tons of free useful apps, runs Dropbox and Evernote, best bang-for-the-buck tablet available. You could spend $60K for 100 iPad3’s but I’d save the $20K and pat myself on the back for understanding the best way to buy technology for schools.