Information technology (IT) staffing shortages are keeping many schools from realizing the full benefits of technology inside and outside the classroom, an eSchool News survey reveals.

Conducted in partnership with SchoolDude Inc., a provider of operations management solutions for schools and colleges, the survey of some 1,000 school and district leaders and IT administrators paints a stark picture of the barriers that tech-support challenges pose to integrating technology effectively in education.

Nearly three out of four school leaders say they don’t have enough IT staff to support their needs effectively, according to the survey. Fifty-five percent of respondents said they can’t maintain their network adequately, 63 percent said they can’t plan for new technologies, and 76 percent said they have trouble implementing new technologies.

“The biggest problem is … there’s too much stuff and not enough staff,” said Nick Mirisis, marketing manager for SchoolDude. As schools’ technology use has exploded in recent years, he said, tech-support staffing hasn’t kept pace.

But, owing to “an information void,” many school leaders feel “like it’s only their problem,” Mirisis said.

Forrester Research, an independent market research firm, published a recent report titled “Staffing for Technology Support: The Need May Be Far Greater Than You Think,” which concluded that large corporations typically employ one support person for every 50 PCs, at a cost of $1420 per computer, per year. According to this model, a school district with 1,000 PCs would need a staff of 20 and an annual tech-support budget of $1.4 million.

Yet, some larger school districts are approaching a ratio of one IT person for every 1,500 computers or more, says Laurie Keating, vice president of technology, learning, and planning for the Center for Educational Leadership and Technology.

The typical school system’s IT department is spread too thin, leaving little or no time for long-range planning. In fact, 54 percent of respondents said at least half their work load is reactive rather than proactive.

“[Our] staff can only dedicate … time for quick fixes and rushed projects to achieve basic operation,” said an IT systems administrator from Long Beach, Calif. “The behemoth of technology continues to grow in K-12 education, but support models are static and staffing levels frozen. Many days, all we can do is keep the ship afloat—and there is no time left to check our course.”

A technology director from Portland, Mich., said the main challenge is that “we are in a unique position of having to meet many of the same needs of a large public or private-sector organization, such as security, storage, uptime, and federal and state mandates—but we have significantly less staff and funding.”

A technology manager from Irving, Texas, said he has two full-time “Tier 1” technicians serving 2,900 students, 300 teachers and administrators, and more than 1,200 computers in a six-school district with campuses spread across suburban Dallas. “Managing IT in our district is like constantly putting my finger in the dike to keep it from leaking,” he said. “Longer-term planning is a joke.”

Shortfalls hurt instruction

In the eSchool News survey, respondents identified curriculum integration as their No. 1 area of need, with nearly two-thirds of respondents (65 percent) saying they need more IT staff in this area. Forty-two percent of those surveyed said they have no school-based tech facilitators to help teachers use technology in their classrooms, and 35 percent said they lack a district-level media specialist.

It’s not surprising, then, that integrating technology into instruction is one of the key IT challenges that school leaders are most struggling to meet, according to the survey—trailing only testing and implementing new technologies as an IT sore spot.

But those aren’t the only tech-related challenges schools face. Fifty-five percent of respondents said they don’t have a software-based help desk in their district—and although 10 percent said they were pursuing such a solution, 29 percent said they have more pressing concerns.

Also, despite the requirements mandated by No Child Left Behind, 59 percent of those surveyed said they don’t yet have a database in place to track student performance. Although 15 percent said they were in the process of implementing such a database, another 20 percent haven’t even planned for such a system.

In addition, three out of five respondents said they weren’t able to complete all necessary software installations in a timely fashion during the past year. Of these respondents, about a third said they hired outside help, but two-thirds did not.

Funding a key issue

The problems appear to stem from a disconnect between thought and action: When asked how well school board or district leaders understand the importance of IT as it relates to the overall goals of their district, nearly half of respondents answered, “They understand the importance but are not as supportive financially.” Similarly, 81 percent said IT security is viewed as a district priority—but only 38 percent said it’s funded accordingly.

Clearly, lack of funding is a key stumbling block to effective school IT support. Sixty-four percent of those surveyed said their IT budget isn’t enough to support technology assets they’ve already purchased, and nearly 70 percent said it’s not enough to meet their district’s IT expectations.

Also, the biggest obstacle respondents said they face in recruiting and retaining IT staff members is that the salaries they offer are not competitive enough when measured against similar positions outside their schools.

Owing to a lack of “vision and funding from district leaders … technology has become the poor stepchild—the elephant in the room that no one wants to address,” said a computer lab coordinator in a California school.

Though this person is working on many new and promising technology initiatives for her school, she confesses that she “cannot afford to keep the job, as the pay is so low and the demands so large.” She is returning to her “six-figure income as a software marketing professional after this year,” and she says few people stay on the job for more than a year.

A technology coordinator from Wallowa County, Ore., says school and district IT staff often are in reactive mode “because funding is reactive.” He explains that district leaders often ask: “What will it take [just] to keep things running? That’s how much money they budget, or less.”

When asked which IT issue most needs to be resolved to achieve success in their school or district, 46 percent of respondents answered “funding.” When asked which IT issue is most likely to become more significant in the coming year, 28 percent also said “funding.”

Some good news

Even with budgets that often are too small to allow for adequate and proactive IT management, schools and districts are still managing to accomplish some impressive goals.

For instance, only 13 percent of respondents said they don’t have wireless connectivity in any of their schools—and 38 percent said they have it in all their schools.

Also, respondents make sure to keep state and local education leaders informed about their IT assets—80 percent said they conduct an inventory of IT assets and report these results yearly.

Some of their success can be attributed to the use of “software as a service” (SaaS) applications. SaaS is a software delivery model in which a software vendor develops a web-native software application and hosts the application for use by its customers over the internet. Customers do not pay for owning the software itself, but rather for using it.

Fifty-three percent of respondents said they currently use one or more SaaS applications. Of these, nearly three out of four said they are using SaaS applications for their ease of deployment, which helps free up IT staff time for other tasks.

However, many respondents (39 percent) are still worried about security and reliability issues with SaaS, the survey suggests.

School IT departments also use creative ways to solve their technology challenges. An IT coordinator from Costa Rica, for example, said his school is using teachers for classroom technology support.

One core group of teachers, “who are adept in their current fields and who are also capable of guiding, assisting, and supporting their colleagues,” help others integrate technology into their instruction, he said. This group focuses on the curriculum as a starting point, instead of “starting with hardware or software and trying to fit it into the curriculum.”

Another piece of advice respondents gave is to make sure educators and IT staff members communicate as effectively as possible. A music teacher and instructional technology specialist from St. Charles, Mo., said that a lack of communication among IT staff, administrators, and educators in his school has caused several problems. As a result, educators were given training for technology that was never implemented and have had trouble accessing many files.

On a larger scale, a technology director from De Soto, Mo., said, “Perhaps it is time that states create regional support and design centers to help smaller districts get and maintain the technology they need, without every school district trying to find and pay their own personnel.”

Yet, despite these many challenges, “I love my job,” said a district technology director from Michigan. “I have pushed myself to find innovative ways to meet needs by relying on my fellow staff to accomplish goals, not only to maintain the status quo, but to innovate!”

Links:

SchoolDude Inc.

Forrester Research

Center for Educational Leadership and Technology