If there is one truth about the new universal access or “eRate”, it is that the landscape of information technology (technology and telecommunications) for schools and libraries in this country has dramatically and irrevocably changed. The impact of the eRate will be profound for many schools; others will take some time to catch up and get with the program. The full effect of this program is in the opportunity it presents for school systems to create a new set of rules for budgets, technology, and staffing models. To optimize the benefit of the eRate, schools now have to think differently about information technology infrastructure.

When you consider universal access, think infrastructure. “Infrastructure” is to school technology as “location” is to real estate. It is not the only thing; it is everything. School systems now need to think of information technology not as an add-on, but as a vital and strategic contribution to the success of the learning community.

Let’s look at some of the restructured thinking the eRate is going to demand of school leaders:

Financial infrastructure

Getting line items for technology in school system budgets has been a slow and arduous task for education leaders. In this era of constrained budgets, it is easy to find districts with little or no annual funding for technology. Much of the technology acquired is often “hidden” in construction bonds, gifts, grants, and other one-time moneys. The problem with these tactics, of course, is that one-time money allows no way to plan for lifecycle replenishment. Many schools are left supporting aging technology, often older than the students they serve. It also results in poor student-to-computer ratios, often a benchmark for the progressive use technology in a school system.

Schools now need to reconsider their budget infrastructure for technology and telecommunications. And that includes all mediaÐvoice, video, and data. Leaders need to consider the “hidden costs” of technology, and there are many. What follows is not an exhaustive list, but a school budget probably should contain line items for categories such as these: funding for software and hardware acquisitions, cabling, network connections, electronic closet devices, repair and service contracts, insurance, supplies and consumables, printers, and digital subscription based services. Telephony and video, including satellite downlink services, should be accounted for, too.

Leaders should be concerned with lifecycle budgeting. The lifecycle model is simple: Value your installed base and plan on replacing one-quarter to one-fifth of it each year. That might seem like a long stretch for school systems struggling to buy a few computers, but it is a necessary leap if schools are to successfully manage this next wave of technical opportunity

Technical infrastructure

Information technology infrastructure is about as glamorous as plumbing. But without it, all else fails. Connectivity is key, and making networks functional is imperative to success in this field of work. Campuswide networking, regardless of whether the campus is in a city or a rural county, should be the goal of planners. Why? Because it optimizes your resources, brings learning communities together, engages the public, and is a contemporary approach to disseminating information in a nation where internet access is becoming as common as telephones.

Schools need to think not only in terms of LAN’s (local area networks), but they also must consider MAN’s (metropolitan area networking) and WAN’s (wide area networking). Robust networks, offering wide connectivity to your local campus and the rest of the internet, are your foundation for growing the culture and the experience to embrace the next levels of information technology.

Once the networks are functional and reliable, the next step in your growth is to add value to the network. Integrating information technology into the classroom, the administration office, the local business advisory council, and so on, is possible with a solid infrastructure. Site licensing of software, applications and file servers, access to online digital resources, systemwide use of eMail, video conferencing for distance learning, internet and intranet web sites all rely on networking. It’s all about infrastructure.

Organizational infrastructure

As schools move towards modern information technology infrastructures, they must examine staffing models. Typically, technology staff members in school systems are teachers and administrators who’ve taken on tech support , tooÐvoluntarily or otherwise. Managing and growing information technology assets is a professional task. Certainly there is room to cultivate talent from within a system, but schools eventually will have to hire professional IT (information technology) staff. Many industries have gone through painful transitions with IT staff in the last decade, as emphasis has shifted from centralized to decentralized environments (from mainframe to desktop). Many schools will skip the mainframe step, but they still will have to compete with everyone else to find the talent to run a wide array of networked desktop technology. Qualified candidates are not easy to find. They often command top dollar.

How will school systems effectively compete for this talent? Just like everyone else: through a combination of training internal candidates and finding the budget to hire from outside. Talent is an undeniable part of the formula. Constructing the “wires and pliers” part of technology is comparatively easy. Finding the talent to “add value” to the infrastructure is key for a successful information technology environment.

From a staffing perspective, volunteers are a boon for deploying information technology in schools, but beware. It is impossible to build a strong information technology environment and culture with volunteers. Certain bursts of activityÐsuch as wiring a school on a NetDayÐhave paid off handsomely. But networks need constant attention. Who will do that work?

As infrastructures are planned and installed, schools would do better to use the “eRate” opportunity to partner with local service providers. Telephone companies, internet service providers, cable television companiesÐthey all are quickly coming to understand the business advantage of gaining schools as institutional customers.

Use that leverage to construct tight contractual relationships for service, support, and emergency response for your infrastructure.

Time to redesign IT

With the inception of the eRate, a carrot is being dangled before our nation’s school systems. Will we respond to the challenge of creating information-rich environments for our students, teachers and communities? The eRate is not just a way to discount internet access; it is a signal to the nation to redesign our approach to information technology in public education. Folks, it’s time to hit the reset button.

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Stephen Andrade is manager of information technology at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University in Providence, R.I. He has been active in the field of educational technology for 20 years. He works with schools and organizations to help them rethink their approach to information technology. You can send him eMail at stephen_andrade@brown.edu.