With schools expecting to tap liberally into eRate funds to purchase technology such as server clusters and internet connectivity and with PC prices dropping faster and more frequently than Wyle E. Coyote’s ever-present anvil, it would seem that all but the poorest schools in the K-12 market might have pockets deep enough to buy best-of-breed technology with little worry as to its longevity and usefulness.

But despite a flourishing American economy and a political climate that favors equipping schools K-12 with superior computing resources, it’s more important than ever that educators find ways to extend their technology dollars.

First and foremost, the falling prices of personal computers and their peripherals have lulled many schools into believing that total cost of ownership (TCO) has dropped significantly as well. But that’s not necessarily true. The price of a computer accounts for only 15 percent of the TCO for that box over its lifetime, according to the Gartner Group, a Stamford, Conn.-based market research firm.

“In the education world, most people don’t budget adequately,” said Sara Fitzgerald, the project manager of a TCO study being conducted by the Consortium of School Networking (CoSN), IBM, and Intel. “Some school board members are not that savvy when it comes to technology. And they think they can budget a purchase for this year and not have to worry about it after that.” But purchase price is only part of the story.

After the initial dollars are laid out for purchase, schools are still on the hook to pay for maintenance, service and support, and training as well as to ensure the computers are fully used. And educators may find that vendors aren’t as willing–or able–to provide the round-the-clock support they offered when they were getting top dollar for their products.

As a result, it’s more important than ever that schools get the most out of their budgeted technology dollars. But what can you do? The answer: a lot, but it takes planning and an eye for detail as well as a clear understanding of how your schools intend to use computer equipment.

Tech Specs

At the very least, educators should consider what they get in the boxes themselves. While PCs have pretty much become commodity items, there can be some notable differences when it comes to functionality, reliability, and performance. Schools have all the processor power they could want at their fingertips with the likes of Intel and AMD rapidly turning out faster, more capable chips.

Therein lies another problem: Most schools find it difficult to keep up with technology that seems to change almost daily. Are the fastest machines and all of the bells and whistles absolutely necessary? Probably not. Schools should buy only the features they need. One of the fastest ways to waste hard-earned technology dollars is to invest in the unnecessary, even if it is the latest and greatest.

“Many vendors are pushing 400 MHz systems and 24X CD-ROMs when all a school needs [are things like] internet access,” said Tim Deren, director of marketing at Pre-Owned Electronics.

Conversely, it’s also a waste to pour those dollars into equipment that will soon be obsolete. Experts advise that administrators should carve out the time to research technology advances before parting with their funds.

“There’s no excuse for not doing the proper research,” said Joe Perkins, system administrator for the Ohio Department of Education Services. “With PCs, modems, and internet access, educators can obtain access to experts and research” on technology.

To make technology dollars last longer, educators should consider products from vendors with clear upgrade paths. In addition, many guarantee automatic notification when upgrades become available.

“We’re trying to get the very best desktop that we can at this time,” said Joe Kitchens, superintendent of the Western Heights School District in Oklahoma City, Okla. “We want as powerful a processor as we can get.” The district only buys Gartner-rated Tier 1 and Tier 2 machines. “In fact, we won’t accept bids for vendors with less,” Kitchens said. The reasoning? That technology fits in better with the school system’s future plans, and it’s seeking quality assurance.

Kitchens believes he’s gotten more bang for his technology buck by purchasing networkable computers rather than the standalone multimedia units that were once all the rage. “We’re trying to establish a collaborative community in the district,” noted Kitchens, who said Western Heights was looking for computers that could eventually accommodate voice over IP initiatives and which could be outfitted with telephone features when it opted for Intel’s ProShare 5.1.

In a good example of looking at the big picture, Western Heights installed Cisco’s Access server “in conjunction with its desktop purchase,” Kitchens said.

Vendors are picking up on education’s bent toward networking. “In the last five years, what the education community requires has changed dramatically,” said Jake Schlumpf, director ofproduct management at Compaq Computer Corp. in Houston. “Education was focused on multimedia boxes, and the only networking was in the library circulation system or in the office. But now, with the internet and eMail, they are much more interested in networking than multimedia.”

Schools are now seeking computers that are both “multimedia capable and certified network capable,” Schlumpf said. And Frank Raimondi, product manager in the education division at Intel Corp., advises schools to buy computers “that are wired for networking and management.” Intel has begun putting local area networking (LAN) functionality on the motherboard. As a result, “the box doesn’t have to be opened,” saving district technology directors a variety of administrative woes.

“When they’re wired for management, it allows remote management of the network,” Raimondi said. “Normally a technician would have to go to a site. But now, you can literally take control of the PC from a remote site and 80 to 90 percent of the time fix it from that point.”

Networkability can relieve the strain placed on district and school technical forces. “Some districts have a lot of standalone PCs, and when you’ve got individual PCs not tied into the network” supporting them can be a nightmare, said Vaughn Fricke, a Gartner Group analyst.

At the very least, schools should adhere to a basic set of standards and let them guide any future technology purchases. Schools are quickly adopting hardware standards, Fricke said, “but you don’t see software standards in place.”

While technology has made significant inroads in education over the past five years, “the infrastructure just hasn’t kept up,” Fricke said, noting that standards are more important than ever. “Where there is not a match [of computers] based on use, there should be standardization,” he added.

The Ohio Department of Education Services places a premium on standards, Perkins noted. “We believe in standards-based computing, and we want to take advantage of the IP protocol where we can,” he said, giving kudos to Intel for its off-the-shelf offerings. “We stay away from proprietary products.”

Roger Evans, a retired science teacher from Leland High School in San Jose, Calif., notes that schools get more for their money if they select systems that don’t require teachers to adopt a whole new method of teaching. Evans, for instance, found that Acer’s EduCart, a computer system that combines video and a whiteboard to serve as a teaching aid, let teachers easily incorporate technology into their traditional teaching style.

The concept behind EduCart is to provide teachers with computers that rely on “less threatening technology such as projectors and video,” said Pedro Hernandez, national education manager at California-based Acer America.

An Apple for the Teacher?

One of the simplest, but most useful changes in personal computer design has come from Apple Computer. Known for its easy-to-use, intuitive operating systems, Apple has extended the notion of simplicity and usability to the box itself with the wildly popular iMac.

Back-door access makes maintenance and upgrades a snap for systems administrators and even for teachers who must wear IT hats in schools where technology personnel or help desk resources are limited.

But that’s not the only feature that makes the iMac an attractive choice for those seeking more technology bang for the buck. With its appealing pricing, all-in-one design, and near portability (the forty pound unit comes with a handle on top), the iMac is grabbing the attention of educators.

Losing the infrequently used floppy drive, Apple has adorned the iMac with the features it thinks users need most–a fast processor (233 MHz), a substantial hard drive (4 MB on the basic unit), and a fast CD-ROM drive (24X).

Does the iMac’s success signal a comeback for Apple in education? Most definitely. “iMac is putting pressure on the Windows team,” said Tom Kunkel, assistant vice president at Comdisco Direct. “And that will make computers more cost-efficient.”

But will Apple secure its previous level of dominance? Not likely. The company holds roughly 40 percent of the marketplace these days, compared with the 85 percent or so it enjoyed in its heyday, Kunkel said. And to eke out any more market share, Apple must smooth out the ruffled feathers of educators who feel the company abandoned them as its financial woes mounted.

Apple’s financial landscape makes it impossible for the company to do just that. In 1999, the company can’t afford to be as generous with the K-12 market as it has been during the past two decades, and so it has eliminated all grants and donations at least for calendar year 1999. Even without its previous generosity, though, Apple still delivers a rich system that will likely provide schools with much more than they pay for.

Matched Sets

Whether a school gets more for its money from a Macintosh or any one of the Windows-based PCs on the market today depends in large part on how well-suited that computer is to the school’s needs.

“In the Mac versus PC wars in most districts, it is more of an emotional discussion than a [technical one],” said the Gartner Group’s Fricke. “The discussion they should be having is, ‘Why should we have this platform?'”

Schools traditionally run dual platforms–Windows dominates the back office, while the Mac is preferred by some teachers. Ultimately, though, the machines must fit easily into the computing platform and infrastructure already in place or into a future platform. “If you can retain assets at the end of three years, that lowers the cost of ownership,” Fricke said.

Oklahoma City’s Western Heights “does a lot of testing on units before we even go into bids,” said Kitchens, who noted the district looks at interoperability issues and how well the computers perform. “Then we can consider what is the best bid for the quality.”

If schools are to stretch their technology dollars, they must also consider that buying a computer is about more than just buying hardware.

Education software bundled with hardware as part of the purchase price can boost the value of a computer. Nearly every vendor catering to education offers some sort of education bundle.

But computers reach their full potential only when they support those applications that are critical to a particular district or school. Schools should beware of software bundles that offer applications that are extraneous to their needs. Not only do they not boost the value of the system; they can actually drive the cost of ownership up by requiring greater support to resolve any conflicts that may occur with the more critical applications that a school depends on.

The lure of application suites also can cause schools to buy equipment that’s more advanced than they actually need. Perkins noted that schools “often don’t fit purchases to applications, and fear forces them to go overboard.”

Schools should match systems with the applications that will be used, Fricke said. “Look at the top applications in education and [buy computers] that support what you need,” added Deren.

Used, Not Abused

Schools might just discover that more bang for the buck doesn’t come from the newest, most advanced equipment, but rather from used computers and peripherals. While many schools–victims of good-intentioned corporate and personal donations of technology antiques–now prohibit the purchase of used equipment, others have recognized that not all pre-owned systems are created equal. Many still have long, useful lives ahead of them.

Comdisco Direct “takes primarily [Gartner-ranked] Tier 1 machines from Fortune 500 companies and sells them to schools,” says Kunkel. “It’s like taking from the parent to give to the child.”

He points out that most schools “use Pentium computers or less,” so Comdisco’s refurbished pre-owned Pentium units represent a step up for many and a way to provide more computer seats by reducing the TCO per seat.

But schools must protect themselves from junky and inadequate corporate leftovers. Kunkel suggests that educators only buy used equipment which are refurbished to the highest standards and covered by standard warranties. Many used computers carry 90-day or six month warranties.

Comdisco ranks computers according to “N-Levels,” with N representing new computers and “N-1 being one generation back,” Kunkel said. “For usable used equipment, schools should stick with N-1 or N-2 systems. When you buy N-3 and N-4, you get into more liability.”

At Your Service

Since maintaining a computer contributes greatly to its TCO, a PC has greater value in the long run if it carries the promise of free, or at least reasonably priced, service and support coverage from the vendor or one of its business partners. “Schools often don’t have the money for repairs, so they leave a [broken] computer sitting there, unused,” said Pre-Owned Electronics’ Deren. That often forces students to double up, creating a higher, less desirable student-to-computer ratio, or prompts teachers to forgo certain lesson plans that are computer-dependent.

“Business will figure TCO by looking at downtime of computers and they will count lost productivity,” Fitzgerald said. “But in education, if the computer goes down, the teacher will go back to the traditional way of teaching or they will double up kids.”

In the face of this scenario, service and support become critical.

While most vendors offer some level of support for their computers, it may be inadequate or overpriced–or coverage may apply only to a short warranty period. Schools should try to get vendors to add on to their standard one-year warranties as a way of increasing the value of a PC purchase. “We look for a three-year warranty in parts and labor,” noted Kitchens.

Once a mainstay of PC service, round-the-clock telephone support is no longer a given. The downside to dropping PC prices is that many companies simply can’t afford to support their products with a 24/7 support crew. Instead, many are requiring buyers to pay up or forego that level of support.

Microsoft kicked off the customer-foots-the-bill trend by charging consumers $35 per tech call. That figure reflects the average cost of a tech call, according to Doug Chandler, senior analyst at International Data Corp. of Framingham, Mass. And companies like Apple are following suit. (Already, Apple has been ordered to return monies garnered from tech support calls to customers, after it changed support policies in mid-stream.)

While support is important, Ohio’s Perkins warns that schools should consider maintenance options carefully and buy only what they need. “Often maintenance contracts are not required,” he said. “Outside forces aren’t going to have a focus on education, rather they focus on business.” It often is too easy for vendors to convince educators who aren’t comfortable with technology to agree to high-ticket maintenance contracts which ultimately drive TCO into the stratosphere. “They play on fear,” Perkins said.

Among the things to look for in service and support are guaranteed loaners so students and teachers alike don’t lose computer access. As part of its Notebook Network program, for example, Compaq offers educational institutions loaners as replacements for units that are undergoing repair.

Chandler says computers that come with refresh technology guarantees might carry more value. Under a refresh agreement, the vendor provides automatic upgrades to the latest technologies and will replace failing equipment with newer models. This promise frees schools from the constant vigilance that is otherwise required to stay on top of technological changes that may occur over the life of a computer. But Kirk Johnson, a vice president at the Meta Group, a Westport, Conn.-based market research firm, warns schools to proceed with caution. A new model replacement unit may not adhere to a school’s standards or simply may not fit the current infrastructure.

A growing trend, prompted by Intel, is hardware vendors providing technical support for the most popular applications in a vertical market. Since applications, not hardware, usually drive any computing environment, ensuring that applications stay up and running and are fully integrated is a useful touch. But buyers should make sure that a school’s preferred applications are covered under this offering.

Another advantage to PC vendors offering both hardware and software is that schools are offered a single point of contact rather than having to deal with several support sources. Centralized support in the form of a help desk within a school or district can also add more value to a PC purchase, Fricke said, because less time and effort is spent on resolving technology issues.

Training

Nothing devalues a computer faster than under-utilization. What good are top-of-the-line PCs if no one is going to use them? Yet this is almost par for the course in education, in part because teachers may not feel comfortable using technology because it represents a departure from traditional teaching methods.

“A lot of teachers are afraid of technology, particularly computers,” Hernandez said. Yet training dollars for teachers and administrators are nearly non-existent in some school technology budgets. “Training should be a big deal, but it’s not,” Perkins said. “We spend less than five percent on staff development. And that’s a real problem, as fast as this technology changes.”

This approach is pervasive nationwide; as a result, teachers are woefully undertrained.

“Schools have [computer] classes for students, but not for teachers,” Fricke said. “It’s like the shoemaker’s children going without shoes.”

A recent Education Department survey of 3,560 K-12 teachers found that only 20 percent of teachers felt qualified to use technology, even if they had received some training.

When so much technology is needed in schools, educators find it hard to allocate any portion of their limited funds to training. But proper training will help schools gain more from every technology dollar spent.

The Western Heights School District “has been pretty aggressive in its training” of its 230 teachers in seven schools, Kitchens said: “We have teachers undergo 60-70 hours of training a year.”

Many schools would argue that they don’t have the time, dollars, or inclination to train teachers, which in the past has meant sending them offsite, often during the school day, to attend training classes. But schools can provide much of the necessary training in-house by turning student technology curricula into training programs for teachers and administrators, Fricke said.

Web-based training programs may also hold the answer. Web-based programs have become an easy, relatively inexpensive way for teachers to get the training they need, when it’s convenient and at their own pace.

“Now we’re moving into web-based training,” Kitchens said. “It’s self-paced, and we can tell when the teachers are online” as well as what courses they take and how well they tested after completing the course.

Recognizing the need for teacher training, computer companies are getting into the act as well. At the Florida Educational Technology Conference (FETC) in March, Dell Computer announced it will ship its products with a free CD-ROM to help teachers learn basic computer skills and applications.

Dell worked with CBT Systems to develop the disk, which provides tutorials in applications such as Microsoft’s Windows operating system, Word and Excel office applications, and Netscape Navigator web browser. A hotlink on each tutorial brings customers to a Dell web site that provides additional training resources.

Karen Bruett, director of marketing for Dell’s K-12 division, said the disk represents phase one of the company’s plans to supplement its product line with training materials. Phase two, she said, will offer tools “to help teachers take that next step–integrating the technology into their curriculum.” The new bundle will be announced shortly, she said.