One of our corporate benefactors recently built a facility down the street from our school, and I had the opportunity to tour their data center a couple of weeks ago. I left drooling.

As we walked up the ramp to the raised floor of the data center and signed in, I was immediately struck by the fact that humidity and temperature were maintained at an ideal level for electronic equipment by four gigantic environmental control units. Data and voice frames arranged neatly in rows supported thousands of wires, which appeared from the chases below the floor and were punched down neatly and labeled both on the panel and on the cable. Each wire was meticulously cut and punched down well within the limits of Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ specifications.

Redundancy and reliability seemed to be the watchwords here, as my tour guide explained to me the wiring plan and the redundant T-1 lines that connected the site to the rest of the corporate backbone. Virtually every piece of equipment had redundant power supplies. He showed me how the electricity is supplied from two different city power grids to safeguard against power failure. In a closet, tens of thousands of dollars worth of replacement equipment sat in a “crash cart” just waiting for something on the network to fail.

When he pointed out a router that required a token ring card, I commented on my surprise that they were still using token ring. “They make an Ethernet version of this particular machine,” he replied. “But we’re still testing it. Nothing goes into our production network until it has been tested in the lab and then piloted in a remote field office. The customer is the lifeblood of our company. There can be absolutely zero impact on customer service from network outages.”

On my way back up the street, I started to think of my own “customers” and my own “data center,” which is actually a closet in a classroom adjacent to the main computer lab. Crowded and susceptible to heat, it serves our needs fairly well, but it has nowhere near the fault tolerance of any corporate data center.

Sure, we do the basics. Data are backed up every night. Sensitive data are placed on a redundant array of independent disks (RAID) 5-disk arrays. Adequate uninterruptible power supplies protect the servers and switches. If the T-1 line goes down, however, it does not roll the traffic onto a backup. It just goes down, and we do without internet access until Verizon can get it back up. Similarly, when the power goes out, the servers stay up for 15 minutes and then shut down, but workstations cut off immediately.

We do basic testing to see if things like new applications or operating systems will work, but something as basic as putting a different network interface card into a computer? We just put it in, and if it doesn’t work, we take it out again. Last week, we had to update some software on all the machines in one lab, so we closed the lab for 45 minutes. Zero impact on customer service? Hmmm.

Compared with those of corporate America, our practices may seem cavalier—perhaps even irresponsible—but our situation is not unique among schools. Most school information technology departments just don’t have the head count or the budget to do much better. The reality is that in many schools, network reliability is a priority for only one person—the network administrator.

Sure, the kids grumble when they can’t get their papers typed, but they write them longhand or they tell the teacher that the system was down and hand them in late. The principal gets frustrated when he can’t get his eMail right away, but he understands that the network administrator is overworked. He resigns himself to the fact that the system will be back up eventually.

In a corporation that depends on its data systems, network outages are a big deal. They cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. People lose their jobs because of them. In a school, a network outage is no big deal. Users wait, and the network comes back up eventually.

Information technology simply plays a different role in a corporation than it does in a school. When corporations adopt IT, it often becomes an essential part of their operations. Computers will manage customer contact information, work-flow processes, shipment tracking, and everything related to each and every business transaction. If the network goes down, work stops. Period.

Many schools, on the other hand, have taken a cautious, experimental attitude toward adopting technology into the core of their daily operations. Schools have set up computer labs, and maybe even some computers in classrooms, but most still use a manual procedure for producing report cards or accounting. The network could be down for days in a school like this with little or no impact on the school’s operation. Teachers just change lesson plans, and students find other ways to type work as a sort of human fault tolerance.

On the surface, finances seem to be the most obvious reason for this difference.

Corporations make money, and schools spend money. In schools, resources are tight, and we cut corners where we have to. However, resources are tight in a corporation as well. Everything needs to be accounted for, and corporate IT managers often have to answer tough questions to their bosses about high expenses.

While finances must play some role in the different ways schools and corporations implement technology, I’d like to suggest that the issue is more complex than dollars and cents. I believe it results from a fundamental difference in priorities.

The difference in missions between schools and corporations is a primary factor in this difference in priorities. Corporate IT departments have an extraordinarily narrow purpose because the corporation usually has a very specific job to do. Schools, on the other hand, are experimental and academic by design. Our counterparts in industry are given charges like “design an eCommerce application so that our customers can order our product over the web.” We, on the other hand, get requests like, “implement technology in the classroom to make our students more information-literate,” or “make instruction more student-centric and project-based.” Our counterparts have a clear-cut goal and painfully obvious ways to measure success or failure. We have a hazy vision of what we want to accomplish and measurement tools that often leave us wondering exactly what we have measured.

Another reason for this difference in priorities is the difference in relationships that schools and corporations have with their customers. Companies implement comprehensive IT strategies to match up to competitors that have used technology to provide better products and more efficient customer service. The threat of losing customers to technologically advanced competitors has driven companies to implement new technology and incorporate it into their business processes at breakneck speed. Consequently, the threat of losing customers due to system outages has made system reliability into priority No. 1.

Schools, on the other hand, are not nearly as motivated by customer loyalty because, for the most part, they have a captive audience. Despite all the recent political noise about charter schools and vouchers increasing competition among schools, the reality is that these proposals, at best, will amount to a drop in the bucket for the majority of school “customers.”

Until fundamental change occurs in the public school system that serves the overwhelming majority of students, most students will continue going to school right where they always have with little, if any, impact on schools’ attitudes toward customer loyalty. The technological result will be that computers likely will remain on the fringe as an attractive side dish, but they rarely will become the main course of a school’s operations.

This has resulted in an unfortunate Catch-22 for technology in many schools. Because of vague goals and a lack of concern for customer loyalty, technology is not an essential part of the daily operations of many schools. Because it is not an essential part of the daily operations, it has become impossible to justify spending money on redundancy and light-switch reliability. Because we can’t guarantee light-switch reliability, we can’t generate the administrative and faculty confidence in our systems needed to make technology a core component of the daily operations.

Of course, differing attitudes toward technology is only one small symptom of this difference in mindset between corporate and academic America. On a much larger scale, this mindset is responsible for failing schools and teachers who have lost the motivation to innovate in a period of unprecedented economic growth and corporate success. Our businesses have succeeded because of clear-cut goals, strategic plans for achieving those goals, and clear, objective measurements of success. Our schools struggle because we latch onto vague and changing notions of what academic success means, we follow trends and fads to achieve it, and we can’t agree on a reliable way to measure it.

I guess we’ll be OK as long as there’s no competitive threat to our customer base.