Saving money while increasing the effectiveness of school technology investments was the recurring theme discussed by the school superintendents, technology directors, and instructional coordinators who gathered at the eSchool News “Best Practices in School Technology” conference in Vienna, Va., Oct. 7-9.

During 12 perceptive presentations, educators heard best-practice stories from their peers, experts, and corporate solution providers about how best to train teachers, increase technology use in the classroom, and budget for technology initiatives.

Attendees also shared strategies for cutting technology costs, increasing school safety and security, and improving relations with stakeholders.

The conference—which was sponsored in part by Aladdin, AMD, bigchalk, Gedanken Experiments, NetSchools, and SurfControl—also featured a special presentation on what schools need to know about the Children’s Internet Protection Act. (For more details, see the “CIPA Survival Guide” on the eSchool News web site—link on pg. 43.)

Professional development

Now that a majority of schools have computers and internet access in each classroom, school administrators are challenged with getting teachers to use the technology in their instruction. Attendees heard professional development strategies ranging from technology mentors and off-site visits to summer institutes and online workshops.

At the Klein Independent School District in Texas, teachers train each other through a mentoring program called Technology Integration Mentor.

The district pays teachers a $1,750 stipend to be a mentor, said Ann McMullan, Klein’s instructional technology director. Each mentor serves as a lifelong learner, a teacher of students and teachers, a technology advocate, and a curriculum team leader.

“Professional development becomes part of every day,” McMullan said, as teachers can turn to a mentor in their own building for help, support, and encouragement.

Heidi Clevenger-Blair, digital media coordinator for the Deer Valley Unified School District in Phoenix, said her district holds two-hour, face-to-face workshops in the mornings and afternoons to accommodate teachers’ busy schedules.

“We usually have three times the attendance in the morning than we do in the afternoon,” Clevenger-Blair said. As part of the training, teachers have to travel off site and look at how other classrooms and schools operate.

Clevenger-Blair also said she forms user groups—like a Palm user group—so the district’s users of specialized technology can get together and share software and tips.

Charlie Garten, executive director of the Poway Unified School District outside of San Diego, recommends that school districts spend at least 30 percent of their technology budgets on staff development.

Besides traditional professional development sessions throughout the year, Poway teachers attend summer institutes to sharpen their technology skills. Then, these teachers share what they learned with at least six other people.

Several districts now use online courses to augment their professional development activities.

“Online learning isn’t ‘the’ way to do professional development, it’s another way,” said Mike Rutherford, business development manager at Blackboard Inc., a maker of software used to build online courses.

Online learning lets teachers learn on their own time, but learning online occurs much more slowly than in face-to-face experiences. Rutherford said school officials should let teachers know what to expect from the course immediately to avoid frustration.

Also, he warned educators not to expect that online learning will replace face-to-face staff development, or that everyone will like it, or that your staff developers know how to teach in this environment.

Setting standards for what staff and administrators should be able to do with technology can determine how effectively technology investments are used. To help educators to get started, the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) is developing a set of technology standards for school administrators.

Best Practices conference attendees received a draft of ISTE’s new Technology Standards for School Administrators. The final version of the standards will be released in November. Until then, ISTE is still accepting feedback on the standards from educators at its web site (link, pg. 43).

Keith Krueger, executive director of the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), said his organization is developing two online professional development courses to be launched later this year.

Integrating technology into instruction

In the past, developing curriculum that met standards and other accountability measures was often a year-long process. Now, web-based software tools are available that enable teachers to plan lessons that are aligned with standards and linked to assessment tools.

Eliot Levinson, chief executive officer of the BLE Group, said these educational tools “are doing for education what ATM machines did for banking.”

Using this kind of software, teachers and administrators can pinpoint an exact instructional level for each student.

John Krewer, superintendent of the South Plainfield Schools in New Jersey, is using SkillsTutor in his district to provide students with anytime, anywhere learning opportunities.

Teachers, students, and even parents are learning how to use this web-based tool to extend learning beyond the school day. “In the last two weeks, I trained 3,200 parents on SkillsTutor on parent-teacher night,” Krewer said.

Soon, South Plainfield students will be able to use the software in three local supermarkets while their parents shop. Krewer said the students will access SkillsTutor online and communicate to their parents using walkie-talkies.

Planning and budgeting strategies

To make technology initiatives possible, school districts need to plan and budget for the long term, especially because technology money—which often comes from grants—isn’t guaranteed year after year.

“Schools should have a plan of what to do if the money dries up,” said Sara Fitzgerald, vice president of communications for Funds for Learning LLC and CoSN.

Fitzgerald explained total cost of ownership, an analysis tool developed in the mid-1980s to help enterprises manage rapidly rising technology costs. By planning for the future and analyzing expenditures, schools can be prepared and save a great deal of money, she said.

While accepting donated computers might seem like a financial blessing, Fitzgerald said, donated computers often cost school districts more money than they are worth.

“Down the road this becomes a real problem for schools, because you have a real mishmash of hardware and software,” she said. Maintenance and support for all these various machines require more time and knowledge from a school district’s technical staff.

“Schools should put a policy in place saying they will only accept a computer if it meets these specific standards,” she said. Using a leasing strategy keeps a school district’s network and hardware relatively standardized and current.

In writing a technology plan, Jim Crossett of North Carolina-based Focus Management Group Inc. said, “The first thing we always need to have is a specific set of technology goals.”

The plan should budget for both the short and long term, considering issues such as how many students there should be per computer, what software you’re going to use, and how fast service and support will happen.

The technology plan will help educators understand and explain technology investments to key stakeholders—parents and community members.

To get started writing a three- to five-year technology plan, Lisa DeMuelle, director of educational services at Edmin.com, said school officials first should select a committee, develop a committee charter, conduct research, establish a timeline for developing the plan, and establish a budget.

Next, the committee should write the plan, including a vision and mission statement, as well as goals for curriculum, professional development, infrastructure, hardware, funding, budgeting, monitoring, and evaluation.

The Edmin.com web site, sponsored by Compaq Computer Corp., offers a free, online, comprehensive technology-planning tool to guide educators through this entire process step by step.

Extending district finances through technology

Through innovative practices, school districts like Hays Unified School District No. 489 in Kansas have been able to maximize their district’s finances.

Craig Ludwick, the district’s technology director, said that before his district standardized its computer hardware through a leasing agreement, his staff supported 90 different computer models, resulting in higher costs and slower response times.

Now Ludwick said he spends 22 percent of his technology budget on hardware and 78 percent on training and support.

Schools also stand to save money with the emergence of the Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF), an industry-wide standard that will enable software programs from different vendors to share data.

In some school districts, a single student’s name can be entered 60 times into different programs, according to Timothy J. Magner, SIF director. If all software programs in a district can share data in real time, regardless of their manufacturers, these data only have to be entered or updated in the system once.

“This is not a product. It’s a way software vendors can build their products to allow [different] programs to talk to each other,” Magner said.

Currently, more than 100 software makers participate in SIF, but it has only been piloted in four school systems so far. School leaders who want to participate can contact SIF through its web site.

Software delivered either through the internet or over a wide-area network also can provide a cost-savings to schools, according to Catharine Ronayne, director of sales and marketing at NCS Pearson.

An application service provider (ASP) hosts and provides remote access to software over the internet to relieve customers from the burden of managing the software themselves.

Network administration, security, and support

Emerging technologies, such as fingerprint scanning and face and voice recognition, are helping some schools address increasing safety and security issues.

Biometric forms of identification can solve problems created by identification cards or passwords that are forgotten or passed to another individual, according to Rick Bailey, of Food Service Solutions Inc., which installs biometric identification systems in school cafeterias.

These systems can be used to allow entry into buildings, log onto computers, check out books in the library, and buy lunch in the cafeteria. Schools save money on identification cards and can know instantly who went where, and when, Bailey said.

Internet filters are intended to protect students from harmful material on the internet, but they also allow schools to maximize their bandwidth, according to Susan Getgood, vice president of marketing at SurfControl.

“Internet filtering isn’t just to block porn, it’s to use your network to the best of its ability,” Getgood said.

The company’s internet filter, Cyber Patrol, allows administrators to pinpoint and manage exactly what is chewing up bandwidth, like students downloading sports clips.

Viruses such as Nimda and Code Red have cost schools both money and class time, but an all-in-one product from Aladdin Systems Inc. is designed specifically to prevent viruses and hackers from taking down a school’s network and computers.

Reaching stakeholders electronically

When community members understand why technology is helpful to schools, they are more likely to support a school’s initiatives—but first schools have to get local citizens to understand technology.

Steve Miller, executive director of the Mass Networks Education Partnership in Allston, Mass., recommends that school districts use a variety of media outlets to get their message out to stakeholders, such as writing a regular column in the local newspaper, doing a radio call-in show, or appearing on a community-access cable show.

Schools can also use their web sites to post information, and they can open up computer labs after hours to community members.

“No computer lab should ever go unused from eight in the morning until 10 at night,” Miller said. When designing the lab, include separate doors to the outside so the lab can be opened even when the school is closed.

The school board of the Calcasieu Parish Public Schools in Louisiana operates an eMail discussion forum on its web site to increase communication with community members as part of a two-year project with the National School Boards Foundation.

“Not many people go to our school board meetings, so our community was not really engaged with our school board,” said Sheryl Abshire, administrative coordinator of technology for the district.

The web site features information about who the board members are, what the board’s policies are, various committees, a calendar, and minutes from past meetings.

In addition, the site includes online polls about issues the board will be deliberating, such as school uniforms. The site and its discussion forum provide school board members with “lots of positive feedback and support, which makes their job and decisions so much easier,” Abshire said.

Initiatives like this help the public gain trust in the school system while at the same time fostering support for the district’s initiatives. “The public is seeing what we’re doing in real time. We’ve opened up the doors of our meetings and … our board room,” Abshire said.

Links:

eSchool News Best Practices in School Technology Conference
http://www.eschoolnews.com/bp

CIPA Survival Guide
http://www.eschoolnews.com/features/cipa

Aladdin Systems Inc.
http://www.ealaddin.com

AMD
http://www.amd.com

bigchalk
http://www.bigchalk.com

Gedanken Experiments
http://www.gedanken-experiments.com

NetSchools Corp.
http://www.netschools.com

SurfControl
http://www.surfcontrol.com

Consortium for School Networking
http://www.cosn.org

Klein Independent School District
http://www.klein.texas.schools.esc4.net

Deer Valley Unified School District
http://www.dvusd.k12.az.us

Poway Unified School District
http://powayusd.sdcoe.k12.ca.us

Blackboard Inc.
http://www.blackboard.com

ISTE’s Technology Standards for School Administrators
http://cnets.iste.org/tssa

BLE Group
http://www.blegroup.com

South Plainfield Schools
http://www.southplainfieldnj.com/schools/sp9.htm

CoSN’s Total Cost of Ownership study
http://www.cosn.org/tco

Focus Management Group
http://focusmg.com

Edmin.com
http://www.edmin.com

Hays Unified School District No. 489
http://www.hays489.k12.ks.us

Schools Interoperability Framework
http://www.sifinfo.org

NCS Pearson
http://www.ncspearson.com

Food Service Solutions Inc.
http://www.foodserve.com

Mass Networks Education Partnership
http://www.massnetworks.org/mnep

Calcasieu Parish Public Schools
http://www.cpsb.org