The Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) annual conference, held Feb. 26 to 28 in Crystal City, Va., served as a springboard for several new initiatives the group is undertaking on issues such as data-driven decision making, total cost of ownership (TCO), ed-tech advocacy, and emerging technologies.

Approximately 500 school leaders, educators, and technology directors attended CoSN’s 8th Annual K-12 School Networking Conference. During the conference, CoSN, technology analyst firm Gartner Inc., and others unveiled a free, web-based application—called the CoSN-Gartner Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) Tool—that K-12 school leaders can use to assess their technology investments.

The TCO Tool is the latest development in CoSN’s four-year-old "Taking TCO to the Classroom" initiative, which has helped school officials understand the long-term costs involved in building and operating a network of computers.

"This is kind of the next step," said Sara Fitzgerald, project director of CoSN’s Safeguarding the Wired Schoolhouse and Taking TCO to the Classroom initiatives. "We always wanted to create a tool for schools to assess their TCO. And, thanks to a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, we were able to do that."

Gartner created the tool by refining the TCO model used in the business world from 1,800 questions to 100, using data from four school districts of varying sizes in California, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and Utah. The results of these case studies are available on the Taking TCO to the Classroom web site.

When using the TCO Tool, school leaders enter data about their networks, computing devices, software, personnel, and other direct and indirect costs. Based on this information, they’ll be able to compare their own numbers against the range of figures that Gartner calculated in its work with the four pilot districts.

"School districts can’t plan where to go with their technology investments unless they know where they are [now]," said John Bailey, director of educational technology for the U.S. Department of Education (ED). "We believe that this tool will help districts review whether they are supporting technology adequately to meet the academic goals they have defined for themselves."

Data-driven decision making

To help school leaders make sound decisions with the data they collect, CoSN—in partnership with IBM, SAS Institute, and Educational Testing Service—is undertaking a new leadership initiative called 3D: The Vision to Know and Do.

CoSN launched the web site for 3D, which stands for "data-driven decision making," as a response to the challenges teachers and administrators at the school, district, and state levels face in understanding how to use data appropriately as a tool to improve student learning. The web site will serve as a rich depository of information on the topic.

"Educators are increasingly being asked to collect, analyze, and report data to demonstrate that their efforts are resulting in increased student learning," said Irene Spero, 3D project director. "With the passage of No Child Left Behind [NCLB], data collection, analysis, and reporting have become even more imperative."

ED’s Susan Patrick said the name "3D" is suitable for this initiative because a three-dimensional picture denotes depth. "We want to create a picture of what happens with student learning over time," she said.

Herman Gaither, superintendent of the Beaufort County Schools in South Carolina and a speaker during a plenary session titled "What is Data-driven Decision Making?," made the point that data-driven decision making creates a huge need for staff development. "Teachers are not data managers. Nowhere did teachers go along and learn how to process data," he said.

Ed-tech advocacy

CoSN is continuing its lobbying efforts to have ed-tech language written into upcoming bills that are being reauthorized this year, as it did with NCLB and the restructuring of ED’s Office of Educational Research and Improvement.

The current Congress faces "an extraordinary list of bills that relate to education in some way," including the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the Perkins Act, Head Start, and the Higher Education Act, Leslie Harris, CoSN’s legislative consultant, told attendees of CoSN’s private sector meeting Feb. 25 in Washington, D.C.

Harris said lobbying for educational technology needs to be more aggressive than it was five years ago, because national priorities have changed so much. The country is facing a ballooning deficit and possible war with Iraq.

That is why CoSN arranged a lobbying day Feb. 25, where conference attendees went to Capitol Hill and met with congressional staffers to share their stories and best practices.

Bailey agreed that lobbying for ed tech requires a different approach. Many ed-tech programs were created in times of budget surpluses, he said, but those surpluses are disappearing—and so are ed-tech programs. "It’s a changing environment, and we have to change as well," Bailey said.

When speaking with members of Congress and their staffers, he advised, "leave the techno-Latin behind."

The federal Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is relying more on scientific data to make budget decisions, Bailey said. This was demonstrated with the president’s budget request for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program for fiscal year 2004, he asserted. A study released recently found that, in its first year, the program had little impact on students. The Bush administration cited this preliminary research when it called for a $400 million, 40-percent cut in the program’s funding (story, page 1).

To safeguard funding, Bailey recommended that school leaders conduct scientific evaluations of their ed-tech programs. "The best way to advocate for the long term is to keep showing evidence that [educational technology] is working for students," he said.

The eRate faces increased scrutiny because of recent scandals, but the House Commerce Committee is "not jumping all over it," Harris said. What does potentially threaten the eRate is the possibility of restructuring the way the Universal Service program is funded. The telecommunications marketplace has changed dramatically, Harris said, and there is less revenue lately, as well as lingering questions about who should pay into the fund.

"Financially and politically, we can’t sustain and fund the eRate program if the Universal Service Fund is not sustained," she said.

Besides the eRate and ED’s technology grant programs, Sara Fitzgerald reminded attendees of additional federal programs that fund educational technology, including the Treasury Department’s Qualified Zone Academy Bonds, the Justice Department’s School Safety Technology Solicitation, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service grants.

Emerging technologies

Steve Rappaport, chairman of CoSN’s newly created Emerging Technology committee, said this voluntary panel was created to educate CoSN’s members about upcoming and innovative technologies that have the potential to enhance K-12 teaching and learning.

The committee members will scout the marketplace for emerging technologies and produce vendor-neutral reports three times a year. The first report will be on wireless technologies, he said.

International delegation

Representatives from top education agencies in Australia, Canada, Germany, and the United States met during the CoSN conference to discuss connectivity, teacher training, and other challenges.

"To no big surprise, the problems facing policy members in the states and elsewhere are the same," said William Gilcher of the Goethe Institute, a Washington-based German cultural center. "Sharing best practices and struggles is helpful."

Evening forum

In an evening forum held Feb. 26, Bailey and others discussed the future of educational technology and its place in schools.

One of the biggest ed-tech challenges, Bailey said, is to avoid simply putting technology on top of old ways of doing things. Instead, he said, when adding technology, schools should rethink and restructure their practices and processes.

Terence Rogers, president of Advanced Network and Services Inc., said schools should shift to individualized learning with the aid of technology within five years. "We should all dedicate ourselves to that, if you ask me," he said. "It makes no sense to assume that all kids coming into a school are the same."

But change and innovation don’t come easily. When Bailey served as Pennsylva-nia’s ed-tech director, the state ran a competition to award $2 million to two school systems that proposed the most innovative plans for reengineering their districts.

"It was incredible how inside the box [most applicants’] thinking was," Bailey said. He urged school leaders to involve students more in the technology planning process. Some innovative school districts even have a student on their ed-tech advisory board, he said.

See these related links:

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

Data Driven Decision Making Initiative http://www.3d2know.org

TCO Tool http://www.classroomtco.org

Related eSN reports:

Bush administration: Study justifies cutting after-school programs by $400 million
http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStoryts.cfm?ArticleID=4292

Final 2003 education budget friendly to schools, technology
http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=4253

Bush’s 2004 budget calls for $145M in ed-tech cuts
http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showstory.cfm?ArticleID=4262

Bush 2003 budget would cut school technology funding
http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=2600