The Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) has unveiled a new web-based program designed to help budget-conscious school administrators get the biggest bang for their high-tech buck.

Called Value of Investment, or VOI, the free online program aims to help district-level technology leaders weigh the potential costs and benefits associated with educational technology purchases before dipping into the public trust.

Calling the initiative “one of the most important things” his organization has done to date, CoSN CEO Keith Krueger said the program, which includes an interactive calculator for predicting the educational value of technology projects, is intended to assure stakeholders that they “are getting some kind of return on for what [schools] invest in technology.” The initiative borrows the concept of Return on Investment, or ROI, that businesses frequently use to justify future spending increases to corporate board members and applies it for schools. Krueger explained that schools don’t have the luxury of evaluating the success of ed-tech purchases solely on the black and red of a corporate balance sheet. In education, he said, the benchmark of any good school system lies with the success of its students.

Rather than measure the effectiveness of educational technology programs based on some combination of dollars and cents, project director Rich Kaestner said VOI was created so schools could evaluate technology investments in relation to their impact on certain qualitative goals, including progress toward improved student test scores, classroom equity, and 21st-century skill sets, to name a few.

The concept runs hand-in-hand with another CoSN initiative: CoSN’s Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) Tool. Developed in partnership with technology analysis firm Gartner Inc., the TCO assessment was designed to help schools budget for the cost of integrating and sustaining large-scale technology infrastructures over a long period of time. The VOI project looks not only at what schools are spending on technology, but also at what benefits are being realized as a result of that investment, said Kaestner, a former Gartner analyst.

The tool outlines a five-step approach for determining the Value of Investment: (1) Estimate project costs; (2) assess risk; (3) calculate anticipated savings and revenues; (4) measure qualitative benefits; and (5) evaluate results.

As an initial step, school administrators are asked to input information into an interactive Project Cost Estimator. Designed to help schools determine the TCO related to a given project, the tool helps administrators consider the cost of the investment over time, taking into account such variables as annual maintenance fees and overhead time.

To measure potential benefits, CoSN has developed a second tool. Designed in the form of a spreadsheet, the Project Benefits Worksheet asks district technology coordinators to answer a series of questions about their projects. Administrators then must rate the potential benefits of each initiative, whether for students and staff, and apply those ratings to a metric that helps determine the cost relative to the project’s probability for success.

Project organizers say they developed the idea for the program while conducting three separate case studies of school districts in the process of implementing one-to-one laptop initiatives for students. Although school administrators had high hopes for these programs, researchers discovered they had little in the way of metrics to determine whether or not these investments actually contributed toward meeting certain educational goals.

“There were some very compelling stories as to what would be going on,” said Krueger–but no system in place to articulate that vision.

By establishing the projected costs and benefits of technology projects in measurable terms at inception, Kaestner explained, school leaders will be able to review a program six months or two years later and make the case for whether it was worth pursuing.

The new VOI tools “should help the educational system answer the calls for greater accountability” in educational technology, said Eileen Lento, education strategist for Intel Corp., one of four corporate sponsors for the project. The others are computer maker Gateway Inc. and educational software providers SAS in School and SchoolNet.