Compatibility concerns are the main reason school systems have delayed the switch to Microsoft Vista, tech-savvy educators are telling eSchool News.

Tighter security, better search and accessibility tools, and time-efficient network management are just some of the benefits that Microsoft lists as reasons for using its newest operating system, Vista, rather than XP. But six months after the much-touted launch of Vista, schools are still wary of making the change.

According to the director for Microsoft’s Education Specialist Group, Rod Gode, both administrators and teachers can benefit from Vista’s new features.

“In terms of administration, there are security features, as well as self-protection mechanisms, that are not available in XP,” Gode said. “For teachers, improved user interface and search capabilities can be great for time management.”

But will these features be enough to excite schools into braving the compatibility challenges associated with a major upgrade? The response from most schools, at least so far, seems clear: Eventually Vista will be used, but not right now.

According to an informal poll at eSchool News Online, when asked if they expect to be using Vista six months from now, only 14 percent of educators said yes–and a whopping 80 percent said no. (The remaining 6 percent of respondents said they weren’t sure.)

For schools, the promised benefits of Vista are likely to come at a cost. Not only might schools have to buy new hardware–but in many cases, they’ll have to upgrade their software, too, because many older software programs are not Vista compatible.

The Office of Technology Planning and Assessment at Virginia’s Fairfax County Public Schools has a lab-test environment devoted to “identifying, evaluating, and assessing new and emerging technologies,” and officials there are conducting a full technical assessment of Vista. According to district officials, they’ve found that only their “newest machines … will be able to run Vista and Office 2007 in the Vista Aero configuration without upgrades.”

“In a three-week period, we tested 96 applications for Vista compatibility,” said Sandy Kretzer, coordinator of technology consulting and assessment for the Fairfax County schools. “We chose these applications based on their widespread usage and pre-existing XP Pro compatibility issues. Usually, if the software had issues with XP Pro, it worked with Vista. In total, about 50 percent of the software we tested worked automatically with Vista.”

For all new computers running on Vista that Fairfax County plans to purchase, the district will require any accompanying software to contain the “Certified for Windows Vista” logo. But “it’s not [just] the software that we’re having trouble with,” Kretzer says; peripheral devices, too, pose a challenge.

Whereas large software vendors already are coming out with Vista-compatible versions, smaller makers of software and peripheral devices are slower to respond. For example, Fairfax County’s science probeware “has a USB box, so we’ll have to wait for the vendor to update the driver,” Kretzer notes.

In the meantime, Kretzer and the Fairfax County technology staff–which has been working with a Microsoft support team to make the transition to Vista go more smoothly–suggest using Microsoft’s online toolkit and joining Microsoft’s online community. “Our district provides a list of applications that we’ve tested, and we explain what works and what doesn’t,” Kretzer said. “Other schools can join and list their tests as well, so that we can all help each other.”

Kretzer believes that, eventually, Fairfax County educators will be using Vista–but only once their concerns for “customer training, support, and application compatibility” are alleviated.

Bob Moore, executive director of information technology services for Blue Valley Unified School District No. 229 in Kansas, shares Kretzer’s perspective. He says Vista is “feature-rich,” but there are “major compatibility issues–particularly with applications that were written for Windows 95.”

Moore’s district purchased close to 2,000 new computers this summer, but he opted to install them initially with Windows XP. He plans to phase in Vista gradually, over a period of at least two years. “If we push it up, then we have to purchase licenses in advance, and I’m not convinced it is worth the cost,” he said.

Moore goes on to explain that Vista’s “level of management will be good for enterprise deployments in the end, but it takes a lot of resources–such as memory and CPU–so that many computers in our district would struggle using Vista. There is also a learning curve for doing some common Windows tasks.”

Even Microsoft’s Gode acknowledges that schools will need time to fully deploy Vista.

“Vista has good traction in purchasing, but schools have an upgrade lifecycle,” he said. “Once their computers have been upgraded, maybe within a year or so, Vista will become the choice option.”

Gode used an analogy to describe schools’ problems with Vista compatibility: “Say you have a new car, and you want to install new safety airbags–there’s no problem. Now, say you want to install the latest safety airbags in a 1973 Pinto–of course, there will be some problems.”

Links:

Windows Vista Toolkit
http://technet.microsoft.com/en-us/windowsvista/aa905066.aspx

Fairfax County Public Schools
http://www.fcps.edu/index.shtml

University of Wisconsin Vista Resource
http://kb.wisc.edu/helpdesk/page.php?id=5175

Vista Compatibility at University of California, UC Davis
http://iet.ucdavis.edu/microsoft/vista_matrix.htm

UIUC Vista Compatibility List
http://eacademy1.ds.uiuc.edu/Microsoft/vistacompatible.html

Harvard University–John F. Kennedy School of Government Vista Resource
http://www.ksg.harvard.edu/is/student/vista.htm

Vista RTM Compatibility List from iexbeta.com
http://www.iexbeta.com/wiki/index.php/Windows_Vista_Software_Compatibility_List