As school technology infrastructures have become larger and more complex, the percentage of their technology budgets that schools spend on tech support has doubled in the last four years, according to a new report.

School leaders reported that items such as professional development and instructional applications are among the first tech-related expenses they cut when budgets are tight. But the report, from ed-tech consulting firm The Hayes Connection, says this is a short-sighted approach that harms both teachers and students. Instead, the report argues, schools would be better served finding ways to stabilize their rising tech-support costs–and it describes strategies that savvy school leaders have used to accomplish this.

“When asked about tradeoffs and choices, some technology directors cited the basics–cutting out travel to technology conferences, as well as reducing or delaying purchases of instructional software for students,” the report says.

“Interestingly, few technology directors cited reducing tech-support costs as a way to cut budgets in a more significant way–this, despite the fact that tech support is the fastest-growing cost area for school technology budgets.”

Hayes, formerly president of education research firm Quality Education Data (QED), explained the thinking of many school leaders this way: “People tend to take the practical, short, easiest approach when they’re in a situation to cut budgets–they cut around the edges, and I think that’s true in business, too. You cut the thing that’s fastest and easiest, but I don’t think that’s serving, in the long run, what needs to be done.”

According to QED’s 2002-03 “Technology Purchasing Forecast,” tech support accounted for 14 percent of a typical school’s technology budget. In a survey Hayes’ new firm released last year, called “America’s Digital Schools 2006,” tech support had jumped to 28 percent of school technology budgets.

One answer for budget-strapped districts lies in reining in the growing costs of tech-support staffing, the reports says.

“As the number of platforms has multiplied exponentially, an idiosyncratic mix of aged and new hardware is expected to be maintained by school and district tech specialists,” it says. “Many school districts focus on the ‘small’ savings to be realized by reducing software spending (currently 22 percent of tech spending), professional development, and travel, while not looking at the elephant in the room. That elephant is ‘head count’–how many technical staff are employed by the district to maintain the crazy quilt of disparate hardware? How many districts still have multiple versions of Windows and Mac operating systems? How many still have Apple IIs running applications?”

To reduce their tech-support staffing costs, the report notes, some districts have moved to standardize on a single hardware platform. But this approach limits the choices that educators and students have at their disposal. Another possibility is software “virtualization,” which was made easier by Apple’s recent introduction of the Intel-based Mac.

For example, a new program called Parallels Desktop for Mac “allows teachers and students to use almost any operating system on the Intel-based Mac without rebooting or sacrificing stability, user-friendliness, or performance,” the report says. “This approach can greatly reduce tech-support time and enable less-sophisticated staff to support entire labs and school infrastructures more easily.”

Another trend in larger districts is to employ an enterprise model, which uses automated solutions to boost the productivity of tech-support staff.

Georgia’s Fulton County Schools is phasing in LANDesk software to perform automated desktop management as well as asset management, security installs, and other tasks, said Katie Lovett, the district’s executive director of technology. This reduces time spent on software deployment, she said, and saves school-based staff for on-site support.

Asset-management software, such as LANDesk and Follett’s Destiny Asset Manager, can uncover waste, the report says–not just in items that aren’t inventoried, but also in duplicate purchases that can be consolidated.

The report includes other suggestions from technology directors from coast to coast:

 

 

  • If they assess the true cost of maintaining many different operating systems, technology directors might be able to make the case for a capital investment to replace aging machines that will pay for itself in reduced tech-support costs over time.
  • To handle short-term projects, districts can outsource their tech support, which might be a more cost-effective way to complete the project than hiring permanent staff.
  • Districts with a mix of platforms should look for solutions that allow for automated deployment of multiple operating systems on one box.

     

    The bottom line, said Hayes, is there are other, more effective ways to cut technology budgets that don’t sacrifice professional development or classroom applications–two items that have a direct impact on instruction.

    “Superintendents seem to support professional development, and [districts should] look at some kind of [mandate] that says a technology budget will never have less than a certain percent for professional development–it’s going to be harder to just cut it,” she said. “It’s a matter of really putting your priorities in stone, and ideally it’s taking a long-term approach.”

    Links:

    The Hayes Connection

    America’s Digital Schools Project