For Cash-Strapped Schools, Smart Ways to Spend Limited Tech Dollars

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For schools looking to spend limited dollars allocated for technology in smart and efficient ways, lessons learned over years of making tough decisions can be helpful.

Mark Samberg, who has worked in education for 13 years, first as a K-12 tech director and later as a district level technology director, has some sage advice. Samberg is a research associate for the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation, a center at North Carolina State University dedicated to helping figure out what tech solutions work in classrooms and to sharing what its researchers learn with educators. “Schools are making the best decisions they can given the information they have,” Samberg said. “It’s very difficult to stay on top of what’s new and cutting edge when you’ve got a billion other things going on.”

Samberg offers some advice, both big-picture philosophies and detailed strategies, on how to move forward with a technology plan.

EDUCATIONAL SOFTWARE

Technology directors should be careful of software sold as the proposed solution to raising test scores. “If you expect software to raise test scores, that rarely happens,” Samberg said. He advises schools to reach out to other schools of similar size and demographics that are using that software with specific questions.“Canned content is very expensive,” Samberg said. “If you are going to spend that kind of money, you should always be asking what do I want out of this software.”

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Samberg has visited schools all over North Carolina and has seen technology used in innovative ways that enable students to show their learning in provocative and creative ways. But he’s also seen schools grasping at technology as a magic way to improve test scores. “If canned content could do what teachers can’t they would have gotten rid of all the teachers by now,” Samberg said. “A good teacher will get you more value than canned content.”

INTERACTIVE WHITEBOARDS

One of the biggest challenges facing school technologists is the long planning and budgeting cycles on which schools operate. Tech directors are forced to make their best predictions about what kinds of devices and investments they’ll need several years out and could be in the middle of implementing that plan with a fixed budget when a whole new set of devices, software, and pedagogical ideas to accompany them start rolling through.

Interactive whiteboards are a good example of how a long, slow, and expensive rollout can tie a district's hands when newer, and often less expensive, technologies are released. “When interactive white boards came out 15 or 16 years ago they were really the best way we could change interactions with computers,” Samberg said. “They are very expensive, over $5,000 per unit, and over the past couple of years better ways of interacting with computers have emerged.” But some schools are just coming to the end of a whiteboard rollout and can’t turn around to try something different.

For schools looking to invest now, Samberg has some much less expensive ideas that are modular and can be updated when something breaks or a newer and better version comes out. The functions of an interactive whiteboard can be mimicked with a large screen TV and a Chromecast device, which also allows teachers to use any device available whether it’s a document camera, phone, iPad or other tablet. “You’ve saved money, but you’ve also opened up other ways to interact in the classrooms,” Samberg said. The teacher no longer has to lecture from the front of the room -- the technology isn’t hindering the teacher’s practice.

SHORT REPLACEMENT CYCLE OR LONG TERM INVESTMENT

Technology evolves so quickly that it's impossible to pick the “perfect” set-up for a classroom. That has led some schools to buy cheaper devices with the expectation that they’ll be replaced on a shorter timeline. But that approach can be dangerous. “If you run into a situation where your budget is tight and you can’t replace it, then you start to have problems,” Samberg said. Once devices start failing the whole effort is put in jeopardy.

At the same time, it can be hard for schools to get new money to sustain programs, so many technology directors try to pick something that will last. The trouble with that path is that after dishing out hundreds of thousands of dollars for expensive devices, administrators are less likely to fund the next technology need that comes along. Taking advantage of devices that students already own in conjunction with some school-owned devices -- a BYOD policy -- could be a good way to maneuver around that problem, Samberg said.

“A lot of schools that go one-to-one have taken desktops out of their classrooms, but there’s an argument for not doing that so you can have a ready plan B,” Samberg said. Students are often most comfortable on their own devices and if something malfunctions they can use the desktop computer or a stock of school-owned devices for the rest of the lesson. Since most teachers are using web-based resources, the type of device becomes less important.

SAVE MONEY WITH OPEN-SOURCE MATERIALS

“My personal opinion is that schools could do more with open source software and avoid some licensing that way,” Samberg said. During his time as technology director, he saved his school $18,000 installing Linux instead of operating systems like Windows or Mac OSX.* Open-source materials often take more up-front person-hours to install and train users, but this way, schools avoid paying licensing fees every year.

Some schools don’t have the in-house technical expertise to use open-source programs, especially if the tech director is also expected to teach. “It would be a hard sell to tell the tech guy who is also teaching three classes a day that now he’s got to do a rollout with Linux,” Samberg said.

INVEST IN WIRELESS

“You have to have adequate wireless,” Samberg said. “This is where it’s about spending more money and not less. It’s a tough argument to make and it’s the kind of thing no one thinks about until it fails.” Samberg has personal experience underestimating how many wireless hotspots a school needed. But once there are 30 or more devices using one hot spot it slows to a crawl. He thinks if a school has a BYOD policy, or a one-to-one every program, each classroom should have its own hot spot. Depending on the size and layout of the school that could cost about $40,000 per school.

With managed wireless services available through the cloud, Samberg sees an opportunity to provide a stable wireless network without continually returning to the district asking for more money. Using a cloud service that manages the wireless instead of an expensive in-house controller allows the school to make wireless costs an on-going expense. “Any time a school can turn a cost into a recurring cost is great because it’s just the price of doing business,” Samberg said.

PEERING INTO THE FUTURE

There’s no one great salve for school or district technology directors to choose the best investment. “Before making any purchases, evaluate what you have and plan as many years out as is feasible,” Samberg said. “You don’t know what tech is going to look like, but be very strategic about your purchases and what devices you’ll need.” That includes looking at what’s coming out in the consumer market that could be used in classrooms. Samberg encourages technologists to think creatively about solutions that could be adapted for the classroom and not to automatically buy solutions offered up by companies pitching schools with their products.

The other important piece of the puzzle is to involve everyone in the decision-making process. Consider the needs of teachers and students as well as the safety and support concerns of administrators and let all those data points guide technology choices. “No one person should be making all the decisions,” Samberg said.

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 - A previous version of this post had an incorrect reference to Word and Microsoft Office.

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