Education Funding

New Web Tool Calculates Costs Of School Computer Networks

By Andrew Trotter — June 04, 2003 4 min read
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Projecting the full cost of a large-scale computer network can be the makings of a school budget officer’s splitting headache. But a new Web-based estimating tool could be a potential pain-reliever—and a money-saver.

The tool is a “total cost of ownership” calculator for school computer networks developed by Gartner Inc., a Stamford, Conn.-based technology- research firm, which was paid to develop the tool under a grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

“‘Total cost of ownership’ seems pretty dry and mundane on the surface, but it is one of the most fundamental tools and metrics to help manage the budget with regard to technology,” John P. Bailey, the Education Department’s director of educational technology, said during a Web-cast and telephone conference with the news media held last month to introduce the calculator. “It gives you a 360-degree view of a technology system.”

In a method similar to those businesses use to project the cost of their technologies, the Web-based tool offers questionnaires that define key educational technology expenses, along with four detailed case studies that districts can use to relate their size, type, and technology strategies to the likely costs.

The main cost areas are network hardware and software; technology support, namely the salaries and expenses of the people who keep the technology running; and indirect support costs, which are mostly incurred by teachers or other users who troubleshoot computer problems or maintain parts of the system even though it’s not in their job descriptions.

School districts’ reliance on those mostly hidden, informal experts is one of several problems not usually found in businesses, said Sara Fitzgerald, the project director for the Washington-based Consortium for School Networking, known as COSN. Ms. Fitzgerald, who is also the vice president of Funds for Learning Inc., an educational technology consulting firm, has organized meetings to raise awareness among educators about the concept of total cost of ownership.

As it is, she said, many districts suffer from a lack of standardization of equipment, a deficiency that multiplies and complicates problems for managing networks. And, Ms. Fitzgerald said during the teleconference, many districts don’t provide adequate training for users and have haphazard inventories of their network equipment.

Improvements in all those areas could save districts money and give them better data about the costs of their networks, officials said.

“School districts know that when you buy a school bus, you also have to budget for gasoline, maintenance and repairs, a driver—or it just sits there and doesn’t get used,” said Keith R. Krueger, COSN’s executive director, in the teleconference. “It’s the same with technology,” he said, noting that networks require spending on software applications, utilities, user support, staff development, and replacement and upgrades of components.

Seeking Data Clarity

The calculator project has 17 corporate sponsors, which will pay for dissemination of the new tool, but Mr. Krueger underscored in an interview that the tool is “vendor neutral.”

School officials can use the “total cost of ownership” calculator on the Web at www.classroomtco.org, where they can save and update their data.

But the exercise is not something they can breeze through in an afternoon. Completing the questionnaire will require some combing of district records and probably new inventories and surveys of users. The tool is free, but users must enter their district’s identification number from the National Center for Education Statistics.

The case studies offered for comparison are of four school districts that were partners in the project: the 49,000-student suburban Alpine district, near Salt Lake City; the 2,436- student Northern Lebanon, Pa., district; the 140,000-student San Diego, Calif., schools; and the rural 4,000-student Alexandria, Minn., school system. More districts will be added in future years.

Sally Bair, Northern Lebanon’s technology facilitator, said the tool has already “paid a dividend” to the district.

“It was helpful to us for securing additional support staff,” she said. “We saw a glaring weakness [in the number of support staff], and the board decided to fund it.”

Organizers said the calculator would become more refined, accurate, and useful as districts complete several rounds of surveys, leading to a better collection of data.

“In general, you’ll see more clarity of the data ... as you continue to collect it on an ongoing basis,” said Bill Corrington, a vice president of Gartner.

Technology officials were wary of one possible use of the tool: to justify budget cuts.

Mr. Bailey of the Education Department emphasized that “it’s not a cost-cutting tool but a cost management tool.”

The tool could have other uses, too, he said, such as studying a district’s “return on investment” in technology or validating new uses of technology.

“It’s going to be important not only from the management side, but from the research and development side as well,” Mr. Bailey predicted.

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