Protecting Ed Tech in Turbulent Times

Jared P. Mader and Ann Flynn discussed cost-savings methods for school districts, including the use of open-content curricula, "virtualization" tactics, and the efficient deployment of software.

January 22, 2009

Protecting Ed Tech in Turbulent Times

  • Jared P. Mader is the technology director for the Red Lion Area schools in Pennsylvania.
  • Ann Flynn is the director of educational technology for the Alexandria, Va.-based National School Boards Association.

Michelle R. Davis (Moderator):

In these tough economic times many school information technology departments are facing budget cuts or being asked to trim costs. Our guests will answer questions about how to do more with less when it comes to educational technology and what new technology can aid those efforts. Jared P. Mader is technology director for Pennsylvania’s Red Lion Area School District and Ann Flynn is director of educational technology for the National School Boards Association. We’ve already got some great questions, so well open it up for discussion.

Question from Susan Cerrone, Teacher of Gifted 4th/5th, Hannan Academy, Muscogee County, GA:

It seems to me that educational technology is the LAST area that should be cut, or are we regressing in American education yet again? Don’t we need MORE online access for students and more teachers knowledgeable in educational technology? Isn’t there too much time spent on activities in school that are irrelevant in the 21st century? How do you propose to make the necessary changes and to convince our nation’s school districts to comply?

Jared P. Mader:

The critical issue is how funding is allocated and approved through board approved budgets. When we look at educational funding, whatever the source, there are always going to be fixed expenses that typically make up the majority of the budget. These expenses are on the rise, while funding is on the decline. Because we are not in a position to dictate or control changes in utilities, salaries, etc., the burden of educational cuts lie in those tangible items that are not fixed expenses (e.g. textbooks, uniforms, technology, etc.) I really don’t think that our school leaders willfully makes the decision to cut back programming, especially in the area of instructional technology, I just think that there are few areas where the large discrepancies between income and expenses can be reconciled. Now, what do we do about it. Well, we lobby our politicians, showing MEASURABLE data (this is the difficult task) that reflects the improvement in student performance attributed to instructional technology. Then, we figure out ways to use open-source technology, prioritize our own district funding allocations, and turn the watchful eye onto our own spending patterns. Prioritizing is critical when we are really only discussing that small portion of our district budgets which are negotiable. We must look at our district strategic plan and choose programming that still fits within its goals for a 21st century learner.

Question from Rich Kaestner, Project Director, CoSN:

A recent survey indicate 49% of school tech leaders said that the school board understands the importance of IT as it relates to the overall school goals but is not as supportive of it financially; 8% felt that their school board did not feel IT was important to the overall goals. With this attitude and school IT staff stretched to the point that most school IT staffs are already stretched, what are some strategies that may help save IT from debilitating cuts?

Ann Flynn:

In education, as well as other industries, IT expenses must be positioned as critical to the core mission of the organization or they become vulnerable in times of tight budgets. IT staff, and those individuals they report to within the system, must develop the communication skills essential to present IT expenses in the context of that core mission so there is a clear and “non-techie” explanation to share with board members who are not IT specialists. Explaining IT’s role in terms of student learning or parental engagement may be a more effective approach to “save” IT budgets. In addition, inviting board members to visit a school to actually see and understand what some of these tools can enable can be a powerful approach. In the TLN ed tech site visits hosted by NSBA each Spring, many non-classroom based attendees are truly amazed at the high tech classrooms of today!

Question from Interested in IT:

What are some ways you’ve saved money in your IT budget?

Jared P. Mader:

For brevity, I will simply list many of the things that we’ve done to save: 1. Centralized database management: We have a self-hosted student information system with one central point of data entry. This eliminates redundancy in data entry while guaranteeing consistency and reliability in the data. 2. SIF implementation: Although costly to implement, over time, it will save money by reducing data entry by as many times as applications you populate with student data. For us, this was 10 times less data entry. 3. Self-hosting of applications: We built and host our own web-based VPN that would have costed us $4000/year. We’ve built an host our own blogs, wikis, etc. 4. We’ve eliminated costly printing associated with inkjet printers by replacing them with Laser printers. We also have centralized our toner storage so that we have less toner stored and purchased for individual buildings. This has also allowed us to better identify high-usage areas of the district. We’ve also installed a network probe that monitors printer usage within the district. 5. Greater use of network copier facilities for high volume or centralized printing. 6. Setting all district workstations to sleep overnight. Although we’ve only recently begun this process, our district will see over $2000/month in savings by simply ensuring that our machines are sleeping or off for the 12 hours, at night, that no one is using them. 7. Solicit student help for IT tasks that are within their ability. Example: Last year, we had our CISCO academy student build a Linux thin client server and workstations to be used in our elementary schools. 8. Utilizing open-source software to replace licensed software. (e.g. cMap for mind-mapping, Open Office for productivity, Audacity for podcasting, etc.) These are just to name a few and get you started.

Question from Shoba Thamma, Doctoral Student, Univ. of Rhode Island:

In these tough economic times, when budgets are being cut, most administrators are wondering if there is a justifiable ‘return on investment’ in technology. I am wondering.. how can one establish that there is a measurable ROI for technology expenditure? Thank you.

Ann Flynn:

The question of ROI on technology investments is always a challenge...and the question is what measures you elect to use to dettermine the ROI. The introduction of technology into classroom settings can serve as a powerful tool to engage students, which is certainly an essential condition for deeper learning. Organizations like the State Education Technology Directors Association have shared stories and gathered research that documents learning gains when there is an investment in technology. One of the tough issues of proving ROI with technology is extracting the technology device or activity from good teaching. When technology is seamlessly infused as we would like it to be...then it’s that much more difficult to measure an impact in isolation.

Question from Silver Spring, Md.:

Are Open Source products a good way to save dollars in your IT budget? Do you lose some services if you make the switch?

Ann Flynn:

As a result of tight budgets, we are seeing US educators express a growing interest in Open Source products...from platforms to content. In a study we did just prior to NSBA’s T+L conference last fall, 29% of the attendees have started to explore Open Source options. While the notion of “free” might be attractive, someone once compared a decision to adopt open source decisions as the same way that a puppy is free....but will need shots, food, a bed, etc. A district’s IT staff needs to realize there may be other costs in new areas and have the expertise to manage an Open Source environment. On the other hand, one of the districts in NSBA’s Technology Leadership Network just shared with me that they had saved $320,000 by moving 7,000 machines to Open Office!

Question from Michelle R. Davis:

A lot of kids now have their own cell phone and or Smartphone. Can teachers and IT staffers encourage students to use their own phones to facilitate learning and what sorts of problems could this pose?

Jared P. Mader:

Because of the negative connotation associated with the use of these technologies, most school districts have a strict cell phone policy that prohibits their use during the school day. This is a reactionary measure to the many inappropriate events that occur on a daily basis if their use is permitted to occur. However, your question goes far beyond cell phones. Most district’s Acceptable Use Policies also restrict the use of personal technology devices (e.g. laptops, iPhones, etc.) on their networks. This is also a result of inappropriate use and reactionary, as such. However, in a time when fiscal resources are limited, we need to find a way to make better use of these technologies. I just don’t know that we are there yet. A few things come to mind, immediately: 1. We need to have infrastructure in place that would allow users to safely connect to district resources without harming or flooding the network with viruses 2. Case law needs to establish a clear benchmark for how inappropriate activity can or can’t be punished when a student is using personal technology devices on a district network 3. How can we ensure that student technology devices have the software the the district adopts for implementation. 4. Teachers need to be educated on how to effectively integrate these tools into their instruction. That said, as our budgets are decreasing, we may need to begin looking at these options as viable ways to better utilize district resources. However, changes like this cannot occur on an island, they global and cultural changes that may take some time to reverse.

Question from Michelle R. Davis:

What about if your district needs to upgrade software and or hardware? What investment do you think will be the most strategic given limited resources?

Jared P. Mader:

This is a slightly more complicated question than it seems. I’ve noticed that my hardware is lasting longer than in the past. What I mean by that is that it used to be that you would buy a piece of technology and within a few months, even days, it would be obsolete. I’m not seeing so much of that, today. That said, I’m hopeful that with the incredible processor speeds and affordability of storage that I will be able to prolong hardware replacement in an effort to free up funds for network infrastructure and software compliance and upgrades. However, software upgrades must be carefully analyzed, as well. The software must show marked improvement, functionality, or curricular ties to justify the expense and a cost/benefit analysis must be conducted to determine if the cost of professional development to train staff about the new software is worth the added benefits. Many times, this is not the case and an older software version is not replaced. So, to answer your question, I really think that it depends upon the individual situation of the district and the status of their current hardware resources to determine whether they can afford to prolong replacement cycles.

Question from Rinda Montgomery Conwell, Assistant Superintendent, North Central ESD:

What is the most efficient and effective way to assist technology departments to realign their mission or vision toward the advancement of student achievement so that their decision-making process is not at odds with curriculum and instruction needs?

Jared P. Mader:

This is a great question. Those who are directly responsible for curriculum and instruction, continuing professional education, instructional technology, and strategic planning MUST work in concert with one another to develop your strategic plan. We are doing this right now, in my district, and with every addition that I make to my plan, I work with our strategic planning team to determine its effects on the goals and strategies of the district, as a whole. In a matter of speaking, this is very much like the chicken or the egg, you must determine the best fit for your own district. In ours, we first have developed the key goals for our district’s strategic plan. Only then did we see it possible to consistently align our instructional technology, special education, and continuing professional education plans within the district. It is still a work in progress, but, everyone, no matter what division of our system, has the same goals in mind when developing their individual departmental strategies to achieve them.

Question from John Stallcup Co Founder APREMAT/USA:

Why is there so little focus on the highly effective inexpensive online programs like,, that with little cost significantly improve the academic achievment of large numbers of students? Software is not by definition in a computer or on a cd.

Jared P. Mader:

Brilliant question, coincidentally addressed, as I just finished building and configuring a blog server with Wordpress (Open-Source) as the engine. After investigating the cost of many software-based tools, I always try to find open-source alternatives that provide the same instructional results. I think that the availability of quality open-source media has only begun to appear within the last few years. The Linux OS is the iconic model of this movement as Web 2.0 tools are taking an ever-increasing place in the educational arena. The key, however, is having an IT staff that is capable of supporting it, as the level of support that is received from these types of sources is not always as responsive as those from which you purchase. These types of resources are also, at times, more likely to “end-of-life” before those which are turning a profit. This makes for some reservations within a district that may be looking for a consistent and long-term implementation of a product. Either way, I agree, as a community of school districts, we need to begin to seek out these types of quality resources and share with one another the experiences and successes that we’ve had with their implementation.

Question from Charles Freyberger, School Social Worker, Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School:

Virtualization of servers, does this really save money and if so how much?

Jared P. Mader:

I can’t speak to this from experience, but, only from a position that has chosen to not move in this direction. On a workstation level we have implemented, with great success, a Linux Thin-Client terminal services project, that greatly reduced the cost of workstation purchases. However, what has deterred me is the same thing that is founding your question. If we were to use VMware for several of our servers we still would have to purchase a much more expensive RAID 5 server to handle the process of the individual ones. We would still have to place virtualization servers in all of our buildings so that we could enjoy the benefits of the GB speed within those buildings. We also saw that we would lose some of the niceties associated with locating our individual servers in different physical locations. If we were a smaller school district or a small-business, I could see some benefit and potential cost savings by going this direction. However, in the context of our larger school district environment, I was not able to justify the implementation of server virtualization when compared to what we would lose by doing so.

Question from wilson hargrove, teacher, mississippi:

if the obama stimulus package increases funding for technology in schools, do you think we’ll be able to focus on spending on the best products and services and getting our teachers trained--and worry about cost-savings further down the road? Round here, we’re still trying to convince people that ed-tech works.

Ann Flynn:

I was really encouraged to see that professional development is a part of the education technology funding portion of the package. Professional development is esssential to ensure that teachers have the necessary skills to use the tools to truly make a difference in their clasrooms. We are in an economic crisis however, so I think any investments in technology - or professional development - will need to be closely tied to the explicit goals identified in your district’s education mission. I appreciate your concern about explaining that ed tech works....perhaps trying to explain to your critics how literacy has improved or noting that attendance has improved because students are excited about coming to school would be a more compelling arguement to support ed tech.

Question from Douglas Casey, Director of Technology, Capitol Region Education Council:

Do you see general trending toward regional solutions in the provision of technology services? This could span circuit cost-sharing to data hosting and reporting to instructional technology services such as professional development. Districts in our region (and across the country) will need to come up with creative funding solutions to ensure the provision of services while cutting costs.

Ann Flynn:

Regional Service Agencies have the potential to further enhance their leadership role in the delivery of IT services. Particularly in rural areas, where it can be more difficult to find experienced IT staff, the service agencies can provide the essential tech support that may be too costly for an individual district to assume. As many technology management solutions have moved to web-based platforms, it has become increasingly eaiser for that support to be provided remotely. I believe the AESA conference has added a strong ed tech component to its annual conference program which further suggests that they see a trend in this direction as well.

Question from Dr. Ron Alatorre, adjunct lecturer, CSULB:

In speaking to my current students (who are practicing teachers) and in anticipation of opening a new HS in the fall of 2009 I am being asked to prepare for drastic cuts. What are the basics necessary - and what can be delayed? Is having more (computers) in the classroom better or have less access with more intricate programs? The decisions made may affect how we deliver tech for generations...

Jared P. Mader:

Great question. We HAD a model where a few classrooms had the majority of the technology. This was great...for those teachers and their students (I was one of those teachers). However, the technology has changed dramatically, allowing for a mobile solution at an affordable price, rendering the best of both worlds. We are currently piloting, with hopes of a 2009/2010 implementation, the use of mini-laptops in the classroom. The cost or a mobile laptop cart, which was once prohibitive, has become quite affordable. It also allows the technology to be integrated into the classroom environment. As a supporter of mobile carts versus fixed labs, I believe that technology should be integrated into the curriculum, not a separate event, independent of the curriculum. So, to answer your question, if you take a look at the less-expensive mobile devices that are becoming quickly available (e.g. Acer Aspire One, Dell Mini 9, Asus eeePC) I think that you’ll be able to meet the needs of both the specialty programs and the needs of the traditional classroom teacher who wants to integrate technology into their curriculum.

Question from Michelle R. Davis:

Some teachers may want to try using open-content, but may get intimidated by the different rights and what exactly they can do with what material. Are there any resources that explains how much liberty there is with open-content?

Ann Flynn:

I’m not an expert in the open content world, however, an educator might want to explore the Curriki site if they are interested in the world of open content. It provides a good introduction to the concept.

Question from Jurni Proctor, ED Tech Consultant:

Do you have suggestions regarding the search for other funding streams directly tied to technology in the classroom? (ie Grants, Sponsorships, etc.)

Ann Flynn:

There are a number of different grant services that track education-related grant offerings like Grant Wrangler. NSBA’s Technology Leadership Network also follows major ed tech grant opportunities. In addition, several companies will assist potential purchasers to prepare a grant. Grant money is a good thing and can certainly launch new projects...however, technology is such an essential part of teaching and learning that I hope we will soon reach a point where essential technology expenses are viewed in the same way that transportation and food service are budgeted.

Question from Marianne Cooley, School Committee, Needham Public Schools:

The question about software and hardware was an interesting one. We currently have a 7 year replacement cycle for our student computers. We are moving from desktops to laptop carts for those computers and we are concerned that the laptops will not hold up as well. We currently self-insure on the desktops, but we are concerned about whether that’s the best path for the laptops. Any experience on this topic?

Jared P. Mader:

Absolutely. They do show much more wear and tear and a 7-year replacement cycle would definitely necessity more money allocated to repairs. We do exactly this. I’ve extended the life of my workstations, in some cases, by a year or two, however, some of those “cost-savings” I move over to the building repair funds as a way to self-insure. Proactive measures are critical, though. I’ve developed a laptop maintenance policy for all teachers so that they assign students a specific laptop, store them in an exact way, and lock them after every use. They have no choice, but follow the guidelines or they will not be permitted to use the laptops. We have not had a problem with this. I hope that this helps.

Question from Pam McLeod, Director of Technology, Alton School District:

What are some financial ways to buffer technology from year-to-year cuts - such as creating capital improvement funds?

Jared P. Mader:

Leases are another way. We don’t currently subscribe to this model, but, by purchasing equipment on a lease, it creates a more manageable and fixed line item asset within your budget structure. The problem is, in economic downturns, you still have to make your lease payments. But, the good news is that you’ve buffered the technology from being cut...

Question from Michelle R. Davis:

One of EdWeek‘s blogs, Digital Education, reported that in the latest House stimulus bill, $1 billion was set aside for ed tech. Does this make you less pessimistic about the future of ed tech budgets?

Ann Flynn:

I’m personally encouraged to see funding for education technology reflected in the stimulus bill since President Obama has spoken so passionately about ensuring the nation is ready to compete. While $1 billion is a step in the right direction, it is only a beginning. CoSN has indicated that recent estimates show it would take 10 times that amount ($9.9 billion) to truly ensure that all of our children are learning in technology-rich environments. Many in the ed tech community believe there is still a chance to increase the funding and have urged educators to immediately contact their Senators or Congressional Representatives. The way technology is used - or not used - in schools is quickly bcoming the equity issue of this decade. Simply providing access to the Internet or placing a lab down the hall does not come close to the learning environments that are created when students have immediate access to the tools and can actually use them to explore real-world issues.

Question from Mae, Market Development Associate, Lastar:

As a solutions provider to schools, what do you think the best approach is for us to get into a school to speak with them about purchasing/implementing a new product while budgets are so tight??

Jared P. Mader:

In short, you MUST show how your product will save them money in a very short period of time. School budget crunches are here NOW. Showing me how much I will save after I’ve implemented a product for 5 or 10 years is not going to gain my attention as much as one that will benefit us within one year. Make sure that you are well aware of their current systems so that you can meet their exact needs. Many of my vendors roll their installation fees/equipment fees into their month recurring charges as to defray the upfront costs that are so difficult in a tight budget. These are just a few ideas for getting your foot in the door and keeping it in:-)

Question from Michael Dean, Tech Coordinator, Lawrence Twp (NJ) BOE:

Are you aware of any open source solutions for email archiving and VMWare back-up?

Jared P. Mader:

I don’t. However, there is a reason that I don’t. What I know comes from my necessity/desire to find or replace an existing technology. My email archiving services and back-up services are integral and, simply, a cost of doing business. I need something that I’m sure will give me the reliability and support that I need in the event that I need to restore something from the service. Now, that said, we did use an email filter that was a Linux based open source program. We tested it for quite some time, but, ultimately returned to our Barracuda.

Question from Ronald Blades, IT Coordinator, Queen’s College, Barbados:

While having the support of the administration for the continued use of educational technology at the school, the ever rising cost of consumables and repair costs cannot be ignored. Some suggest that the IT program should find means of becoming financially independent or at least meeting a fraction of its costs. What ideas can a high school IT program (staff and students) explore for earning its own capital to meet some of these expenses?

Jared P. Mader:

While capital earnings is difficult, some small measures would include: 1. Purchasing an automatic notification system to replace mailings with emails, text messages, and phone calls. Typically, these systems have an annual yearly fee, but, more than pay for themselves in postage fees within the first marking period. This is not really a capital gain, but, it is an expense reduction measure that could be applied to the technology budget. 2. Some districts have begun charging for print services for students. 3. If you have a Point of Sale cafeteria software program, you can use for more than just the cafeteria. Any purchases that students make can be tied to their account balance in the system. Then, if the district charges a nominal %-fee for deposits, all of the income from that %-fee is income for the IT dept. (e.g. $200,000 of lunches purchased, field trips paid for, school store purchase % a 3% service fee = $6000) 4. Open up your computer lab environments, for a fee, to local colleges and universities that may want to run adjunct teacher professional development courses in your area. We’ve hosted two different universities on our campus. You can require a percentage of the tuition or facility fees that they charge.

I hope that these are some idea-starters, even though it is not an extensive list.

Question from Nick deKanter, School Board, Newburyport, MA:

How do you “sell” students and parents on virtual courses? What steps do you take to ensure quality of virtual learning?

Ann Flynn:

In many instances,students are more excited about the opportunity for virtual courses than are school leaders! There are many ways for districts to establish virtual courses...they can be “homegrown” by district teachers, coordinated agreements with outside providers...but require the student to take the class during school hours... or truly a virtual experience where students can work at their own time or speed. NACOL has gatherd the most comprehensive information about online courses for the K-12 world. I suggest looking at some of their guidelines for selecting courses. A word of caution...a few independent providers have offered free home computers to entice students into an entirely virtual environment. If considering such an option, I would encourage you to spend additional time exploring completition rates, real-time support, etc. Reputable providers, like Florida Virtual School, are happy to provide detailed evidence of success.

Question from Bill Michaelson, Member, BoE, Lawrence Township Public Schools, NJ:

You need to convince board members that staff is using IT effectively. That’s tough, because truth be told, it’s rare. IT staff’s burden is to provide slick tools that are compelling to under-motivated staff.

Oops. Sorry. Maybe that’s not a question.

Jared P. Mader:

We all must be advocates for the educational/curricular relevance of instructional technology in our buildings. Often resistance is a mask for fear of the unknown. Once staff are trained to see the possibilities in their own classrooms, they are more apt to buying-in to the plan. A great place to start is the NETS. 21st century skills are centered more on the skills of problem solving, collaboration, and being creative than they are on specific technology-related objectives. That is a great place to start the conversation in your district.

Question from Marianne Cooley, School Committee, Needham Public Schools:

We’d like to see computers sleeping or off at night. Our IT department currently does any software and application downloaded updates overnight - and so has been asking folks to keep their computers on. How is Jared handling this? I presume that he is also downloading main applications centrally? Is this just happening during the day?

Jared P. Mader:

We don’t do our updates on a nightly basis. It is very important to note, though, as a result, we are not as current with our updates. This is a sacrifice that has not yet affected us, as we still perform updates on a monthly basis, typically during a time when students are not in the building. If your IT department is doing updates on a daily basis, they are doing exactly as they should, overnight, as it does consume a tremendous amount of bandwidth. Again, to re-iterate, cost-saving to come with a cost, albeit not financial.

Question from Ann Walden, Educator:

Our IT guy is proposing to install a “whitelist” of permissable software on the laptops the district has issued to teachers, so only authorized software can be used. That step is meant to protect us from malware, but it also prevents us from using the laptops for some task, like balancing our checkbooks and composing music, that seems reasonable use, at least to me.

Is this plan a good idea?

Jared P. Mader:

Your technology department is held to very high standards with regards to technology audits. They must show that they are in compliance with all of their installed software licensing and, in many cases, that the software achieves an instructional or systems objective. In order to properly train my IT staff, there must be consistency in software applications. Allowing staff to install anything they please would yield little consistency in programming and make it very difficult to provide adequate professional development. That said, I’m constantly evaluating software, web 2.0 apps, open-source media, etc. for use in our district. It must be a dynamic list so that it meets the current instructional and systemic needs of the district.

Question from Bill Richers, Dir. Technology, New Paltz Central Schools, NY:

We are currently running a 2:1 ratio of virtual to real servers. I’ve begun bumping up against a vendor resistance to supporting their application on a virtual server. Any ideas on how to get vendors to accept virtualization?

Jared P. Mader:

Unfortunately, unless there is a profitable market share available to them, you may find that you are going to be up against a difficult battle, here. I also find this same battle as I’m working with vendors to become SIF-certified, but, there’s just not enough SIF school districts to make the move profitable to them. I can be a pretty squeeky wheel, though, I suggest the same in this scenario.

Michelle R. Davis (Moderator):

We’re going to close the chat now. Thanks to Ann and Jared for some great answers and some money-saving tips.

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