IT Infrastructure & Management

Windows XP Deadline Puts Pressure on Schools

By Sean Cavanagh — May 21, 2013 9 min read
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Microsoft’s plans to end support for Windows XP, believed to be the dominant computer operating system in K-12 education, could pose big technological and financial challenges for districts nationwide—issues that many school systems have yet to confront.

The giant software company has made it clear for years that it plans to stop supporting XP next year, and it has been urging districts, as well as businesses and other customers, to upgrade to Windows 7 or 8.

Technology experts who work with districts say many of them have yet to take that advice, or to buy other up-to-date operating systems, either because of tight budgets or a reluctance to disrupt a technology that is familiar to many teachers, students, and administrators.

But now the need to upgrade has become more urgent. Districts that do not upgrade from XP will no longer receive the regular updates from the company that protect their systems against online viruses and other security risks, as well as other updates to ensure reliability, or timely support if problems arise. In addition, software providers are unlikely to continue creating products that can be used on XP, Microsoft officials say.

School and industry officials say that relatively little is known about how much time and money districts will have to invest in revamping their operating systems, and that their individual needs could vary greatly.

Windows XP: Implications for Schools

Microsoft will end support for Windows XP on April 8, 2014.

Users of XP will be vulnerable to security risks because of the lack of support and the lack of Microsoft “patches” to the system. Many software vendors may not support new versions of their applications on XP. And most PC hardware manufacturers will stop supporting XP on their new models, according to Gartner Inc.

After that date, users will receive no new security updates, no nonsecurity-related “hotfixes,” and no free or at-cost support for online technical-content updates.

Districts could take their chances and stick with XP; upgrade to Windows 7 or 8; choose a different, current version of another company’s operating system, such as Linux, or Mac OS X; or choose an entirely different option, such as virtualization, industry experts say.

SOURCES: Microsoft; Education Week

“There are huge questions that are only now fermenting at the district level,” said Keith R. Krueger, the CEO of the Consortium for School Networking, a Washington-based group that represents district technology leaders. “Unless we get the attention of decisionmakers and get really focused on this, there will be big challenges ahead.”

The potential headaches for districts could increase significantly in the next few years for another reason: States need to have reliable technology in place to administer online assessments linked to the Common Core State Standards, tests that will begin during the 2014-15 school year. Forty-four states and the District of Columbia belong to consortia that are designing those tests.

Essential Functions

An operating system performs an essential role for computer devices and overall technology systems. It is software that communicates with hardware, such as a desktop computer, and allows programs to run and the device to function.

Widely used operating systems such as XP were originally designed to function on desktop computers, but many of the newer mobile devices used today, such as smartphones and tablets, are built with their own operating systems that allow them to run applications and perform other functions.

Microsoft XP first came onto the market in 2001, and it has been updated periodically, including with service packs designed to fix problems and add features.

The Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft Corp. has said its policy with Windows and other products is to provide 10 years of support, and it has reaffirmed that it will end support for XP next year—on April 8.

While firm numbers on Windows XP’s presence in schools are hard to come by, evidence suggests its use is widespread.

A survey released recently by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, one of two major groups of states working on developing tests aligned to the common-core standards, found that a clear majority of districts, 56 percent, use Windows XP. Twenty-seven percent use Windows 7; 9 percent use Mac OS X; 2 percent use iOS; and the rest use other operating systems, it found.

Cameron Evans, the chief technology officer for Microsoft’s education division, estimated in an interview that XP represents between 35 percent and 55 percent of operating systems in K-12 districts.

Both Smarter Balanced and the other major testing consortium, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, have issued guidance to districts that describes Windows XP, with Service Pack 3, as a minimum operating system recommended to give the common-core tests in 2014-15. But both consortia also have recommended that districts upgrade to Windows 7, or similarly up-to-date operating systems, such as newer Mac OS X systems, which are sold by Apple Inc., to ensure that test can be given reliably in the future.

Computers using Windows XP operating systems, in theory, can handle the demands of the common-core assessments, said Brandt Redd, the chief technology officer for Smarter Balanced. That assumes those machines meet the consortium’s other requirements for memory and processing speed—which is no sure thing, based on what Smarter Balanced officials know of the technology currently in use in schools, Mr. Redd said.

Smarter Balanced’s recommendation that districts eventually move to at least Windows 7 was based on the consortium’s worries it would be “risky to have an operating system that is no longer supported by the vendor,” he said.

“We’re actually following, rather than leading, Microsoft in that sense,” Mr. Redd said.

The end of support for Windows XP comes as districts are already coping with a variety of potentially costly and burdensome technology demands.

Those needs, which include replacing outdated infrastructure and equipment and acquiring more bandwidth—or the amount of data that can be handled by a network or Web connection at one time—are driven not only by the rise of online testing, but also the rise in overall computer-device usage in schools, including mobile technologies.

The pressure has increased as the recent recession and slow recovery have sapped state and local budgets, leaving relatively little money for technology spending. The federal E-rate program covers some district technology costs, such as increasing bandwidth, but that program is widely regarded as overburdened, and it does not pay for replacing equipment, such as computers and operating systems on end-user devices. (“E-Rate Needs Overhaul for Digital Era, Experts Argue,” May 15, 2013.)

Paying for Replacements

The time crunch that districts now face to make a decision about XP in some ways reflects the slow process some school systems follow in making technology improvements, said Douglas Levin, the executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association, in Glen Burnie, Md. While many businesses tend to replace technology on three-year cycles, districts often put off those purchases as long as possible, for five or seven years, he said.

Some districts seeking to migrate from XP to Windows 7 or 8 are likely to have to replace not only the operating systems on their computers, but also the computers themselves, at significant cost, if those devices are so old that they can’t handle the newer operating systems or other current programs and software, Mr. Levin said.

The degree of need for those more ambitious equipment replacements, and the extent to which districts are using Windows XP or a newer operating system, are likely to vary greatly from district to district, he added, making it hard for policymakers at all levels to understand the scope of the challenge.

“This is not a problem that’s spread like peanut butter across states,” Mr. Levin said. There are “radical differences,” he said, in districts’ needs for operating systems or equipment.

Districts can choose operating systems that are alternatives to Windows 7 or 8, Mr. Levin noted, though they would have to consider whether those systems support the software school officials want to use.

They could also consider other approaches, such as “virtualization” systems, in which computers run on a separate server, an approach that in some cases can accommodate very different kinds of computing devices with different functions. But those systems are relatively new and untested in school environments, compared with the more commonly used operating systems.

New PD Demands

Microsoft’s Mr. Evans said he empathized with school districts that face financial and operational challenges in moving to Windows 7 or 8. A former district chief information officer in Texas, he said changing operating systems would also require districts to provide professional development to teachers and administrators to help them become familiar with those systems.

But Mr. Evans also said that Microsoft offers school districts discounts of at least 80 percent off its commercial prices for products, including operating systems. And he said newer operating systems, particularly Windows 8, come with features that he argued would boost teachers’ ability to provide classroom instruction—not just provide districts with reliable service on a handful of testing days.

Beyond the immediate costs, districts need to consider “what’s going to get me the greatest return on student learning,” Mr. Evans said. “Students need to be learning with technologies that build their competencies throughout the school year.”

Microsoft’s operating systems, like the company’s other products, have their critics, who either question the quality of those technologies or take issue with the company’s overall strategies. A recent article in The Economist, for instance, picked apart Windows 8, arguing that the product’s new features were ill-conceived and could risk “alienating [the company’s] core PC users.”

A top Microsoft executive, on the company’s blog, called that sort of criticism “extreme,” saying that “Windows 8 is a good product, and it’s getting better every day.”

(The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, co-directed by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, provides support for Education Week‘s coverage of the education industry and K-12 innovation.)

In Janesville, Wis., district officials are planning to upgrade from Windows XP to Windows 7, with the goal of completing all that work over the next two budget years. The common-core assessments are one factor driving those technology changes, said Robert Smiley, the school system’s chief information officer.

It’s a major project. Seventy percent of the district’s computers still run on XP, and so the district would need to buy 1,837 new digital devices next year and 1,271 the following year to bring all of them up to Windows 7, he said. The district’s budget for technology equipment this year is $900,000, but those needs will rise to $2.2 million next year, with about $1.3 million of that devoted to buying new computing devices.

The district could have made the switch earlier, but it had other, more pressing needs, such as improving its technology infrastructure, and it also faced other financial pressures, Mr. Smiley said. Now, with the common core and the overall need to update technology, the project’s time has come.

Without the upgrade, “it would be difficult to guarantee that a student would be able to take the test without a problem,” Mr. Smiley said. “I wouldn’t want our students to be slowed down because the technology did not work.”

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Coverage of entrepreneurship and innovation in education and school design is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the May 22, 2013 edition of Education Week as Schools Facing the Expiration of Windows XP


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