Voice, Video, Data, and Education: Planning a Building's Technology Infrastructure
Students and teachers typically do not have access from their classrooms to Internet services and other technology. If, however, educators are going to use technology as an integrated aspect of classroom instruction, an infrastructure must be in place in school buildings to provide that access.
Since 1992, the Noblesville Schools Corporation has networked five elementary schools, one middle school and one high school building. Presently we are completing a new high school building featuring voice, data and video technologies in a networked environment. In going through this process, we found little assistance from architects, engineers and others to guarantee the type of technology infrastructure in our school buildings that we desired. Most of the people who worked with us in this regard had experience working with businesses, but did not know the issues associated with education.
For example, in selecting an architect and engineer for our new 451,000 sq. ft. high school building, we just assumed we would get the latest and best technology for it. When it finally came time to develop the specifications and design the technology infrastructure, however, we found we had to become deeply involved in the planning to guarantee the functionality we desired in this school building.
The first task in planning a technology infrastructure is to figure out what you need to know. Although building a new high school was different from networking our other seven school buildings, from these projects we were able to identify key issues.
How and Where to Learn What You Need to Know
There are a number of basic premises in beginning any long-term planning project. For instance, we learned the hard way that you should "Do Everything Electronically." It was late into our high school building project when we realized that if we had created our planning documents in a standard electronic format and distributed templates to our staff, then we would not have had to recreate that information. Additionally, all documents should be marked with the time and date so that you can determine which version of the document you have.
In addition, it is important to develop a project timeline so that progress can be measured and tasks assigned. Once made, a timeline can be modified and used for other projects. A key to a timeline is the ability to adapt time sequences to changing conditions; keeping the timeline electronically helps. A copy of our timeline of the major events for our high school building project is in Figure 1.
We also found there were very few places to go to find answers to the questions that came up during planning, constructing and implementing a building technology infrastructure. Issues included developing construction bid documents; selecting computer, audio visual equipment and furniture; and training those who will use the technology. This paper addresses those issues as well. To assist us in such endeavors, we developed a checklist.
What to Know Before You Begin
Before starting to plan a technology infrastructure, it is important to develop a technology "vision" with related goals. A long-term vision provides a direction for technology planning as well as criteria for product acquisition.
Our District Technology Plan is our vision of how technology should improve communications, productivity and learning. A networked technology infrastructure shapes this vision and includes video, voice and data technologies. Until a vision is developed, it is difficult to coordinate short-term decisions with long-term goals.
Philosophy Issues: How Do You Want People to Function? Closely related to the vision for technology is the issue of how you want people to function within your district. In our case, we decided the technology would be in individual classrooms because we wanted students and staff to have technology available at the place where most teaching and learning occurs.
How Do You Want Students to Interact with the Technology? Decide how many computers you want in a classroom, now and in the future, early in the planning process. It is far more difficult, if not cost prohibitive, to address these issues after the project is completed. In addition, consider where equipment should be placed. For example, should computers be on carts or tables, or should they be located around the perimeter of a room?
Computer Labs - Yes or No? A debate in planning for technology is whether there is a need for computer labs and, if so, how many? If the infrastructure is going to support technology in the classroom, this definitely changes the need for computer labs. It may not eliminate the need, but it d'es lessen it. The decision about the need for computer labs should be associated with curriculum needs, more so than any other issue. The next step is to determine whether the labs should be centralized or spread throughout the building. The capacity (or number of students needing to be served) in a lab should also be decided early on. Labs' capacity is related to the design of electrical outlets and other wiring design issues in each room.
How Do You Want Teachers to Interact with the Technology? Some basic questions about how staff is expected to interact with technology will influence the infrastructure's design. Again, it is far more costly to address these issues after a design is complete. Some questions are:
- Should there be a computer on every teacher's desk?
- Should there be a telephone on every teacher's desk?
- Should there be an integrated voice mail system?
- Will teachers have the ability to project their computer's display onto a classroom screen?
Video Network - Yes or No? Most technology networks are now being designed either with operational video capabilities or the ability to add video at a future date. Make the wiring infrastructure support video, then it is just a matter of adding the video equipment when desired. In the design of our five elementary schools and one middle school, we provided the cabling but have not yet added the head-end video equipment. In our new high school building, we are building it in and installing a video-retrieval system. Two questions that must be asked in regard to planning for a video network are:
- Where is access needed?
- How will centralized storage and access to media sources be addressed?
We believe that many video capabilities will be available over data networks in the future, so we did not let the desire for video drive the network's infrastructure.
In Planning, Involvement Is Key
An important task is involving others in the project -- staff, students, parents and community members. If these groups are not involved in the planning, it is unlikely that the resulting design will meet their needs. Steps should also be taken to keep people involved in the project through training, support and special activities.
Training - Keep the People Involved: A training timeline must be developed and implemented well in advance of project completion. In our case, we started training our high school staff two years in advance of opening the new high school. Training is a method to keep people involved after the system is planned, during the construction phase, and after the system is installed.
Other issues include decisions about the support staff needed for any new system. Are there adequate staff to manage both the new system and the training of other personnel and faculty? If these are not considered, then the technology will not be used to its full potential because of a lack of support and training.
One way we found especially effective to provide support for technology's use was to establish a Help Desk. As we trained our people, we asked both staff and students with the aptitude to be part of this Help Desk. Any one needing technical support sends electronic mail to a Help Desk account, which is monitored throughout the school day by students on a special Tech. Team. When a problem is beyond their expertise, they forward it to a staff member. It is surprising how many questions can be answered immediately by this process.
Involve Students: Our "Tech. Team," on which students serve alongside staff, is a model anyone can use to provide technical support. Students are nominated and selected by faculty. The team works with computer and network setup, computer and software installation, and support.
Other ways exist for students to be involved in planning and implementing a technology infrastructure for their school. But in addition, guidelines must be developed for students' use of the technology. An easy and effective method is a student handbook or guide.
The Process of a Construction Project
To physically construct the technology infrastructure, issues include creating the educational and technology specifications, and dealing with the physical and regulatory implementation details necessary to make the project a reality.
Starting the Project: In Indiana the first step in any major capital project such as a new school building is a feasibility study, which focuses on such issues as population statistics to justify the need for a building project. Once determined that our population growth warranted the new school building, public forums were required to give the community an opportunity to have input in the building decision. During a number of public forums, community members pointed out the need to include technology as an important part of the educational specifications for the new building.
Creating Educational Specifications: Many questions must be answered in developing educational specifications for a new school building and technology infrastructure. You must gather information from every group that will use the building -- staff members, faculty, students, parents and community members.
To be able to address specific technology areas, you must understand what the questions are, and when they need to be answered. For example, any question that affects electrical plans must be answered early in the project. It is extremely important to decide when decisions need to be made, but it is also best to delay certain technology decisions as late as possible. In our case, doing so gave us another year and a half to design the wiring infrastructure. We generally operated under the principle that the longer you can wait in the design and purchase of technology, the greater the likelihood of receiving a better quality at a reduced price.
Also, we found it useful to visit many different schools that already use the technologies of interest to us. Visitations keep people interested in the project and also help uncover ways to improve your plans. Both visitations and involving individuals hands-on keeps you in touch with some special factors that should be included in any plans for a technology infrastructure. Some are lighting requirements in computer areas, ceiling-mounted projectors, projection screens and their placement, furniture requirements in computer areas, and handicapped access to technology areas.
Education Specifications Become the Preliminary Building Layout: A number of issues will impact how the educational specifications for technology influence building layout. Some issues are:
- Space needs in the building;
- Proximity requests (distance can be a key factor in determining quality); and
- Architects' design for the building.
Our special technology-related areas are shown in Figure 2, Technology Infrastructure Educational Specifications Checklist. You need to make and keep charts with detailed written information on these areas. There should be a chart for every room with as much detail as possible. As these charts and records are developed, there should be a title, version number, date and time on every document. You will be surprised how often you will refer to these records and the value of knowing which records are most recent.
Communications and Data Network Systems Bid Package: The final phase of a technology infrastructure design is developing the communications and data network systems bid package. By working with your local telephone company and other vendors, as we did, one is able to plan connections to the outside world. Some key questions in designing this package are:
- Start-up size of networks and their growth plan;
- Video Services;
- Media Retrieval & Video Distribution;
- Distance Learning; and
- Offices needing extra connectivity.
Final considerations include loose pieces of equipment and installation processes for a network. What, specifically, in terms of devices, down to model numbers or specs, is to be included? How might you save money? What is the timing for purchases? Installing a network involves constantly checking the progress of the work, and looking for omissions and mistakes. Finally, it is important to get a guarantee that the system is fully tested before you accept it.
Addressing the issues of providing a technology-rich educational environment is enough of a challenge in itself, but when these issues must be addressed as part of a new building project, the outcome becomes even more significant.
We have not found a magic resource or master design. The key is that we all must become users, and we must all be involved in planning and implementing the technology that is in our school buildings.
If we are serious in preparing our students to work in a technology-rich environment, then as educators we have an obligation to bring the best of technology into our schools, down to the classroom, and to apply it wisely. This will happen only if we also become adept users of technology as a tool to make our schools better places to work and learn.
Debbie Perisho has served as a teacher and computer coordinator in Noblesville Schools for the last 16 years. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Ron Costello, Ed.D., has served as director of secondary education with Noblesville Schools for the last six years. E-mail: email@example.com
- Costello, Ronald W. (Nov. 1993), "Using Business Criteria to Make Technology Decisions in a School District," T.H.E. Journal, 21(4), pp. 105-108.
Ameritech Information Systems, Technology Study for Education: Noblesville Schools, conducted by Ameritech, Indiana Bell Telephone, completed in May 1992.
This article originally appeared in the 12/01/1996 issue of THE Journal.