Decision Making Based on Standards: A Model for Computerizing Public Educations

Many reformers believe one way to improve the quality of public education is by capitalizing on the wealth of educational resources and teaching aids available through local and wide area networks (LAN and WAN) and the Internet. However the past 30 years demonstrate that computerizing education is not as simple as it may seem. This is due to the cost of technology, fear by some that computers might replace professional staff, a lack of school and community support, and limited school-based technical expertise.

Despite these obstacles, the value gained by corporations in achieving quality and greater efficiency from computerization is causing a growing number of educational and political leaders to advocate the aggressive computerization of public schools. In light of these obstacles, how can education achieve computerization?

Need for Disciplined Decision Making

The funds to achieve computerization goals are scarce. One way to ensure that money invested in technology will yield the best possible outcomes is to follow a disciplined decision-making model.

The Planning and Assessment Model (P.A.M.)

The Planning and Assessment Model (P.A.M.)[1] follows a medical model that provides decision makers with an easy five-step process. P.A.M. is applicable to all levels of educational decision making including the selection of computerization strategies. The P.A.M. is presented in Figure 1.

 

Figure 1: The Planning and Assessment Model: P.A.M.

Step 1

Needs Assessment

Step 2

Diagnosis

Step 3

Prescription

Step 4

Implementation

Step 5

Evaluation (Reassessment)

 

P.A.M. is based on the assumption that quality decisions can be achieved by following a set of specific steps in which each step is prerequisite to the subsequent step based on operationally defined goals, logically linked action strategies, formative and summative evaluation, and reassessment to identify future goals.

The Importance of Standards

The importance of being guided by standards is not new. Technical advances in computer technology have, in great part, been achieved by adhering to a set of standards adopted by the International Standards Organization (ISO).[2] The ISO's Open System Interconnections (OSI) Model provides a framework for the development and use of telecommunication and data communication products to insure interoperability and scalability. The OSI Model (Figure 2) divides the network process into seven layers, of which each has a specific area of functionality.

 

Figure 2: Open System Interconnection (OSI) Model

Layer Number

Layer Name

Function

Layer 7

Application Layer

protocols that allow application processes (AP) to communicate.

Level 6

Presentation Layer

format selection, translation, syntax, date encoding & compression

Layer 5

Session Layer

open, maintain, closes an information exchange

Layer 4

Transport Layer

packet delivery, packaging & unpackaging messages

Layer 3

Network Layer

addresses, traffic & routing determination

Layer 2

Data Link Layer

transfer of error free data between computers through the physical layer

Layer 1

Physical Layer

transmission of raw data over physical medium (cable)

The book, Networking Essentials, states, "The OSI model is used to define what protocols should be used at each layer. Products from different vendors that subscribe to this model can communicate with each other."[3] It g'es further to note, "Every networking professional needs to be aware of the major standards organizations (such as the ISO) and how their work affects network communications."[3]

Networking Essentials further notes: "This model is the best known and most widely used guide to describe networking environments. Vendors design network products based on the specifications of the OSI model. It provides a description of how network hardware and software work together in a layered fashion to make communications possible. It also helps with troubleshooting by providing a frame of reference that describes how components are supposed to function."[3]

Why Are Standards So Important to Education?

Money to support the computerization of education is limited, and often hard to come by. This makes it essential that investments in technology today will meet current needs while also being scaleable to provide continuing performance as technology evolves and demand for more capacity increases. Educational leaders are also targeting super network interconnectivity, such as Pennsylvania's PEN Net, as a way for school districts to gain maximum access to the vast resources available through networking.

Using the ISO's OSI Model to guide decisions, private companies have already learned they can cost effectively upgrade their systems to keep pace with advancing technology while getting the best return from their legacy systems. By capitalizing on this experience, educational organizations can be assured that computerization decisions based on standards can be both cost beneficial and yield technology investments that produce valuable returns immediately and in the future.

Pennsylvania Adopts Project Link-to-Learn

Pennsylvania has taken a step toward helping its public schools gain access to the benefits gained from computerization by adopting and funding a program called "Project Link-to-Learn," a three-year, $127 million initiative designed to move Pennsylvania to the head of the class in educational technology.[4]

Governor Tom Ridge recognized that students who will be the backbone of tomorrow's workforce need access to today's technology. The Link-to-Learn Plan states:

  • "The goal of Link-to-Learn is to transform the educational model in Pennsylvania from one limited by traditional institutional and geographic boundaries to a 'classroom of the future' where students are provided with virtually unlimited access to information and expertise in nearly limitless subject areas."[4]
  • "Build the Pennsylvania Education Network (PEN) which will integrate existing networks into a 'network of networks,' using fiber, cable, wireless, and other technologies. This network will be a collection of community-based networks, offering opportunities for all Pennsylvanians to use the vast amount of resources available online."[4]
  • "Promote partnerships which are essential for the building of a statewide educational network. These partnerships will extend the use of the PEN beyond educational applications to include economic development, health and other applications."[4]

This will be no easy task. The Plan noted the wide disparity in computer skills in the student population, stating,

  • "...many students have limited or no access to technological resources. Some schools have advanced distance learning and computing technology whereas many others use obsolete equipment and are connecting to the Internet at a slow speed."[4]

One District Moves to Head of the Class

Directed by Superintendent Durtan, Jr. and Director of Technology Charles Graham, the Colonial School District (CSD) committed to an upgrade of the district's network technology. CSD had added technology, particularly at the elementary level, but much of what had been accomplished at the secondary level needed to be integrated into a network that could access resources beyond the school walls.

CSD operates seven schools servicing the K-12 needs of three Pennsylvania communities. The district had a variety of computer networks, topology and software in all seven schools. Three schools were connected via wide area links provided by the Carbon-Lehigh Intermediate Unit.[5] It was CSD's desire to link all schools and gain safe, high-speed Internet access without costly changes in the existing infrastructure. Avetel, Inc., a computer solutions firm with over 10 years of experience serving corporate and education clients, became partners in this effort. Avetel provided their expertise in LAN/WAN networks.

Assessment And Diagnosis of CSD Needs

Following a decision-making model and OSI standards, the CSD/Avetel Partnership identified three obstacles to the upgrade.

The first had to do with the status of the existing network infrastructure, the diversity vendor hardware and lack of a WAN connecting school resources.

The second was that CSD had but one registered Class "C" IP (Internet Protocol) license, which allowed the district only 254 devices on their network. This problem could limit simultaneous student and teacher access to the Internet. While IP licenses have been liberally granted to big corporations and government agencies, they have been sparingly provided to public schools.

The third was that the school district's MIS personnel had limited experience in networking. This problem would require the CSD and Avetel's technical staff to devise a training and support program.

Prescription for Network Upgrade

Using 3Com's Access Builder technology, Avetel technical staff were able to connect the four K-3 elementary schools using inexpensive dial-up telephone lines. The open architecture and standards-based design of the 3Com devices made it possible to supply seamless access across multiple topologies and platforms. Cisco routers were added to the 3Com-based system to provide WAN/LAN integration to all schools. This also provided CSD administrative staff with a high level of network security.

Even with the improvements to the network, the limitation in IP addresses (under the single class "C" Internet license) threatened usage of the network to just 254 devices. To overcome this, Avetel engineers researched network components. A product called PIX, by Cisco Systems, was selected.

PIX makes it possible to build a fictitious IP address scheme, representing the same capability as having multiple Class "C" addresses. A PIX hardware box then converts the internal IP addresses to one of the "real" Class "C" licenses. Another attractive feature to CSD was that the PIX shields outsiders from seeing the true network addresses, thereby making it more difficult to obtain unauthorized access to their network and its resources.

Limited experience of CSD's MIS staff was overcome by designing a field training program directed by Avetel's technical staff. This included a workstation on each network segment, and working cooperatively with CSD personnel to configure the IP stack, install a Web browser and establish connectivity. As a result, the district's MIS staff acquired the hands-on knowledge necessary to run the network, greatly reducing dependency on outside consultants and lowering related costs.

In addition, Avetel enabled Internet access from the existing administrative network while protecting that network from unauthorized access by enterprise users. To achieve this, a Cisco router link was installed into the CSD administrative network and configured to allow only traffic from the administrative network to pass. As a result, administrative staff was given cheap, but safe access to the Internet, leveraging the new network resources.

The benefits gained from the reengineered network were many and included,[5]

  1. Total enterprise connectivity, with all district facilities offering access to network resources including the Internet;
  2. Powerful, seamless Internet access that allows users from anywhere in the enterprise to access the Internet simultaneously;
  3. Security from unauthorized intruders; and
  4. Maximum use of existing infrastructure without a loss of functionality and without incurring unnecessary costs.

Standards and Partnerships Produce Lessons for Educational Organizations

State and federal agencies responsible for developing the policy and providing the funding to support computerization of public education may find it prudent to establish a set of minimum guidelines to help direct educational organizations in determining how best to pursue the process of computerization. It is recommended these guidelines include the requirement that computerization projects document a decision-making process that is based on standards. It might also be wise to consider requiring all vendors to certify that the products and services they provide meet minimal performance standards.

Locally, school districts contemplating computerization projects may want to be guided by the following suggestions:

Follow a disciplined decision-making process, such as the P.A.M., to target resources at priority areas of need;

  1. Make computerization decisions, design projects, adopt plans and make purchases based on OSI Standards to ensure compatibility of system components and future scalability;
  2. Seek partners with technical expertise and experience to guide the district in the decision-making, planning, andimplementation and servicing processes; and
  3. Make school district/business partnerships long term so that future needs can be knowledgeably addressed and advances in technology efficiently integrated into the system.

Link-to-Learn Web site is: www.state.pa.us/Technology_Initiatives/l2l/link2lr7.htm

Credit for "Project Link-to-Learn" is due in part to the leadership of Governor Tom Ridge; Department of Education Secretary, Eugene Hickok; Lieutenant Governor, Mark Schweiker; and Deputy Secretary for Information Technology, Larry Olson; with much of the hands-on work done by Project Directors Dr. John Gould, Dr. Sandy Kyrish, Kyle Peck and Dr. James Williams; Executive Assistant to the Secretary, John Bailey; and Link-to-Learn Coordinator Laura Lewis.

John Whiting is the Director of Educational Products & Services for Avetel, Inc., in Livingston, N.J. E-mail: jwhiting@warwick.net

Charles Graham is the Curriculum Director of Technology & Special Programs for Colonial School District in Plymouth Meeting, Pa. E-mail: cgraham@mciunix.mciu.k12.pa.us

References:
1. Whiting, John T. (1976) A Strategy for Educational Problem Solving and Assessing the Status of Educational Organizations, Seton Hall University.
2. International Standards Organization (ISO) is a Paris, France-based organization of member countries, each of which is represented by its leading standards-setting group, all working to establish international standardization of all services and manufactured products.
3. Smith, S., Editor (1996), Networking Essentials, Redmond, WA: Microsoft Press.
4. Pa. Department of Education, (1997) Link to Learn Management Plan, Harrisburg, PA: Pa. Dept. of Education, Research Building. Online: www.state.pa.us/Technology_Initiatives/l2l/link2lr7.htm
5. Pallies, John, (1996) "Internet Access for School Systems," consulting white paper, Avetel, Inc., p.1.

Products and companies mentioned:
Avetel, Inc., headquartered King of Prussia, Pa.; Education Division in Livingston, N.J., (201) 994-0202, www.avetel.com
3Com Access Builder; 3Com Corp., Santa Clara, CA, (800) NET-3COM, www.3com.com
Cisco routers, Cisco PIX; Cisco Systems, Inc., San Jose, CA, (800) 553-NETS, www.cisco.com

This article originally appeared in the 11/01/1997 issue of THE Journal.

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