Technology Planning for Heart-Pounding Times
Technology planning for schools used to be an exercise in high hopes and meager expectations. As little as three years ago, dedicated committees of technology directors, teachers, school board members and parents were still putting the finishing touches on technology plans that envisioned a semi-distant future of interconnected learning communities and begged for a budget big enough for a few dozen desktop PCs next year.
But now, school technology planners are in a whole different ballgame. In fact, thanks to the E-rate and a white-hot public interest in technology, it looks a lot like the big leagues. There's real money to invest, and real (read: high stakes) decisions to make.
That has school technologists staring at their pre-dawn ceilings haunted by a very particular nightmare: the one in which they have a couple million bucks to spend on technology - and they spend it wrong.
It's a nightmare worth paying attention to, because this moment of abundant resources for technology won't last forever. Sooner or later, the pendulum will swing, the public will figure everything that needs to be bought has been, and poorly chosen technology will not be so easy to replace. So how do you plan well for technology in these heart-pounding times? You have to start with a shift in perspective.
It Happened To Me
I will admit, some shifts are more jarring than others. For years, as editor of various technology magazines for educators, I had a strict "boxes and wires come last" view of technology planning. I firmly believed that no piece of equipment or package of software should be purchased until it had a well thought out educational use - ideally, with pre-training of teachers, to boot.
But the pace of technology change forces one to shed such dogma. The linear relationship between purpose and tool has now become a warp-speed tango, in which tools inspire new purposes as often as purposes inspire new tools.
Helping to launch the multibillion-dollar E-rate program only added to my change of view. Bringing robust infrastructure and affordable connections within reach of every school convinced me that only with such resources on hand can schools make real all their great ideas for technology infused curriculum and teacher training. And, as it turns out, the E-rate is the most enticing technology planning carrot imaginable: more than 90% of public schools will be covered by current technology plans this fall, according to some estimates I've seen.
The problem is, too many of those technology plans - and too many E-rate applications that spring from them - don't go far enough. They're shaped by small thinking and by yesterday's realities (although often with price tags that are quite out of this world). And when all is said and done, the schools that follow those plans will find themselves just as far behind the technology curve in 2000 as they were in 1996, no matter how much money they spend.
Five Planning Principles
This fall, as the E-rate launched into its third application cycle, I joined the staff of Broadband Networks Inc. (BNI). In this company's mission and products, I saw a dedication to the key principles I now believe will make the very most of school technology today and tomorrow. These principles are:
1) Bandwidth, bandwidth, bandwidth: While some in this enlightened age might argue that you actually can be too rich or too thin, there's really no such a thing as "too much bandwidth." Working with partners from the cable industry and elsewhere, BNI designs 100 Mbps or Gbps fiber optic Ethernet wide area networks, and can help districts interconnect and manage local area networks as well. But these networks are only the means to the ends we all hope schools are striving for: high quality interaction and collaboration across distance via video, data and voice.
2) Integration, integration, integration: School technology planners should be looking for video, data and voice services delivered at top quality, over one network, to end-user equipment that can handle all three simultaneously. For example, BNI's PowerPlay family of fully integrated conferencing stations connect any video, voice or data signal over any high-speed IP-based network - whether Ethernet, ATM or SONET.
3) Flexibility and adaptability: Long gone should be the day when schools think that one dedicated endpoint for any service is sufficient - or that it's acceptable to be locked into the configuration that made sense last year. Fast, high quality, integrated video, data and voice service ought to be available anywhere in the school building on demand as teachers and kids need it. Flexible integrated systems should allow four-way, full motion conferencing on your existing CAT5 and 10 Mbps switched LAN - with no need for a second wiring scheme or expensive upgrade.
4) Better, faster, cheaper: It's a technology change truism that processing power is going up while prices go down. School planners ought to be on the lookout for services and equipment that integrate the very latest technological developments in order to offer superior performance at lower prices.
5) High-quality handholding: Truly smart technology planners know that where most school technology implementations fail is on the back end, when all of the equipment has been installed and the vendor engineers go home. Few school systems have staff with sufficient expertise to keep a complex system up and running under the demands of regular use, much less handle the crises that inevitably occur. Select partners whose dedication to service and support really is a 24 hours-a-day, seven days-a-week kind of thing.
Five More Words to Live By
About the only guarantee life offers any of us these days is that there are no guarantees. It's quite possible to do all your homework, follow the five principles above - and still have to replace some major piece of your technology installation in a few years because new developments have made it obsolete.
But the worse sin would be to let that possibility stop you from moving quickly to implement your technology plans, while the resource pendulum is swinging in your direction. In fact, the slogan for today's school technology planner ought to be this twist on the environmental action concept "think globally, act locally": Think long term, act now. Post that on your headboard, and get a good night's sleep.
Mickey Revenaugh is K-16 marketing director for Broadband Networks Inc., developers of high-capacity networks and integrated, interactive multimedia systems. Prior to joining BNI, Ms. Revenaugh was vice president for outreach at the Schools and Libraries Division of the Universal Service Administrative Company, which administers the E-rate program, and served previously as editor in chief of Electronic Learning and Instructor magazines at Scholastic.
Broadband Networks Inc.
State College, PA
This article originally appeared in the 11/01/1999 issue of THE Journal.