Make It Work


A tight budget doesn't have to mean sacrificing the most advancededucation technology. You can create a cutting-edge media centerwith vision, creativity, and a strong dose of technical savvy.

Make It WorkANNIE MCQUEEN, LIBRARIAN AT David StarrJordan Middle School in the Palo Alto Unified SchoolDistrict in California, is used to figuring out creative ways ofgetting what her media center needs, even though her budgetis minuscule. The state pays her about 70 cents per student peryear for materials; disbursed among about 925 students, that'sless than $700 a year. McQueen gets additional support fromthe funds generated by the couple of book fairs she hosts eachyear. Plus, she and her staff of two part-time assistants knowhow to write grants.

In fact, it was a grant that enabled McQueen and her colleagues at two other middle schools in the district to fund the purchase of Gale references. Gale, a part of Cengage Learning, publishes a series of printed reference books that are also available online in a digital format, which libraries can make available to their students through a password-protected link. She calls it a "great way to get a 24/7 reference collection of quality information for middle schoolers."

The initial price is hefty-- about $200 to $300 a title, McQueen says. But after that, the connectivity fee is low-- about $100 for 10 titles per year, she estimates. "I like that a lot," she says. "It's a print source, and students can use it at home."

The three schools focused their selection on topics such as the Civil War and the American Revolution, because "that information is going to stay current for a long time," McQueen says. Newer topics-- drugs, alternative energies-- McQueen knows she will have to buy again in another five years, simply because the information will be out of date.

To cover the initial purchase of 20 references, the three libraries submitted a joint grant application, which a local education association funded. Other grant sources included the local Parent Teacher Association and the district. According to McQueen, funding sources like to support collaborative grants, "where you're going across grade levels, across schools, across departments."

With school budgets what they are-- skimpy-- it's McQueen's brand of vision, imagination, and resourcefulness that can be put to work in lieu of money to help establish and maintain a cutting-edge media center. With the right blend of these elements, plus a good portion of technical savvy, schools can still provide the most advanced technology tools available to augment their students' educational experience.

Marshaling people and ideas is key. The Gale reference books investment wasn't the first collaboration among the three Palo Alto middle school librarians. They also jointly host a research website for students to use. The Palo Alto Middle School Libraries Research Center includes links to references, bibliography resources, online databases, topic links, and library links. The idea came to fruition several years ago, McQueen recalls. "I said we needed to have a list of good websites kids can go to [for research]," she says. Now the effort is linked to the public library, which expands the resources that can be offered.

Each of the schools kicks in $500 a year to pay a parent to maintain the site, and the librarians meet a few times a year to work on new initiatives. "You tend to have more power, a stronger voice, if you're working together," says McQueen.

That's how another affordable resource came about, one McQueen goes so far as to describe as "the best thing any media center could offer": Google Custom Search Engine. It's a service that allows users to create a search engine tailored to their needs by prioritizing search results based on web pages specified by those who set it up. Teachers can set up the search to only include specific sites, or the librarian can customize it for them.

Within the physical library, McQueen has come upon another cost-saving trick. The library has two laptop carts, one with 10 Macs and the other with 15. Previously, students would take a laptop out of the cart and run it on battery power. When they put a computer back into the cart, the battery was recharged. The problem, says McQueen, was that students were running the laptops on battery power for such lengths of time that the batteries had to be replaced often.

So McQueen moved four library tables over some power outlets embedded in the library floor and plugged the chargers into them. Now, the carts are simply used for storage. A student removes a laptop, plugs it into the charger at the table, and works there. When the student is finished using the machine, it goes back into the cart. In addition to preserving batteries, she points out, the new method makes it easier to monitor laptop usage.

The yearly inventory process in the Red Mountain Middle Schoollibrary used to take about 2 1/2 weeks to complete. With theimplementation of an RFID system, the librarianfinishes the work in a matter of hours.

Investing in a Backbone

At Franklin Independent School District in Texas, Director of Technology Joe Squiers isn't under quite as severe a budget crunch as many of his colleagues, having enjoyed the advantage of bond money approved by the voters in his district in 2006. The funds have enabled the construction of a new high school and a new elementary school, and now the renovation of the district's middle school. The money has also allowed Squiers to set up a 3-gigabit IP network backbone that puts Franklin ISD, he says, "at least 10 years ahead of the technology curve."

"Going IP has allowed us to take the bulk of our money and spend it on the network closet," he explains. "That stuff never changes. You spend it on the backbone, on the switches." With the network backbone in place and the appropriate hardware and software installed, using the internet to provide, control, and manage audio and video has allowed Franklin ISD to distribute media center operations to its classrooms.

The new arrangement derives savings from eliminating the inefficiencies of the old media systems. "Back when you had librarians put in VCR tapes for everybody, it only worked one in 10 times," says Squiers, noting that schools would dump tons of money into having several VCRs and TVs available in hopes that some of them would work. "You had to have the size of three classrooms to hold all the equipment you needed."

The new setup fits into two racks. Components include the SchoolView Technologies CampusSV platform, which allows for live and recorded video delivery from a central or classroom location to any number of classrooms on the network; NEC projectors; and DVD and video devices from Sony. In addition, the traditional public address system has given way to Barix AG Exstreamer 100 audio over IP decoding hardware units, for schoolwide voice, music, and bell-tone distribution.

This new PA system can broadcast any sound file, Squiers says, and can also become an audio aid for anyone with a hearing impairment. "You can throw a [microphone] on a teacher, and the speakers in the room become surround sound," Squiers says. Calypso Control Systems' ezRoom, an audiovisual classroom solution, works in tandem with the Barix devices to play audio to designated locations.

When students need to watch a broadcast to prepare them for state testing, Squiers can load the file and distribute it throughout the school or just to particular classes at given times. Teachers have a control panel that allows them to switch between video coming from their computer to video coming from another device.

Squiers says the new system is a snap to operate. "Overall, it's a very simple concept," he says. "If you want audio, you hit the audio button. If you want video, you hit the video button." To share the view on their computer, teachers choose the appropriate option on the control panel to present an internet site or a program, which is displayed from a ceiling-mounted projector.

But what will become of the media center, having its appliances outsourced to classrooms? In Squiers' vision, do schools still have media centers? Sure, he says. That's where students can learn to make movies, learn Microsoft Office, and check out a laptop. And of course, should they want to check out books from the library, they can go online to do it.

Space Savers
Lisa Tody, technology coordinator for the 2,400-student Harvard Community Unit School District 50 (IL), is accustomed to outfitting the media centers for her district's schools with Dell workstations. However, she faced a unique situation at the district's second-grade school.

The district had done a pilot project with the nonprofit organization Northwest Evaluation Association to replace their pencil-andpaper- based Stanford 9 achievement tests with NWEA assessments. NWEA provides computerized, individualized testing in core subjects.

"As a student answers questions correctly, the questions get harder," says Bill Clow, the district's director of community outreach. "Or as he or she misses a question, the questions get easier, as opposed to paper testing, where students can answer correctly, and you don't know if you've hit the top of their abilities or the bottom. [The NWEA test] is a much more flexible tool."

The advantage to the teachers, says Tody, is that summarized results are available as soon as the student is done testing, versus the months they would typically wait with the Stanford exam. By the next day, additional results are available. "And there is incredible detail once the testing window is closed" about three weeks later, she says. "Teachers can reevaluate their grouping and the levels of their kids, and adjust the curriculum."

The NWEA initiative has been in place for three years at Jefferson Elementary School, which houses the first-, third-, and fourth-grade students. Following the success of the pilot program, the district pushed forward in 2007-08 to expand it to all other grades, from second through ninth.

The problem lay with Central School, which houses the second-grade classrooms. Built in 1888, it's the oldest operating school in the state, and old buildings pose space and power challenges. "There wasn't room for a traditional 30-user lab in any room," Tody says. Refurbishing the structure according to new standards and acquiring the space for a standard media lab would have been cost-prohibitive.

So the district looked at some alternatives within its budget. Tody and members of her technical team saw a terminal computing solution called NComputing at an event and decided topilot it at the Central School site.

"Instead of having a PC in each spot [in the lab], you have these little terminal stations," she explains. Peripherals-- monitor, keyboard, mouse, and speakers-- connect to a small access device, which connects to a single shared PC either directly or over Ethernet."The cost is significantly less than putting in PCs, and it saves a lot of space because the footprint isn't nearly as big." Each terminal station is about 4 by 5 inches. All 30 stations run off of one server, requiring only about 5 watts per station for electrical usage. Tody estimates the cost at about $230 per box for the L-series, which the district is running, comparedto $600 to $800 for a PC.

A further cost-saving advantage of the terminal computing approach, says Clow, is that the room doesn't require any additional air conditioning, which it would if it housed 30 PCs.

As another space-saving measure, the district is now testing a "mini-lab" in its junior high school. Grouping five or six of these terminal stations eliminates the need to find a vacant classroom that can house a full-blown computer lab.

The NComputing setup, says Tody, "is a great solution for students doing internet search- and word processing-type work. It's a great solution for those mini-labs."

Check Out RFID

Recently, Red Mountain Middle School in Deming, NM, installed a state-of-the-art library that uses radio frequency identification (RFID) for the operational aspects of checking books in and out. The hefty price tag was actually less expensive in the long term than the other option: adding staff.

The system was the first RFID implementation installed in a K-12 school by Integrated Technology Group, a developer of library automation technologies. Amy Thropp, the company's vice president of marketing, believes the technology's ability to swiftly accommodate a large number of students will lead to its widespread implementation in schools. "In a school environment, where resources are pretty restrained, you have a class of30 kids coming into the media center at the same time," she says.

The RFID system easily handles that kind of rush. The students place their books on the check-in counter on top of the antenna-- a square pad-- and the system automatically checks each item in and turns security on. At checkout, students simply set the item on the antenna and hand over their library card. The system then assigns each item to the student's account and turns security off. "From the media specialists' standpoint," saysThropp, "they don't have to touch and handle every single item."

Previously, the yearly inventory process in the library would take about 2 1/2 weeks to complete. With the RFID system, the librarian simply moves the wand across all the spines on theshelf and finishes the work in a matter of hours.

Libraries require a different kind of tag from what might be used in a retail setting. "These tags have to be durable, since they're written over and over again," Thropp explains. Also, because they're in books used by children, they have to be easily concealed. "We recommend things like putting coveredlabels with the school logo over [the tags] to protect them."

Thropp says a small school library system, including RFID tags, hardware such as the tag readers and antenna, and software that works with the integrated library system, can be set up for about $75,000. A library with 20,000 items would spend between 40 and 50 cents per tag, says Thropp, but "every six months we get a price adjustment." Thropp's company doesn't make the tags, but resells them, passing on the price cut to their customers. The reader is a piece of hardware containing firmware that attaches to a laptop or other standard computer and can interpret tag data.

While the whole endeavor may not sound terribly affordable, the investment pays itself off in the time it frees up for library staff to deliver key services to the school. Red Mountain administrators say that as a result of the new system, the staff have had more time to write grants, develop learning programs, and teach students how to use the resources in the library-- time that without the RFID automation would have been eaten up by themenial task of checking books in and out.

"A librarian's whole job is service," Thropp says. "If they're spending their time doing mechanical things, they have no time for the people who need their assistance."

Teresa Ortiz, the school's library media specialist, attests to that. Ortiz says she now has time to collaborate with teachers "to build new learning programs for students...and do what library media specialists are supposed to do-- teach."

A New Purpose

"Librarians are experts at reinventing themselves," says David Jakes, coordinator of instructional technology for Glenbrook South High School in Glenview, IL. They have to be, with the digital age and shriveled budgets forcing a reconsideration of what the school library's purpose is. Jakes imagines the new media center as a place where instructional experimentation happens, where new ideas and technologies can be tried out and developed before being deployed throughout a school-- akin to incubation classrooms in the higher education setting.

And that doesn't necessitate a lot of money. "It's got to start with a vision," says Jakes, who left his long-time position as instructional technology coordinator for Illinois' Community High School District 99 to join Glenbrook South High this fall, "a vision of how you think about technology, how you feel technologycan be a part of the learning process."

Second, there has to be buy-in from faculty, administrators, and other members of the school community.

"From there, you have to start thinking, ‘What are the discrete measurable kinds of activities we want to be involved in?'" he explains. "Where do those sit within our curriculum? And who's responsible for what? What kind of support do we need, what kind of professional development do we need, what kind of financial support do we need? It's complicated, but it'sdoable if you have the leadership and the vision."

So where does a media center coordinator who lacks a hefty budget begin to create the kind of climate in which experimentation is the norm? Jakes, who writes the blog, "The Strength of Weak Ties," suggests coming up with ideas "that demonstrate to leadership that this is worth doing."

That may mean implementing a freely available open source program to create a new kind of learning environment. It may require a Web 2.0 tool or service, which, as Jakes points out, is usually free. Or it may simply be fashioning a media center to work more like a Starbucks, where students can push tables and chairs together and apart, work on their handheld devices and notebooks, or sit and collaborate with others. "One size doesn't fit all kinds of learning in classrooms or media centers," he says.

The ever-evolving media center can play a valuable role in sparking creativity within a school. "To be a place for incubationand germination of new ideas is extremely powerful," Jakes says.

The vision costs not a cent.

If you would like more information on mediacenters, visit our website.Enter the keywords media center.

Dian Schaffhauser is a freelance writer in Nevada City, CA.

This article originally appeared in the 08/01/2008 issue of THE Journal.