Successful Alternatives to How Technologists Work with Schools
How do two people install and maintain 35 local area networks, while challenging students in a real-world work environment? They can start by teaming one instructional technology coordinator and one local area network (LAN) specialist. This is what happened in one Colorado school district, where their goal was to install and maintain local area networks in 35 schools within three years, and provide the training and support so the networks would be used effectively and efficiently to meet the learning objectives of each school.
The first key to the project's success was making the LAN specialist a member of the instructional technology team, reporting to the instructional technology coordinator. This allowed for direct communication between the schools and the LAN designer and sustainer. Not only were there open and ongoing discussions between the coordinator and specialist, but the coordinator was able to facilitate meetings between the specialist and end-users (school staff).
School meetings were held prior to, during, and after the installation of the local area network. Most meetings included the LAN specialist and the instructional technology coordinator, so that each school understood the total picture: technical, training, and support. Multiple meetings were held at every school with a variety of audiences, including staff members, principals, school technology committees, and individual teachers.
Those meetings allowed the LAN specialist to understand the nuances of the end-users' needs, such as maintaining the "favorites list" of Internet sites. At the same time, the end-users began to understand why the upgraded computers on the LAN might no longer be able to support a favorite DOS program, for example. It also allowed for collaborative selection of appropriate replacement software for classroom use. Many small but significant issues were resolved through constant communication between the technical and instructional staff.
To Outsource or Not?
The second key to a successful project was developing a commitment to and high motivation for the project. Both the coordinator and the specialist had a strong commitment to provide technical resources for students. The specialist spent the first summer overseeing the outsourced installation of the high schools' network infrastructures. The hired firm installed the framework but left the application software installation and computer setup to the specialist.
During the next six months, while the specialist completed the high school LANs, he simultaneously worked with the instructional technology coordinator to formulate the design of the final 29 school LANs. Much was learned from the outsourcing process, and the specialist proposed installing the middle school framework in-house during the second summer.
With the savings gained by not outsourcing the second phase of the project, and with lower network equipment costs at the second stage, the district was able to install higher speed networks - 100 Mbps to the desktop in most cases. Looking ahead to the support phase, we were careful to use fully managed hubs and switches, with full RMON (Remote Network Monitoring) support and SNMP management, so that the entire network could be managed from one location. During this time the district received notification of the award of a grant for almost $1 million for the installation of elementary school LANs. This money was used for the third phase following the middle school installations.
Let Students do the Work
Once the planning and the funding were identified, the third and most exciting key to a successful project completion was working with students. During the six month planning phase, the LAN specialist began sponsoring student technology clubs at several high schools. Each club identified a project, such as installing Linux servers to distribute dialup Internet access throughout libraries not yet wired for LANs.
Club members also provided technical support to staff members. These clubs allowed students to increase their network and computer knowledge while providing additional technical support to their schools. This opportunity to observe and facilitate the students inspired the specialist to hire students to help install and set up the middle school networks during the second summer of the three-year project.
Eight students were hired for the summer installations, and a training program was developed. The training program consisted of five classroom training days at the beginning of the summer. In addition to being paid for their work, the students also received advanced computer credit from their high schools for the course, which featured real-world work experience. The students' work included:
- Configuring file servers and installing network applications,
- Delivering servers,
- Installing switches and hubs in equipment racks,
- Installing and testing network patch cords, and
- Installing and testing network client software and applications on each computer in the school.
By the end of the summer, seven middle schools had local area networks installed that allowed Internet access to all classrooms. In addition, two older networks were upgraded, and hubs and switches in some of the high schools were replaced. The students worked on 1,100 computers. It would have taken the specialist at least two years to do alone what was done over one summer, and it would have cost two and a half times as much if outsourced. Saving time, saving money, and student learning were our biggest successes. What took a year to complete in the high schools took only three months in the middle schools. Students were rehired during the school year and during the summer of year three to install 22 elementary school LANs. After the installation of all the LANs, the district hired two additional technicians to support and maintain all LANs.
In the End
The project's success can be attributed to the creation of an environment that allowed the coordinator to interact effectively and work collaboratively with the LAN specialist, which led to a committed and highly motivated work force. This environment allowed the specialist to plan and design instructional LANs that met the needs of the school community. The district's goal was met, completing the installation and maintenance of 35 local area networks in three years and providing a challenging school/work experience for students.
Nancy Robbins received her Ed.D. from Teachers College, Columbia University, specializing in Educational Administrative Practice in the Organization and Leadership Department. She received her Ed.M. with a concentration in Administration, Planning and Social Policy from Harvard University. She spent 10 years as an Instructional Technology Coordinator in Texas and Colorado and is currently adjunct faculty at Our Lady of the Lake University and the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, Texas.
Bill Gordon spent three years as a local area network specialist in schools. He has been involved in the PC industry since the introduction of the Apple II, and is currently consulting and developing an Internet site in Colorado.
This article originally appeared in the 06/01/2000 issue of THE Journal.