A 21st Century Model for Maximizing Technology Purchases
Over the last decade, schools and campuses have made significant investments in technology, purchasing computers, networking tools and other components that are necessary to stay current and be more effective in integrating technology into teaching and learning. Making budget trade-offs, measuring relative values of competing products and trying to get the most value for the investment is a daunting challenge for school administrators and departmental IT managers responsible for making technology purchases for school districts or campuses.
Decision-makers have to deal with a number of challenges in pursuit of their goal of effectively investing in technology for their schools and campuses. Some of these considerations include system performance, technology support staff, justifying the cost of new systems and providing support services to students, teachers and other administrators. Important cost factors can be overlooked or inadequately budgeted, which limits the effectiveness of these crucial purchases. Making effective and efficient technology purchases requires a vision, a long-term strategy and improved financial planning.
A Universal Challenge
Businesses face similar challenges. In the past decade, many companies have used total cost of ownership (TCO) methodology to analyze and manage technology investments and account for the value of these investments. TCO is a model that helps companies understand the direct and indirect costs associated with owning and using information technology hardware and software. This model may be replicated within school districts and higher education institutions to guide long-term technology investment decisions. It provides a way to account for all the "little costs" that go into acquiring, installing and managing computers, networks and applications. It also includes the costs involved in operating networks and computers, whether leased or owned.
In the education environment, a better understanding of the TCO model will help school officials plan realistic budgets and make smarter choices when they deploy a network. Using this model, the outline below discusses a model and process for administrators to follow while gathering information for these important and costly decisions.
Assessing Current and Future Needs and Goals
To form a basis for a platform choice, schools should first assess the district's or department's current technology level by gathering the following data about the current configuration:
- Number of users;
- Number and age of computers and peripherals;
- Number and type of networks;
- Technical support staffing levels and availability;
- Technology knowledge and training of staff and students;
- Platform(s) currently used;
- Platform preference of staff, students and administrators; and
- Degree of conformity to a current district technology plan.
After this has been ascertained, the district's or department's future needs and goals should be assessed. In particular, the following are important factors to consider:
The need to upgrade and replace technology. The recommended life span for computers is five years. Software becomes obsolete even faster. In fact, many higher education institutions and school districts rely on significantly older systems or components, so aging hardware and software will need to be replaced eventually. Conversely, a district or college could have recently invested in new technology, so future acquisitions may require compatibility. The ongoing need for upgrade, repair and replacement should also be taken into account.
The current and future availability of financial resources. Is the district or college prepared to make a long-term commitment to technology? Are taxpayers? Ideally, a steady source of funding should cover current, future and ongoing costs. In practice, however, funding often fluctuates. Although new technology is often paid for by bonds, state or federal money, grants or donations, ongoing costs - support, training, maintenance, upgrades, and ever-increasing utility and telecommunications fees - are usually covered by district operating budgets.
Participants' willingness to handle change. Selecting a new platform can be challenging, as resistance to change is often inevitable. Regardless of financial and technological comparisons, adoption of a platform will succeed only if it has the support of most participants. Some individuals might resist change because they are afraid of losing their independence, feel uncomfortable with new technology, or have invested a lot of time and energy in the old technology. The support of the highest levels of district authority is essential in implementing a platform change, while department-level buy-in is critical in higher education.
The ability to implement the plan. In the planning, decision making and implementation process, enlisting the support of the community can ensure success. A district technology committee with representation from all major stakeholders should formulate a detailed, written analysis and plan. Technology decision-makers, especially champions of change, should communicate with all participants during every phase of planning and implementation. After the new technology is installed, thorough training on new systems and procedures will ensure a smooth transition. In addition, schools may offer incentives to teachers and faculty members, such as e-mail accounts or notebook computers, to help ease them in their transition.
A New Way to Evaluate Technology Needs
To assist schools, districts and higher education institutions with this comprehensive evaluation, Microsoft Corp. is anticipating the release of an online assessment tool that helps identify the appropriate operating system for such organizations. The Platform Decision Tool (www.microsoft.com/education/?id=platform) assists school districts and campuses in choosing the computer technology platform that best meets their needs and is a model that supports the TCO methodology. It guides users through a series of simple questions that identify and rank their standing on several landscape factors, and identifies various solutions to best suit the school's, district's or university's needs.
The goal of the tool is to provide specific feedback to decision-makers and IT professionals at educational organizations as they work to identify the appropriate technology platform for their students, teachers and administrators. This model provides decision-makers with a methodology to understand all the costs associated with computer systems, and a decision-making tool on how to best manage and improve their systems and purchases. This model empowers schools and universities to develop and implement long-term technology investment strategies that drive down support costs, increase time benefits and support improved learningoutcomes derived from their information technology investments. The tool consists of three general sections:
Introduction. The first section describes the factors to consider when making a platform decision, including references to case studies, facts about the market and other information that may be useful when answering assessment questions used in the tool. This section also describes some of the research methods schools can use to gather data and statistics.
Assessment (Q&A). The second section presents platform decision factors, phrased as interview questions, to help schools come to a decision.
Summary. The final section provides a recommendation based on answers provided in the Assessment section.
The data and statistics that are included in the Platform Decision Tool come from various sources, including the following:
1. Case studies and white papers based on school district TCO analysis and best practices.
2. Microsoft Corp. The Microsoft corporate Web site was used extensively to gather data about training, support, vendor health and other topics. Business and platform studies performed by Microsoft were also included.
3. Apple Computer Inc. The Apple corporate Web site was used to gather data about training, support, vendor health and other topics.
4. Linux.org. This Web site is a comprehensive source for Linux information and resources.
5. Red Hat Inc. Recognized vendor dedicated to open source and the makers of Linux.
6. Dell Computer Corp. white paper. Dell developed a white paper in which superintendents and their personnel, IT professionals and teachers from 18 K-12 school districts were interviewed. The study concluded that an overwhelming number of districts have standardized on a Windows platform, a few have standardized on dual platforms and fewer still have standardized on an Apple-based platform.
7. Consortium for School Networking (COSN.org). COSN conducted extensive studies regarding the TCO involved in implementing new technologies in the classroom.
8. Quality Education Data Inc. (QED). QED is a national research and database company focused exclusively on education. Data from the QED Web site was referenced extensively for source information.
9. Software and hardware resellers and academic vendors. Various company Web sites were used to gather data about hardware and software available on different platforms.
There's no doubt that making effective and efficient technology purchases requires a long-term outlook, as well as the input and insight of key stakeholders. If school districts and higher education institutions do not utilize comprehensive planning for their technology budgets, they may not have sufficient resources to provide training to teachers, or to keep software up to date.
This article originally appeared in the 02/01/2002 issue of THE Journal.