Your School is Wired and Ready to Hit the Internet Running
But things aren’t that easy. Here’s how to deploy an efficient school network.
By James Punderson, K12USA founder and CEO
By 1999, 63 percent of the nation’s K–12 classrooms had Internet access. There is no doubt that by now, quite a few more have been wired. Soon enough, it will be unusual to find one without a connection. OK, now you’ve got this network, you’ve got your T-1 line, your Cisco router, your ISP, and a whole bunch of computers that can browse the Internet. Ready, set, go…
What do you mean, nothing happened? What’s it supposed to do? What’s supposed to happen next? Who is supposed to do it? All are excellent questions.
In its simplest terms, wiring classrooms and buildings into a network and then connecting to the Internet is like expanding the interstate highway system. You have built this beautiful road system, but by itself, it does nothing.
Oh, yes, I forgot. It does do something. It breaks down sometimes frequently and always when it is least convenient. So, the first thing to do is arrange for some person, persons, organization, or combination thereof to keep the network itself running.
In a small district, a local staff person supplemented by occasional help from an outside network consultant should be able to handle the task. In a medium-size school district, one or more full-time district persons supplemented by occasional help from an outside organization works well. In a large district, having numerous on-staff technicians and engineers should be fine.
Highways are Not Made for Pedestrians
What does your shiny new Internet “highway” system need to be useful for something other than keeping network technicians off the unemployment line? It needs software applications programs that, if properly installed and operated, perform useful functions over the network.
They can be divided into two main categories:
- Instructional applications to help teachers and students advance the district’s primary mission
- Infrastructure applications to help the school-district organization function better
In the instructional category, the most useful and powerful applications are general-purpose tools, such as word processors, email programs, and Internet browsers. These are supplemented by special-purpose applications, such as simulation software, science-lab software, and library card catalog systems.
Infrastructure applications include the same general-purpose tools as well as more specialized applications, like accounting and payroll software for the school-board office; student-record systems to keep track of schedules, attendance and grades; and systems for working with special-needs students.
Software is the Problem
What all this software has in common is that it all has to be selected, purchased, installed, configured, maintained, backed up, upgraded, and eventually replaced.
This is the biggest single problem area we see in schools. Normally the selection and purchase part is handled effectively enough and, fortunately, most computers purchased today come with at least the general-purpose tools already installed.
It is the installation, configuration, maintenance and upgrading that are difficult. Depending on how they are handled, these tasks can be excruciatingly labor intensive and extremely expensive. This time and expense are typically a lot higher than the cost of keeping the network itself going.
In the good old days when computers first started entering schools, it was possible for a person to take the few available pieces of software in hand and go from computer to computer installing them. But as more computers and more software programs are purchased, this approach becomes impractical in all but the smallest schools.
One approach commonly used today is to have a skilled technician use special systems-management software to install identical sets of software on many computers at once from a central location using the network.
Let’s Try This
This approach is especially useful for installing sets of software (such as word processors and Internet browsers) on all or almost all the computers as long as the computers are identical. This method becomes much more complicated (and more expensive) when it is used to install software (such as accounting systems and grade-reporting systems) on just some of the computers and/or when the computer hardware is quite different from one computer to the next.
Another approach is to install some of the software on servers to which district personnel connect, thereby using the network to gain access to the applications rather than having the applications installed on their own personal computers.
This also can become complex because, if everyone is depending on that one server to be running, it really, really has to be working all the time. Specially trained (expensive) network personnel and highly reliable and powerful server hardware are usually needed.
As a school works its way through each of these approaches, more highly trained technical personnel must be found. It is extremely difficult for schools to hire, pay, and retain adequate numbers of well-trained technical personnel, especially given the high salaries they command.
Many schools end up hiring relatively untrained persons who either cannot do the job properly or who become knowledgeable and leave for higher pay elsewhere.
Meanwhile, without functioning software, the expensive network system and Internet access are used for little more than email and casual browsing. It is incredibly frustrating for a school, not to mention the taxpayers, to spend so much money on an elaborate network infrastructure that is not used for the education of its students.
What to Do, What to Do?
In an effort to avoid some of the complexity and expense of keeping the systems running reliably, many school districts are turning to a new approach.
This approach is a form of outsourcing—of leasing some of the software from an outside organization called an application service provider (ASP).The ASP approach is new because it simply was not practical prior to the high bandwidth connections most school districts now have to the Internet.
The ASP, at its own expense and at its own location, is responsible for purchasing, maintaining, upgrading, configuring, and backing up the software and data for the school. The school simply rents the application. All the school has to do is keep its Internet connection up and ensure that each computer has a working Internet browser.
The Silver Lining
Besides the obvious savings in labor costs, the ASP method has other significant benefits. It ensures that all computers are running the same improvements to the software can be made equally swiftly.
Because the software is actually “running” on the ASP’s servers, the district can use older and, therefore less-expensive equipment. What’s more, support for the software is provided by the ASP, thereby relieving the district personnel of another burden on their time.
What this means is that, to start using a new application, the district technical staff does not have to do anything. There is no hardware to buy, no software to buy, nothing to install and nothing to maintain. Major headaches go away immediately.
The Dark Cloud
Okay, those are the pros. What are the cons? First, the ASP has to have powerful servers and a reliable and big enough Internet connection to ensure school personnel have uninterrupted access to the application.
Second, while school data is adequately protected from loss due to such hazards as fire, theft, hardware failures, hackers, power failures, earthquakes, floods, etc., it is not protected from the failure of its ASP—more than 400 Internet companies have gone out of business since the beginning of last year. Although ASPs can represent a significant savings, they do charge for the service and often require term contracts.
Who is Providing What?
The who is easy. The short answer is that almost everyone in the software industry is doing it, planning to do it, or thinking about doing it. Traditional school software vendors, industry giants, and a multitude of smaller companies are all now providing software as Internet-based services.
The what is equally easy. Just about every kind of software old and new is now being provided in this manner. Email systems for staff and students, student-record systems, inventory systems, encyclopedias, accounting systems, etc.—you name it, they are available.
All Things Considered
This ASP approach is quite new, and many companies are trying to provide these services, some with more success and skill than others. In evaluating the services, look at the total cost of the particular service. Give due weight to all the expenditures of time and money that will not have to be made within the district.
But think carefully before committing really important data to an untried vendor. (It is better to start out with something small such as a maintenance work-order system than with payroll.) Do some research, talk to other schools using the services to find out their experiences, and definitely take it for a spin.
Fortunately, many ASPs will provide a free trial period during which you can find out for yourself how good and how reliable their services are before committing your district to the software.
What Does the Crystal Ball Say?
The intelligent use of ASP services has so many advantages that you can bet you will see more and more schools experimenting with, and then adopting, this approach for at least some of their software needs.
With the ever-increasing size of Internet connections at schools and with the growing experience of ASP vendors in providing the services, the performance of ASP applications will only get better.
School boards, administrators, teachers and parents will be happier with the way students use the network because the ASP will provide appropriate and low-cost software “vehicles” for them to drive on the Internet highway system.
James M. Punderson IV, M.Ed., is a former teacher, school board president, network engineer, and author. He is the founder of K12USA, an educational technology and E-rate consulting company providing Internet-based software services exclusively to schools. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Article originally published in Inside Education, June 2001