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December 1, 2011
Vol. 69
No. 4

Stretching Your Technology Dollar

Here's how to keep up with increasing demands for technologies—when financial resources don't.

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As my district's technology director, I love getting the maximum bang for my buck. Maybe it's because as a former classroom teacher, I know of other ways to spend money than on wires and chips. It could be that my midwestern hardheadedness insists that only fools use two mules when one mule will do. And I know it's a deep-seated distrust of anybody who wants to make a profit selling to schools.
Schools in the United States spend a lot of money on education technology—estimated soon to be $56 billion dollars—36 percent of which is spent in K–12 education. That's about $400 per student per year.
As district budgets shrink, technology departments will most certainly be affected. Here are 10 strategies to help you make the most of your technology dollar.

1. Use effective budgeting techniques.

Finance in schools is a zero-sum game. Districts have a finite amount of money, so any funds expended on technology are funds not spent to reduce class sizes, buy science lab equipment, or train teachers. Good technology budgets should not be just practical, but moral as well, clearly showing how every dollar spent directly or indirectly improves educational opportunities for students.
  • Aligns to goals. Budgets ought to be a subset of a larger technology plan that's tied directly to district and school goals.
  • Is transparent. My technology department's budget is available districtwide in a Google Docs spreadsheet. Arranged by major categories and account codes, the document lists each purchase order with its vendor, dollar amount, and a brief description of the item or service purchased. The spreadsheet lists the beginning balance of each account and shows a running current balance. Transparency also depends on using language that is understandable to educators and the general public.
  • Is specific. I do zero-based budgeting every year. This means starting from scratch and itemizing every technology expense that the district needs to cover in the coming school year.
  • Includes stakeholder input. An advisory committee is a great help for the technology budget maker. A good advisory committee will also insist on some kind of assessment that helps answer the question, Did expending funds in this way have the anticipated result?
A well-thought-out budget will improve the use of technology in a district, even if the technology you ask for is not fully funded. Relating expenditures to goals, prioritizing purchases, and soliciting stakeholder input ensure that money will not just be well spent, but best spent.

2. Take advantage of the (buying) power of groups.

Although technology products and services can be expensive, the industry is also intensely competitive. Savvy educators can use that competitive environment to their advantage.
For any purchase over a few dollars, getting two or more quotes should be standard operating procedure. Minnesota requires us to go through a formal closed bid process for any procurement over $100,000.
Intermediate service agencies, such as Boards of Cooperative Educational Services, often offer consortium purchasing of goods and services. Our district takes advantage of discounted costs for Internet connectivity, educational resource subscriptions, and hardware purchases provided by our regional telecommunications cooperative. State government contracts can provide discounted costs for equipment and may eliminate the legal need for getting quotes or bids on products. Districts can even take advantage of group discounts by entering into a districtwide contract for resources rather than having each building purchase them separately.

3. Practice sustainable technology.

  • Not purchasing more technology than a school can regularly maintain, upgrade, and replace. For example, let's say that Johnson Middle School has 500 students and 20 classrooms. We want a computer in each of our classrooms (20) and a 4:1 student to computer ratio throughout the school (125). That's 145 computers in all.Computers much more than five years old become unreliable. If we're going to replace our computers every five years, we need to purchase 20 percent of them new each year. Therefore, our annual computer budget needs to be .20 replacement rate × 145 computers × $1,000—or $29,000—this year and every year from now on. If you don't maintain the technology, you get unreliable computers that teachers won't use.
  • Rotating the technology. Let's give almost everyone a new computer for the price of a single computer lab. Here's how it works: The tech ed department buys new machines with the random-access memory (RAM) and fast processors needed to run its computer-aided design (CAD) software. The replaced tech ed machines go to the business department, where they will be used to do desktop publishing, presentations, and office practice. The library gets the hand-me-downs from the business department for research and multimedia use. Finally, the oldest machines go from the library to the English department's writing lab. Sell the really old machines to marine supply stores to use as boat anchors.
Do not keep computers going that are at end of life. Once a computer is more than five years old, we don't fix it. Put the old machines that will be recycled when they break into non-mission-critical places.

4. Purchase the right tool for the right job.

My rule of thumb was always that you should buy as powerful a machine as you could afford to keep it from becoming obsolete. My motto was, "You can never be too rich, too thin, or have too much bandwidth." But things are changing.
Computer speed, processing memory, and hard-drive capacity have reached the point where even fairly low-end machines are fast enough for most purposes. You can add memory to most computers when you need it, and servers are becoming scalable. Bandwidth can be monitored and regulated with packet shapers. My new rule? Buy what you need for today's purposes—but make sure it can be upgraded.
  • Is this a job for technology at all? Could a set of regular books do the same thing a subscription to e-books and a set of reading devices would do—at less cost? Will the cost of digitizing paper records be offset by fewer secretarial hours? There are only two reasons to implement a given technology in schools: to do a task less expensively or to do something important that you can do no other way. Technology for the sake of technology is both stupid and immoral.
  • What exactly will users do with the equipment? If you're using a computer only to write papers and access the Internet, you don't need the most powerful one on the market. Do you need a 10-megapixel camera when all the images produced will go on the web at a low resolution? Because schools are using the Internet for both file and application storage, do you really need a large hard drive or a CD/DVD drive? Do employees need a smartphone with a data plan or just a plain cell phone? Don't buy overjuiced equipment "just in case." Base purchases on actual tasks.
  • Where will the machine be used? Laptop computers have a high total cost of ownership. They often cost more initially, break more often, need replacement batteries, and have a shorter lifespan. Does a classroom teacher need a laptop or will a less expensive desktop do the job?
  • Will a reconditioned machine serve as well as a new one? We've been finding that reconditioned computers with a 5-year warranty cost us half the price of new computers. If you purchase reconditioned machines, it's important to use a reputable vendor, get a warranty, and make sure each order is for the same make and model of machine.
  • Could families rather than the school provide this item? As the cost of netbooks, tablets, and smartphones drop, asking parents to provide such devices for their children becomes more reasonable. Watch as Bring Your Own Device programs pop up around the United States.

5. Take advantage of free software.

  • Open-source software uses code that the creator has placed in the public domain and that a large body of users then rewrites and extends. The Linux operating system is probably the most famous open-source product available.
  • Minimally featured versions of commercial products are made available by a producer who then hopes that features or capacity available only in the purchased version will sell the software. Animoto and Dropbox work this way.
  • Web-based software applications that derive revenue from advertising are growing in popularity. Yahoo mail uses this economic model.
Use Wikia's School Computing: Best Free or Open Source Software page as a reliable guide to free programs.
One "free" technology to think very carefully about is donated equipment. Many businesses and individuals with the best of intentions offer to give computers and other equipment to schools. Too often the equipment is old, incompatible, or in need of repair and licensure. Unless your school really needs the items and the items have at least two years of life left, pass on the offer and avoid the recycling fee.

6. Head to the cloud.

Cloud computing relies on applications and file storage that reside on the Internet, with minimal resources stored on the local computer's hard drive. A major advantage, then, of cloud computing is that you can work on any project anywhere, regardless of the computer you're using.
But cost savings are also important. Unlike software that resides on computer hard drives, web-based applications are often provided at no cost to the user. Tools such as Google Apps for Education often have a surprisingly full feature set and are compatible with commercial programs.
You can lower your school district's computing costs by using inexpensive computers just to access the cloud. Netbooks are inexpensive, and file storage and basic applications are free. Just out are netbooks that run the Chrome operating system; these require virtually no maintenance, lowering support costs.
I estimate that by using Google Apps for Education, our district of 7,300 students and 3,000 computers saves about $200,000 a year in hardware, software, storage, printing, and support costs.

7. Enforce standardization through single-point purchasing.

As a rule, I'm against education monocultures. I've yet to see one activity, one teaching style, or even one type of schooling that works for everyone.
  • Increases bulk purchase discounts.
  • Decreases inventory of supplies and parts.
  • Increases the amount of time devoted to training on multiple products.
  • Decreases the need for technical support.
  • Increases the likelihood of compatibility with legacy systems.
The only way to create such standardization is by having an enforced policy that states that all technology purchases need to be made through a single department.

8. Maximize your E-Rate funding.

For the past dozen years, the Universal Service Fund (E-Rate) has made a major contribution in helping many school districts, including ours, pay their technology bills. Administered by the Federal Communications Commission, the applications, regulations, and allowable services are all rather byzantine and make federal income tax guidelines seem like a Dick and Jane primer in comparison.
  • Use an E-Rate consultant. Like a good tax preparer, a reliable specialist will help make sure you apply for all the services for which you are eligible, prepare the documentation completely and in a timely manner, and help answer any auditing questions that might arise. Our consultant has earned her fees many times over.
  • Work with regional telecommunication consortiums. A number of our services are purchased through a regional consortium that then becomes the E-Rate applicant. The consortium has expertise that the local school district may not—as well as increased buying clout.
  • Save everything. In case your district is audited, keep all service contracts; all communications from the Schools and Libraries Division of the Universal Service Fund; and any reports related to school demographics, public hearings, and other requirements.
  • Take the process seriously. E-Rate's application process has strict deadlines and documentation requirements. Rules change yearly. Make E-Rate a priority, read all updates, and attend any training on the process that your state or region offers. Respond quickly and completely if questioned by the Schools and Libraries Division.
  • Lobby your U.S. representative and senators. Let your congressional delegation know that this is one federal program that's worth its attention. Given schools' increased reliance on E-Rate's networks and telecommunication infrastructure, the program needs to stay solvent.

9. Stop supporting obsolete technologies.

  • 16mm film projectors
  • filmstrips
  • cassette tape players
  • opaque projectors
  • Microsoft Works and AppleWorks software
  • overhead projectors
  • CRT television sets
  • VHS tapes and players
  • desktop, rather than web-based, software
I just felt a great collective shudder in Education Land from those of us who use and value these resources. Budgets, however, need to focus on technologies that still have a long life span, not prop up those that are dying.

10. Provide sufficient training.

How can you make the most powerful and expensive technology worth absolutely nothing? Drop it? Spill coffee on it? Let an 8th grader hack into it? Perhaps, but a far more effective way is to buy a new system, hardware, or software and not provide sufficient training.
  • Why it's useful.
  • How to use it.
  • How to use it to support teaching and learning.
If serious, formal training isn't part of your technology budget, don't worry much about the rest of it. The shiny things won't get used well anyway.
End Notes

1 Nagel, D. (2008, September 24). Education technology spending to top $56 billion by 2012. T.H.E. News Update.

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