Oct 12 2006

Technology Directors Square Off on Wireless

The technology director of two large public high schools and the president of a small private high school share their views on the value of wireless technology. They agree that the quality of the educational experience is a key ROI measurement.

Tim Hohman and Dave McCreery work less than seven miles apart at high schools in the West Chicago suburbs. Hohman is a technology director, while McCreery is president of his school and handles administrative functions.

Hohman serves two large public high schools with a current enrollment of 4,300 students, and McCreery supervises a private Catholic school with about 525 students. Having started working with wireless in 2000, Hohman is now an old hand with the technology, while McCreery is just beginning.

Despite these differences, the two men share a strong conviction that wireless networks and devices in classrooms serve a greater good that goes well beyond the traditional return on investment (ROI) formulae.

Both Hinsdale Township High School District 86 and St. Joseph High School painstakingly examined and balanced the costs and need for wireless teaching programs and strived to get the best deals. In addition, they realize that enabling new ways of teaching, learning and achieving in the classroom represents an important measure of value. CDW·G’s Ed Tech spoke with the pair to learn how they deal with the cost-benefit questions endemic to wireless technologies.

Ed Tech: Several studies claim wireless local area networks (LANs) pay for themselves in a year or less. Does that square with your experience?
We have been laying the foundations for Tablet PCs for seven years, so we take a much longer view of technology. In 1997, we put fiber optics into every classroom. In 1998, we built our own mobile cart from a cafeteria table with notebook computers strapped to the top, and in 2000, we got our first wireless laptop carts. In 2001, Hinsdale Central High School went wireless, and Hinsdale South did the same the following year. Over the next three years, every room will have a wireless LCD projector. We think in terms of small steps across a number of years, with consistent, ongoing payoffs.
McCreery: The 2004-2005 school year will be the first one for St. Joseph as a completely wireless campus, so we have not yet measured the ROI. The vision behind our notebook program is long-term and simple: to provide the tools and training necessary to ensure that our students become the most technologically savvy students in the world.

Ed Tech: How do you cost-justify wireless technology?
Our focus has never been on demonstrating the ROI; it’s been on improving instruction. We believe that Tablet PCs and wireless greatly enhance learning. So, the district has made a long-term commitment to technology— around $700,000 a year.
McCreery: A critical factor in deciding to move to wireless technology was the need to upgrade our infrastructure. The existing network and Internet framework was installed about five years ago. After research on curricular applications of technology in the classroom and overwhelming demand by teachers for lab time, we began a research program examining infrastructure trends and student needs. Moving to wireless is cost-effective, since the majority of classrooms had not been wired.

Ed Tech: What kinds of noneconomic benefits are you looking for, and how will you measure them?
We look for direct classroom benefits to teachers and students. We’re continuing to develop specific success measurements, but the benefits are pretty obvious. For instance, one of our math teachers uses a Tablet PC and a wireless projector, which enables him to walk around the room, write formulas, take notes, highlight data points and plot graphs. When class is over, the teacher saves his notes on a class Web site. The kids copy these notes to their own Tablets, make their own notes, or connect to a wireless projector and present to the whole class. Students are excited about learning because they don’t have to rush to write everything down. They can focus on understanding.
McCreery: The measurement of benefits in a mission-driven, not-for-profit school is not just financial. Most important to St. Joseph High School is that the notebook program allows equal access to quality methods of learning for all students. If the wireless LAN increases student achievement, has a positive effect on enrollment and provides the best preparation for our students, then the payment will have been worth the financial investment.

As we prepare for implementation, we will put in place measures of student achievement, teaching and learning success, using standard and nonstandard metrics. We have already taken several steps to establish baseline data in key areas. We will measure student motivation and achievement in core academic subjects and in key skill areas, such as critical thinking, problem solving, information literacy and technological skills. Parent involvement and satisfaction, as well as faculty professional development, will also be assessed. Finally, we will measure whether or not enrollment increases as a direct result of the notebook program.

Ed Tech: What are the most important direct costs associated with wireless classroom computing?
Tablet computers. Like many schools, we’ve lost money from cuts in state and federal funding. So the only way this wireless Tablet PC scenario works is if the student owns the PC. They can purchase the Tablets outright for around $2,000, get a $40-a-month lease for the four years they are in high school, or get a subsidized lease. We are asking them to buy one functional piece of equipment that will serve them for four years. To keep program costs low, we got a three-year, zero percent lease from Toshiba and CDW, which also donated a lab.
McCreery: Since this is our first year, the direct costs currently cover everything from infrastructure upgrades to classroom redesign. The most important direct cost as we begin the process is ensuring that each student and teacher has a notebook and that the school has an infrastructure to support ongoing instruction.

Ed Tech: What are the most important indirect costs?
Setup, maintenance and support. There’s no way my 10-person tech staff can support 5,000 tablets [to support all the teachers and the expected growth in student enrollment to 4,700]. We had CDW do the initial system imaging, so we could pull the Tablets out of the box and hand them right to people. We also put a program in place whereby students can arrange outside repairs on their equipment and can use our custom CDW Web site for help desk service.

If we can’t fix a problem in five minutes, the system gets re-imaged back to the original configuration. People are responsible for backing up their own data and programs.
McCreery: As a school of 525 students with a faculty of 50 and one technology director, the most important indirect costs have been time and people to plan, facilitate and implement the program.

Ed Tech: In some K-12 schools, wireless initiatives and purchases are driven by the instructional management department, but installed and supported by IT. Is this a good idea?
All our planning is very open and back-and-forth. The technology staff and the key constituents get involved. An assistant principal in each high school is responsible for the technology. Each school building has a tech committee representing every department. At a higher level, there’s an assistant superintendent for technology and a district committee.
McCreery: We’ve consistently had collaboration between all departments involved in the process. It’s been critical to have our technology director, who will support the structure, and our curricular personnel directly involved in curriculum decisions and faculty training. This collaboration has provided a good understanding of wireless technology, the needs of teachers and, most significantly, how to best utilize the technology for students.

Joseph E. Maglitta is a veteran IT writer and editor based in Cambridge, Mass.