Students and teachers at Arlington Science Focus Elementary School in Arlington, Va., don't face much of a technology learning curve these days. That's because they use the same computing hardware, applications and presentation technologies in all 30 school classrooms.
That consistency frees up time for them to focus on teaching and learning instead, says Charles W. Harvey III, the school's senior instructional technology coordinator. "Standardized technology cuts down significantly on the need for training," he explains. "Our teachers and students can move from one classroom to another and from one grade to another seamlessly. They don't need to adjust to a new product. They just carry on."
Standardization also reduces the IT department's support costs – an important advantage in an austere budgetary environment. Harvey doesn't have to spend time rebuilding machines and can focus instead on "teaching more advanced techniques" to the school's 540 students and 54 educators. "Once everybody learns the basic operation of the technology, I don't have to worry about reteaching them those same basic things on different types of hardware and software," he says.
The school, under the guidance of its parent district, Arlington Public Schools, has long pursued a goal of technology standardization. All Arlington Science Focus classrooms, for example, feature five desktop PCs equipped with Microsoft Office and Edmark educational software for student use, as well as notebook computers for the teachers, who have access to Office and to diagnostic and prescriptive programs for reading and math. The school finally completed its standardization effort last fall, replacing its traditional overhead projectors with Epson BrightLink 450Wi interactive projectors.
According to Harvey, the BrightLink projectors have transformed the school's classrooms in several important ways. Instead of consuming a lot of precious classroom space, the units are anchored to a wall or ceiling with four bolts. Their ultra-short-throw design allows teachers to display extra-large images (up to 96-inch diagonal) from as little as 2 feet away. BrightLink's simplicity also eliminates the need for schools to pay for expensive, disruptive classroom renovations or retrofits to make room for cabling. Better still, the projectors cost one-third less than others on the market.
Harvey adds that BrightLink is extremely user-friendly for both teachers and students, offering three levels of use ranging from simple to complex. The technology "was accepted very quickly," he says, "and our teachers have become much more multimedia-focused."
And thanks to standardization, he adds, teachers and students "don't have to know how to use different projectors. It's the same no matter where they happen to be teaching or learning throughout the school day."
Sameness in an Age of Change
Although there are cases where districtwide standardization of applications and hardware isn't possible because of the need for specialized programs or computing, it is a long-term goal for Arlington Public Schools, which considers Arlington Science Focus Elementary School a shining model of what can happen when a school streamlines and standardizes on high-quality, cost-effective products. The cost, support, collaboration and pedagogical benefits are numerous, says David Jackson, supervisor of engineering and technical services for the district's Department of Information Services.
Jackson says most district schools are using PCs, Microsoft products and one of two brands of interactive whiteboards. To date, the IT departments at two other district schools have asked Jackson to help them complete schoolwide BrightLink installations.
"The fewer, the better is our motto when it comes to products," Jackson says, "but at this point, we are giving our schools a choice since we know standardization isn't always possible." Regardless of the product they choose, "we do encourage them to standardize it across their operation if at all possible."
The use of a single technology within a school or district is a growing trend in the K–12 sector, says Cheryl Lemke, president and CEO of the Metiri Group, an education technology consultancy. "The concept of standardization is quite smart," she says, noting that many schools see it as an optimal way to meet computing requirements while also dealing with fiscal constraints and budget cuts. "It's going to give you economies of scale and efficiencies, and it's going to be effective," she explains.
What's more, schools that standardize technology aggregate their "buying power," she adds, "and with just one configuration, support is going to be relatively easy."
That has certainly been the case for Bibb County Public Schools in Macon, Ga. It's hard to calculate specific ROI numbers for standardization, but Julie Christopher, the district's assistant superintendent for information services, says the strategy allows her 12-person IT team to effectively support 15,168 PCs and other equipment across 41 schools. "Standardization enables us to do a massive job with a limited support staff," she says. It also makes it easier for the district to effectively deter the use of rogue devices. "We couldn't do it otherwise."
Bibb County's districtwide standardization of technologies dates to 2000. All classrooms are equipped with six PCs for students, and secondary schools have wireless PC notebooks for the teachers. Every middle and high school classroom also has a document camera, digital projector, speakers and a Promethean ActivSlate or ActivBoard; the district is currently in the process of outfitting all elementary classrooms with the same tools.
Standardizing technology across a school or district isn't easy. It takes time, research and negotiation to achieve it, warns Frank Paredes, director of information management services for the San Ysidro School District. The seven-school district near the California–Mexico border recently spent $1.2 million to make its 300-plus classrooms 21st century–ready, equipping each with five Windows-based PCs for students, a desktop PC for teachers, an integrated interactive whiteboard and projection system, a document camera, a DVD/VCR player, and an A/V control and switching system.
District leaders who have standardized classroom technologies share their best practices at edtechmag.com/k12/standardization111.
"Once you get the configuration up and running, it's very simple to maintain," Paredes says. "You can't minimize the importance of that or the benefits you get from being able to get teachers proficient on the equipment and to keep it running so they can focus on teaching."
Arlington Public Schools' Jackson believes that schools and districts increasingly are turning to standardization for a variety of reasons, but mostly to mitigate the effects of the economic downturn. "I think people are starting to realize that technology is constantly changing and that it doesn't make sense to invest a lot of money in something that you're going to want to replace in two or three years because something better came along," he explains.
"People are looking for value – a good product that delivers quality performance at a good price, that doesn't cost a fortune to train people on or maintain – rather than just buying the latest and greatest," Jackson continues. "I think standardization is really about embracing the wisdom of total cost of ownership."
Standardization offers a number of cost and administrative benefits, but school officials will end up in a lose-lose situation if they don't pursue and secure teacher buy-in, says David Jackson, supervisor of engineering and technical services for Arlington Public Schools' Department of Information Services.
"In the end, this is really about improving education," he says. "If the teachers don't like or feel comfortable with what you're standardizing on, it will end up a failure. The last thing you want to have, for instance, is a very expensive projection system gathering dust in the classroom. We also don't wish to standardize at the expense of eliminating access to specialized software and hardware that support unique educational opportunities."
To get teachers on board, Arlington Public Schools operates a lab where hardware and applications that may be standardized can be demonstrated and evaluated. The IT team invites district teachers and administrators to try out each product and to share their opinions.
"It gives people a chance to get a feel for this one versus that one," Jackson explains. "With teachers, we not only try to see if they like the product and feel comfortable with it, we also ask them to think about whether it will be the most effective teaching device." If products don't earn the endorsement of teachers, he adds, instructional leaders working with the teachers will seek an alternative.