School IT leaders are always wrestling with questions concerning infrastructure: How much is too much, or too little? Is it fulfilling users' needs? Is it secure? Can the budget support it? The rapid pace at which classroom technologies evolve makes these issues all the more pressing.
Educators surveyed for CDW•G's 2011 21st Century Classroom Report say classrooms must be equipped with wireless Internet access, personal computers and interactive whiteboards to best serve the collaborative learning needs of today's students. They'd also like to see their schools' IT infrastructure encompass everything from student response systems to tablets, and they crave a network backbone that can deliver (and sustain the use of) digital content, podcasting and Web 2.0 applications.
All of these technologies add value to education — if they're leveraged properly. But without adequate network support, bandwidth, server and storage capacity, and disaster recovery and backup practices, schools can't reliably deliver the classroom tools and learning applications that educators and students say they need to teach and learn effectively.
Public Broadcasting Service research confirms that most teachers are using digital media for classroom instruction, but that many classrooms lack the infrastructure to handle it. Just over half of the teachers who participated in its 2010 survey on media and technology use in the classroom reported that they sometimes experience problems when streaming video. And nearly a quarter said they often (21 percent) or always (3 percent) have trouble deploying this technology as part of their lesson plans.
The Classroom Core
What, then, can make a school's infrastructure effective, and how can the IT department go about achieving it?
Money is always a concern, but districts are working within the limitations of tight budgets in increasingly creative ways. When Jamason Isenburg took over as technology coordinator for Illinois' Tremont Community Unit School District 702, he faced the daunting task of replacing an aging infrastructure "without breaking the bank," he says.
After researching the desktops, notebooks, netbooks, networking and security solutions that he expected Tremont CUSD 702 would need through 2016 and calculating what the district could afford, he opted to lease rather than buy. "We had to find a way to get the technology we needed," Isenburg says of the move, which netted his district far more new technology in far less time — and at a greatly reduced cost (see "Flexible Spending," Page 42).
Now, Isenburg can rest easy knowing that IT personnel, teachers and staff are comfortable with the tools they'll be using for the foreseeable future. Best of all, when the lease comes to term, Tremont CUSD 702 can keep the equipment, return it for cash or a credit toward the next lease, or have the leasing company sell it to area residents before making it available to the general population.
Other districts build in phases. When the City School District of New Rochelle (N.Y.) hired Dr. Christine Coleman as director of technology eight years ago, it owned two interactive whiteboards. Its network was slow, and its tech infrastructure and administrative software were antiquated.
But over the ensuing years, Coleman and her team have built a state-of-the-art infrastructure to support student, faculty and staff needs (see "Leaps and Bounds," Page 18). Every classroom now has an interactive whiteboard, projector, laser printer and computer for the teacher. Elementary school classrooms also feature four desktops, a laser printer and Internet connectivity for student use.
More recently, the district has introduced blended learning (a mix of face-to-face and online instruction) and is currently issuing netbooks, tablets, smartphones and broadband access cards to some low-income and special-needs students, as well as some English language learners.
"We need to prepare [students] to use all of these technologies properly so that they can be successful," Coleman says.