Jan 21 2021

Fiscal Wish List: Which Tech Takes the Top Spots for School Districts?

As K–12 schools start thinking ahead to the 2021-2022 school year, what’s on their tech wish list?

COVID-19 has upended traditional educational paradigms. And while Verjeana Jacobs, chief transformation officer for the National School Boards Association, says “it’s unconscionable that we weren’t prepared for this kind of transition,” she notes that “it has given us an opportunity to think about education in nontraditional ways.”

For many K–12 schools, this meant a rapid adoption of distance learning frameworks powered by personal devices such as tablets, laptops and desktops. It also highlighted social and economic inequity: “Some kids are flourishing, some are struggling,” says Jacobs. “How do we personalize learning to solve the homework gap, increase engagement and improve student success?”

There’s no time to waste. With many school districts hopeful for at least a partial return to normalcy later this year, it’s essential to identify spending priorities and potential shortfalls ASAP.

Here’s a look at which technologies take the top spots in districts’ fiscal wish lists for the fall.

1. Prioritizing Critical Connectivity Costs

Regardless of how much remote learning factors into schools’ plans for the upcoming school year, providing high-speed, reliable internet access will be key.

“Access to Wi-Fi is critical for many communities,” says Jacobs, “and this struggle has been exacerbated by COVID. Students with access to Wi-Fi can be better supported and solve the homework gap.” As a result, “schools are going to fund wireless internet access using Title 1 and Title 2 funds to make sure educators have the resources they need to better engage with students.”

For Don Wolff, CTO at Portland Public Schools, this means “upgrading and installing Wi-Fi in every building, along with wireless displays in classrooms and mounted projectors.” Already, PPS has over 30 tech-smart schools, and thanks to a $1.2 billion capital bond approval now plans to modernize the remaining 60 with robust digital infrastructure.

Also, on schools’ spending radar are best-fit learning tools that empower student-educator connection and collaboration. According to Carlos R. Del Valle, Seattle Public Schools executive director of technology, “SPS has a good baseline on one-to-one end-user devices; investing in the next generation of secure and accessible software will allow for the most significant use of these devices in and out the classroom, and foster an enhanced learning ecosystem where technology enables the academic success of our students.”

Installing a renewed level of simplicity with educational technology is also critical.

“Many students have to go through five or six different apps just to access things. Schools need to make the content accessible,” says Jacobs.

DISCOVER: The do’s and don’ts of cleaning school-issued devices.

2. Scaled-Up Security Spending

Security spending, which includes investments in firewalls, content filtering, email security and enhanced identity and password management, is another top priority for school districts.

“There was already a shift, pre-COVID, with security,” says Jacobs. “Schools are going to need to invest more in privacy and have a deeper conversation about privacy with students to ensure they understand what learning online really means.”

Wolff makes it clear that “security is not a quick fix but requires building a culture.” For PPS, this means “training staff on what email is legitimate and starting to build out infrastructure by upgrading redundant external and internal firewalls.”

PPS is also taking aim at improved user access and identity management. “We’ve dramatically increased our minimum password length requirement,” says Wolff. “The upside is we’ve made it more secure with a 16-chararacter minimum by encouraging the use of passphrases.”

Additionally, the school district is rolling out two-factor authentication and a single sign-on portal that uses smartphones or a near-field communication device for 2FA.

3. Investing in Skilled Personnel

Enhanced application of educational technologies also requires more funding for skilled personnel. The growing number of users on the SPS network means “increasing maintenance in our infrastructure and technical help with devices and user support with digital knowledge gaps, which will require an increase in personnel to efficiently support these areas,” says Del Valle.

In addition, SPS is spending on the development of newly created positions to help solve the challenge of student technology gaps and, more important, identify policy and implementation challenges with educational technology more holistically.

“The district has hired its first-ever digital equity manager to communicate with the public and genuinely understand issues beyond technology itself,” says Del Valle. “The investment in this position is critical to ensure digital equity gaps are identified and addressed with appropriate solutions.”

Beating the Back-to-School Blues

While the upcoming 2021-2022 school year offers a potential return to more stable, in-classroom learning models, effectively navigating this transition means applying lessons learned over months of remote classes to school districts at scale, and placing investments where they will have the greatest impact.

For Caleb Perkins, SPS executive Director of college and career readiness, the goal for the start of the 2021 school year “is to continue to leverage and support the continued used of tablets, laptops and student support systems such as Seesaw and Schoology, in addition to providing the necessary professional development and learning for educators. We believe that these tools will be helpful in supporting teaching and learning, whether instruction is in person or remote.”

As schools strive to effectively engage students and educators, a strategic and targeted spending approach to expand network access, secure critical assets and bolster staff support will pay dividends in the long run.

MORE ON EDTECH: How audiovisual equipment boosts remote learning.

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