Tech Talk: Establishing Standards

Standardizing system hardware and software can benefit your schools significantly by reducing costs and acquisition lead-time, and improving operations. Continuity in technology across a school district can make training, technical support, and hardware repair and replacement easier and more cost-effective.

Establishing hardware and software standards will provide your school district with guidelines and specifications for selecting all computer hardware, operating systems, network infrastructure equipment and network-management software. This also will reduce costs in component and materials acquisition.

The technical support staff can be more efficient and effective because they have fewer products they must support. You can train technicians and teachers on one system, and acquire parts and backup equipment more easily. You can upgrade systems more efficiently and will have the flexibility to shift machines to other locations as needs change.

Your desktop operating systems for workstations, network operating systems and configurations for file servers all will be standard, and management software will be capable of viewing and controlling all components of the network.

By monitoring the system from a central location, your district can avoid separate trips for each call. Overall, remote management reduces staffing costs, detects critical network devices' status in real time, and allows tighter inventory and licensing management.

Choosing Wisely Well-chosen standards will maximize available technical support. To best serve faculty, staff and students, you should incorporate the following solutions into your comprehensive technology plan:

-Standardize hardware, network servers, workstation computers, routers, switches, hubs, network interface cards, and printers and other peripheral devices.

-Align your instructional-software adoption policies with textbook adoption procedures.

-Choose a system that will reinforce confidence in creating engaged learning environments and projects.

You should seriously consider establishing an approved equipment list to streamline the school district's technology direction. Put acquisition rules into place, and enforce them.

Platforms At first glance, all computers may appear to be the same, but they are not. You must evaluate computer equipment carefully with the specific needs of the students, parents and schools in mind.

Choosing a single platform simplifies support and makes it more efficient. With a mix of platforms, technical support personnel must be able to troubleshoot more than one, and having multiple platforms could require additional training or support staff. It also is becoming more difficult to hire support personnel competent in more than one platform. A single platform also simplifies licensing of simultaneous-use software.

Software For system software to be considered standard, most computer users must generally accept it. Windows, running roughly 90 percent of all PC-compatible machines, is such a standard. By choosing a standard software, more additions to the system will be available. This guarantees the flexibility to meet a wide array of users' needs.

District-level technology and curriculum committees must evaluate and adopt software jointly. They should base their choice not only on what the district needs to support student learning, but also on what fits within budget constraints.

Once the district chooses software, it should adopt policies on which products the district will support. Schools and individuals that elect to use products that the district does not support can do so with the understanding that they must provide their own support.

Remote Management When technical staff members have to distribute applications to hundreds of users at many sites and deal with version-control issues, remote support, multiple systems configurations and data replication, the cost of application ownership can spiral out of control quickly.

Remote management allows the district's system administration to repair and update systems from a central location. It is far more cost-effective to invest in a system that a few staff members can manage easily than it is to develop systems that are resource-intensive. Only one-third of the total cost of ownership of a computer workstation comes from hardware and software acquisition. The other two-thirds come from installing, configuring and managing applications. Remote management allows systems managers to take over other DOS, Windows, NT and OS/2 systems with complete mouse and keyboard control. This could save a district as much as 25 to 50 percent of administrative costs.

Systematic Replacement As part of the effort to standardize equipment within schools, establish a schedule for hardware and software replacement. Incorporate into the district's annual operating budget adequate funding to replace instructional technology hardware and software. Review annually whether you need new hardware or software.

When district staff has determined that equipment is no longer appropriate for the school's instructional or administrative needs, and the school budget can accommodate the cost, replace equipment. The industry standard for equipment life is five to seven years; many school districts are choosing three-year leases for computers.

You should consider replacing equipment if the repair cost will be more than 50 percent of the market price for a comparable unit. Look at replacing defective equipment if repair parts are no longer available, and if the equipment is obsolete.

Each year, the director of technology and support staff should publish a list of hardware and components that are obsolete or impractical to repair. This list will guide decisionmakers as they budget for replacement models.

Hidden costs Every year, advances in computer hardware and software make automated systems more powerful and easier to use. However, school districts frequently go for the low bid. That can be fine if all the systems are to stand alone, but if the systems are to be linked, your bids for separate systems may overlook the costs of hardware needed to connect systems. It might be more cost-effective to select a higher bid if standardization is the goal.

Standardization appears to be the emerging model for educational institutions, but don't forget that dependence on one vendor increases costs and creates the potential for orphaned systems should the vendor go out of business or choose to no longer support that system. When trying to standardize, your specifications must be detailed and inclusive.

The bottom line is simple-the most attractive benefit of standardization is the savings in operating costs. The control of multiple systems from a single console requires fewer operators, reduces personnel costs and makes system maintenance more predictable.

Choosing among the different hardware and software systems available is like buying a pair of shoes. They may all look about the same, but in the final analysis, it comes down to which will provide the most comfortable fit for the longest time.

When deciding, ask yourself:

-Do you know and understand the tasks of the hardware and software? How well will it do what you're trying to do?

-Is it a good fit with your existing hardware and software?

-How costly will it be to move from one system to another?

-What level of technical support will be available?

-What will be the ongoing maintenance costs?

-What are the costs and availability of upgrades?

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