Planning Schools for Tomorrow's Technology

Feb. 1, 1998
Children live in a world that is increasingly interactive, communications intensive and knowledge based. These students are standard bearers in the technological

Children live in a world that is increasingly interactive, communications intensive and knowledge based. These students are standard bearers in the technological revolution, having never known anything else. Education must be based on a model that is appropriate for an information-driven society; we must prepare children for a future of unforeseeable and rapid change.

The technology gap between schools and the rest of the world is real, and it is growing. Whether we like it or not, the increasing persuasiveness and vitality of this technology are changing the expectations of our children and their world view. Schools of the future should look dramatically different from those we attended. If we plan carefully, if we bring teachers along wi th us and implement new technology wisely, together with other needed reforms, learning could be dramatically better. The technology to meet this challenge already exists and is in use outside of schools.

Children always have been explorers, born with the ability to interact and learn about the world. They play video games; they listen to music on digital compact disks; they help program the computerized controls of VCRs. These experiences have given children a different way of interacting with information compared with previous generations. Every school asks students to get on the bus every morning and leave a computer, TV, telephone, VCR, satellite dish and electronic games at home and arrive at school for talk, chalk and books. We must take advantage of students' interests in technology. We must learn to use the technology students play with daily as educational resources.

However, there is no single approach to technology implementation and no one system or application that is perfect for all schools or districts. Effective use of technology ultimately depends on the knowledge and skills of the teacher-the person with the greatest impact on the classroom environment.

Technology planning Technology is the inescapable companion of the 21st-century citizen. Steps taken now to provide equitable access, connectivity, training and support in schools will ensure that students and staff are proficient in using all forms of technology.

The first step in the planning process is to form a team of decision-makers with a broad range of expertise. The primary purpose of planning should be to take the organization to where it wants to be in the next one to three years. The technology plan should be a road map that lays out where the school or district should be in year one, two and three. It should be a solution-oriented document and not an equipment requisition.

A technology plan is more than a list of product specifications. A comprehensive technology plan must follow a systematic approach that integrates products, people and process. It is common when developing a plan or assessing a system to focus only on products. Products-hardware, software and operating systems, and infrastructure-typically are easy to specify, quantify and observe. Most technology plans move all too quickly from, "what are we going to do?" to "what are we going to buy?" A successful, integrated approach to planning must focus equally on products, people and the process.

Designing the infrastructure The current nationwide push to provide students and teachers with access to the Internet has created a phenomenal rush to install a cabling infrastructure in schools across the country. There seems to be a misunderstanding in schools as to the importance of a well-designed network and an installation that follows the design. This is evidenced by projects such as Net Day, where cabling is being installed in schools all across the country by community volunteers. These installations are done based on an assumption that data access is the same as telephone access-run a wire, put in a jack and plug in a computer. This can result in an installation that does not meet EIA/TIA specifications. It already has been estimated that 85 percent of Net Day installations will have to be rewired in three to five years.

Designing and installing a cabling infrastructure that is future-proof is difficult. A cabling infrastructure is expected to support telecommunications connectivity for approximately 15 years. With this in mind, it does not pay to cut corners or use old design practices and technology. Since the cabling backbone is the main artery of information flow within schools, it is important to plan the design thoroughly and invest in long-term solutions. The building wiring infrastructure that is selected may be the most critical decision made; it is hard to reach design overkill for infrastructure.

The types of cable most often used in installations are Category 5, fiber optic or a combination of both. Currently, the most common choice of cable for LANs is Category 5 unshielded twisted pair (UTP). Historically, the primary reason for using this cable has been cost. However, the availability of low-cost fiber-optic cable and components, along with a significant rise in the cost of Category 5 UTP cabling, has caused network designers to question whether this is the best choice, especially for schools.

Unshielded cable is highly susceptible to electromagnetic and radio-frequency interference such as that generated by common devices like fluorescent lights, motors and transformers. Most network operating systems can correct errors caused by this type of interference by retransmitting the contaminated data. On a low-speed LAN, such as Ethernet at 10 Mbps, errors due to cabling problems can be masked by the efficiency of the operating system. However, when the network is upgraded to 100 Mbps or greater, an error rate of 10 Mbps is multiplied by a factor of 100, which can exceed the operating system's ability to correct errors. This results in problems such as slow response, hanging workstations and excessive loads on the servers.

Since copper cables are limited to 100-meter (328 feet) runs, multiple wiring closets are needed for many schools. Additional wiring closets add to the cost of hardware. Fiber cable runs are not limited to 100 meters, so this permits the use of a single cable closet in most school buildings, which greatly simplifies the network by locating all components in a single cable closet. Fiber also has a huge bandwidth with the capability to provide error-free transmission of multiple protocols at high data rates.

When cabling a school, the design should be flexible to support the ongoing changes that will occur. A classroom today may have one teacher workstation and a few student workstations. Next year, that classroom may require additional workstations or may need to become a lab. By treating the classroom as an intermediate cross-connect (IC), you can pull a single drop to the classroom and then use a classroom hub to connect multiple workstations.

Ergonomic considerations Ergonomics is synonymous with human factors. It means the science of fitting the workplace to the worker rather than vice versa. It is the study of people in their working environment, especially of their physical interaction with their equipment. The finest technology equipment in the world will be of little benefit if it is not coordinated with a facility's environmental characteristics, interior design and furniture.

We know that students take naturally to computers, but what we do not know is, while stimulating students' minds, what computer stations are doing to their bodies. A considerable amount of interest has been shown by faculty, staff and students in having workstations evaluated to prevent the development of repetitive strain injury (RSI) disorders such as carpal tunnel syndrome. RSI occurs when excessive use of muscles, tendons and joints results in discomfort and increased pressure on nerves. RSI can be prevented by controlling some of the components that contribute to these problems.

The principles of how to locate the keyboard, monitor and mouse; how to adjust a chair; and the effects of lighting are commonsense matters that we have not needed to concern ourselves with in the past. Ergonomic knowledge is a gap that needs to be filled to achieve the school's right relationship to using technology tools.

Workstations should be adjustable, with independent height adjustments for keyboards and monitors. Independent adjustable keyboard surfaces at the workstation generally range in height from 23 to 28 inches above the floor, and the monitor platform height from 27 to 32 inches above the floor. Height adjustments should be convenient and easy to make. In general, space for the user's legs and feet under the work surface should be at least 27 inches deep and 27 inches wide.

Detachable keyboards are a fundamental requirement for an ergonomically acceptable workstation. When a person is sitting at the keyboard, he or she should be able to look straight ahead and see the center of the monitor. The keyboard should be directly in front of the operator to prevent a user from twisting his or her wrists to the left or right. The wrists should be as straight as possible when the fingers are resting at the home position on the keyboard. Even as much as 1/2-inch difference can cause significant physical problems for the user.

Furniture selection Furniture should be able to accommodate the 5th-percentile female through the 95th-percentile male dimensions. These percentiles represent all but the smallest 5 percent of females and the largest 5 percent of males. The scale of the furniture must be consistent with the age group. Furniture with flexibility is necessary for freedom of choice, choice to arrange or rearrange, as well as to expand or reduce. To accomplish this, furniture should be adjustable, or there should be a selection of furnishings to choose from.

Generally, seat height should range from 16 to 20 inches above the floor, so that you can place your feet firmly on the floor or a support surface. Additionally, the seat should be at least 18 inches wide, 15 to 17 inches deep, and the front edge of the seat should be rounded downward. When adjusting chair height or the height for the keyboard, arms should hang comfortably at the side with the forearms at a 90-degree angle from the body.

For example, if the chair is 1/2-inch lower than what is comfortable for the operator, the user will tend to lift his or her shoulders to compensate for the extra space. After awhile, the person begins to get a stiff neck and sore shoulder muscles. Likewise, if the wrists are not kept in a straight position, such as having the chair too low where they are flexed upward, tendonitis can develop that can lead to carpal tunnel syndrome.

Electrical features The main equipment room should be cooled all year. The smallest of systems will require approximately 5,000 BTU with larger systems requiring up to 40,000 BTU cooling capacity. Provide 4 amps per fileserver and 1 amp per network component. The video information system should have two 20-amp circuits for the first two racks and one 20-amp circuit for every two racks thereafter. For the telephone system, provide one 20-amp circuit and surge protection for all trunks entering the building.

Basic classroom electrical requirements: *Five computers and one laser printer will require one 20-amp circuit. *A classroom TV monitor will require 4 amps per room. *Five computers can raise cooling needs by 25 percent, and 20 computers can double a room's cooling needs. Also, it is extremely important to provide humidity control to protect all equipment. *For new construction, cable trays, flex trays and bridle rings are the best solution for wire management. With existing buildings, exposed wall conduit running just below the ceiling and surface-mounted wireways are the primary solutions.

Lighting requirements When is comes to lighting selection and costs, there is no standard answer. However, proper lighting is critical for a comfortable and productive workstation. Eyestrain is the most reported discomfort of computer users. Parabolic louvers are usually the first option considered when people want increased visual comfort, particularly in spaces with computer monitors. The most common type of parabolic louver has cells that are 3-inches deep, with 18, 24 or 32 cells per fixture.

The best level of illuminance for video display terminal (VDT) work that uses paper documents is 30 to 40 foot-candles. All computer workstations should be arranged so that the individual does not face an unshielded window or a bright light source. The orientation of the monitor should be perpendicular or nearly perpendicular to the line of windows.

Equipment purchases The purchase of equipment can be a confusing and time-consuming process. It is best to buy the most sophisticated equipment your district can afford. However, it is a good idea to avoid equipment that is brand new. New equipment frequently has flaws that have not yet been resolved by the manufacturer. When buying computers it is important to focus on the activities or applications to be used rather than on the platform.

One item commonly overlooked is maintenance. When voice, data and video systems are being purchased, it is important to consider the maintenance of these items. Extended warranties that cover parts and service, and outsourcing that offers repair and rapid turnaround are options that need to be considered.

One thing to consider is that equipment is for now but infrastructure is forever. Always put in too much cabling, as it never will be enough. Put in the highest quality cabling, components and hardware. Your system will only be as strong as its weakest link. Cabling does go bad, so no matter what the experts say, figure on always having adequate spare pairs. In the next millennium, the technology industry will continue to deliver a diversified mix of products to meet education's blend of requirements. However, as a rule of thumb, if the sales pitch starts with "it meets standards and it's cheaper," don't walk, run away from that vendor.

On May 7, 1997, the FCC adopted a Universal Service Fund implementing the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Up to $2.25 billion annually is available to provide eligible schools with discounts, often referred to as the e-rate, for authorized services, beginning January 1. Discounts range from 20 to 90 percent, depending on economic need and location. The level of discount is based upon the percentage of students eligible for participation in the federal free and reduced-price school lunch program.

Discounts can be applied to all commercially available telecommunications services, Internet access and internal connections. Discounts will be applied as of January 1 for qualified pre-existing contracts. For contracts covering new services with approved discounts, the discounts will be applied as of the date the contract is signed.

A technology plan must be developed to ensure that the school has the ability to use the services once they are purchased. Technology plans should specify how schools plan to integrate the use of these technologies into their curricula and programs. Once requests for services have been developed they must be posted for 28 days on a website, thus making the information available to potential service providers. FCC Forms 470 and 471 now are available. E-rate information is available on two websites: and

While every situation is a little different and every building requires something unique, there are tools and tips that can save time and money-and probably a few extra aspirins-when bringing technology to schools.

"A key thing is that schools need to select hardware and software based on the curriculum being offered," says Brent Frey, supervisor of technology and media services, West Shore School District, New Cumberland, Pa. "Determine what you want to teach with the use of technology. Then, choose the software that will support that curriculum. Then, choose the hardware that will support the software and curriculum."

The district has been battling to keep up with the ever-changing world of technology since 1989. The first computer labs were equipped with state-of-the-art machines, for the time, providing students with word-processing instruction. Then came the influx of multimedia, hitting the district around 1992. "Very gently, we started to take older machines and move them into the classrooms and put new machines in the computer labs," says Frey.

"Now, we didn't take nine computer labs that each have 30 machines in them and immediately upgrade," he says. "We stepped it a little at a time."

While most districts, including Frey's, often hear that computers must be replaced every three to five years, the truth is a little different. "It is very difficult to constantly replace machines because of dollars. The instructional budget includes money for buying new pencils, books, etc. But, technology requires monumentally more money and you have to prove it is worth it."

Realistically, Frey notes, computers and the related equipment can last longer than three to five years. It may not be the most up-to-date equipment, but there are still benefits to equipment even 10 years old. "We have moved these machines into our classrooms and they can still provide some instruction on them. The machines may not be able to handle the applications of today, but the applications on them are still worthwhile."

Plugging it in There is more to setting up a technology lab or putting a computer into a classroom than plugging the system into the electrical outlet. "The furniture configuration is one thing that we have really looked at," he says. "We have to look at how we network the classroom; where we locate the Ethernet ports for the network."

He also notes that setting up a computer lab is easier than setting up a series of classroom computers. "A computer lab is in one physical location. You are configuring everything in one room, with many machines in one location. The connectivity issues with machines sharing resources is easier in one room. When you have machines spread out throughout a building, those issues become much more difficult."

>From his experience of setting up more than 20 computer labs and putting many more computers into classrooms, Frey offers this advice, "An important part of this entire process is to survey all the teachers in the buildings and find out what they envision their needs are. Computers are used by a wide scope of teachers. You may find that a lab initially designed to teach multimedia-type applications within the context of computer education will have other uses. A department that was not involved may come to you a year later and want to use the computers, and you find that the system has not been set up to handle the applications."

This happened in his district, forcing them to upgrade some systems and spend additional funds. "If we had known that this program was going to exist when we set the lab up, we could have made revisions then. It is really important to think forward from a curriculum standpoint and determine what we think we will be doing several years down the road. You have to involve the teachers. Although you can't make everybody happy, you can come up with a consensus and figure out the best-case scenario."

The following four levels of connectivity can help schools with no Internet access get connected and help schools with connections grow their networks.

Level I: Basic Internet access for computer labs This is a first, simple stage for network connectivity that can scale into a larger, more robust network. The computer network provides a local-area network (LAN) within a computer lab, a connection for a local server, and a wide-area network (WAN) connection to a local telephone line. The telephone line provides the link to a district office or an Internet service provider (ISP) for Internet access. Equipment needed:

--Router. This device operates between the LAN (Ethernet switching hub) and the data line. The options available depend on your choice of ISP.

--Ethernet switches. This device is the central connection point for the network. Each computer will have a separate data cable (Category 5 UTP with RJ-45 connectors) running from the computer to the switch. The switch will provide 24 Ethernet 10 Mbps ports for the client computers and the router, and one Fast Ethernet 100 Mbps port for the server. For computer labs with more than 24 computers, additional switches can be interconnected.

--Network interface cards (NICs) for each of the PCs and the server. The recommendation is to install 10/100 Mbps NICs whenever possible. This allows an easy upgrade from 10 Mbps to 100 Mbps.

--Network server. This computer acts as the central storage for the network and the connection to the printer.

--Data service. This is the link to the ISP. Consult the telephone company to determine the best level of service. Options include ISDN or Frame Relay service.

--ISP. There are many options for connection to the Internet. Choose a local provider based on service level, speed, capacity and cost.

Level II: Basic Internet access extended to classrooms As the network grows, it is possible to add rather than replace equipment. The central point of the network should move from the computer lab to a more cental location, often the office or wiring closet where the incoming telephone lines are located. Easy access to telephone lines is a must. The main changes to the network include:

--A larger number of PC nodes on the network, which means more switches and NICs.

--Permanent data cables to connect the classrooms to the wiring closet. The recommendation for data cables is to use Category 5 UTP wiring for all cable runs that are less than 100 meters. This applies to all cabling within a building and cabling between buildings where the cable is accessible but protected from weather and tampering. For runs longer than 100 meters and cabling that runs in underground conduits, multimode fiber is generally the best option.

--Greater network traffic. This requires faster data lines. A switch located in the wiring closet is an effective way to segment network traffic and avoid congestion during busy periods.

Additional equipment needed for Level II connection: --Computer lab switch. The switch(es) in the computer lab do not change. However, a 100 Mbps uplink module must be added to connect them to the central wiring closet. This module can use either a UTP cable (less than 100 meters) or a fiber cable (more than 100 meters).

--Ethernet wiring hubs. With the network extending into the classroom, smaller hubs are needed in each of the classrooms where computers are located. These hubs are less expensive since they typically provide only four or eight connections.

--Central wiring closet. This is where the cables from each of the classrooms terminate. The termination device is a 10/100 Mbps switch that can provide 100 Mbps ports for the computer lab and the servers and 10 Mbps ports for the classroom hubs.

The wiring closet also is a good place to locate the servers for the network, especially if there are multiple servers. This gives everyone on the network equal access to the servers and allows for easier maintenance and security. Servers should operate on 100 Mbps links, which allows the server to share more of its power among multiple users.

Level III: Networking the school district There are advantages and economies to having the district office act as the central point of the network for all the schools in the district. The network links together all the schools in one large network. Also, the district office can maintain a high-speed telephone connection to the Internet and share the bandwidth and costs across several schools. By centralizing this connection, a district may require fewer network management staff. Main changes to the network include:

--The number of computer nodes on the network grows tremendously. This means more NICs, hubs and switches.

--Each school maintains a data line to the district office rather than directly to the ISP.

--Each school can operate with a simpler and less expensive routing device.

--The district office will operate a large router connected to the ISP. The larger router should be located at the district office. It will have a connection for a telephone line from each of the schools. It will have a high-speed telephone line for connection to an ISP.

The district office likely will have an administrative network operating within the building. This requires a local connection from the router to a hub and then to the individual computers.

Level IV: Advanced multimedia network This is a high bandwidth network designed for heavy traffic loads consisting of large graphics files, full-motion video and voice traffic. In networks where only a portion of the users have requirements for the additional bandwidth, specific segments can be upgraded without affecting other parts of the network. Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM) is recommendedfor the connections between the schools and the district office. Main changes to the network:

--Local computers and servers should be upgraded to 100 Mbps Fast Ethernet NICs.

--Local Ethernet wiring hubs should be upgraded to shared or switched Fast Ethernet.

--The school backbone should be upgraded from Ethernet to Fast Ethernet.

--Telephone lines should be upgraded to higher performance services using ATM.

--The district office will need higher performance telephone services.

The limiting factor in multimedia networks generally is the speed of the telephone lines. T1 lines operate at 1.5 Mbps, while ATM typically operates at 155 Mbps over fiber cables. In many metropolitan areas, all-fiber networks are becoming available from the local telephone company and also from private companies. These fiber links can span several miles to interconnect schools to district offices. The bandwidth increases 100fold within the network and will handle all current applications, as well as growth for future requirements. Other requirements:

--The addition of a large ATM switch at the school district office.

--Addition of ATM transceiver modules in the switches in the schools.

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