Even before we stumble out of our beds for the day, technology is intertwined in our lives. As we sleep, our computers hum with activity as they clean a hard drive or download software updates; the digital video recorder saves the cable movie being shown in the middle of the night; and the programmable thermostat clicks on the heat as dawn approaches.
Once awake, we grab for our cells phones, personal digital assistants and laptops to find out what has happened while we were snoozing. We commute to work in cars with global-positioning systems to show us the best route; we wait for green lights that are programmed to help traffic move with the greatest efficiency; and we are careful not to run a red light because the surveillance camera hovering above the intersection will capture our indiscretion.
And when students, teachers, administrators and others employed in education arrive at work every day on thousands of campuses across the nation, it should come as no surprise that at every step along the way, technology is there to greet them.
Technological advancements in education, as well as in facilities operation and management, are not a panacea. New technology can be frustrating and counterproductive when it is used improperly or when workers are not trained adequately. The tools that are designed to improve the performance of students and workers are only as effective as the people using them. But when effectively integrated into a school or university, technology can help create a better learning environment supported by a more efficient and effective support staff.
Welcome to the 21st century
In the 1990s, President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore pushed for technological advancements in education by embracing the metaphor of the information superhighway and building a bridge to the 21st century. In the eighth year of that new century, schools and universities have long ago crossed the bridge, and thousands of students, instructors and staff members are speeding along well-worn paths of that superhighway.
The Clinton administration's goal was to have every classroom and every library connected to the Internet. In 1994, that seemed like a pipe dream — only 3 percent of public school classrooms were connected to the Internet. But as the costs of technology steadily decreased and funding sources such as federal E-rate subsidies made money available to school systems, the dream quickly became reality.
In 2005, virtually all public schools had access to the Internet, and 94 percent of all classrooms were connected, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). About 97 percent of the schools with Internet access had broadband connections.
The rationale for boosting the technology available in schools was educational improvement. The fast connections and the networks stitched together on campuses and across a school system have given students access to an unending supply of information and research. They also gave education administrators an opportunity to piggyback on those computer networks and use technology to improve facilities management, maintenance, food service, security and other operations.
Technology offers schools and universities numerous ways to use their computer capacity outside the classroom, and manage facilities and operations more efficiently. Asset-management systems enable education institutions to keep track of the condition of their buildings and grounds, and monitor maintenance efforts more precisely. Facilities-management systems help education institutions keep accurate, easy-to-access records about the buildings on a campus — dimensions, age, other characteristics — and use that information to determine when and how to allocate resources for maintenance, repairs, replacement or expansion.
Computerized maintenance-management software enables education administrators to establish a comprehensive program to receive job requests, keep track of pending and completed maintenance work, maintain inventory of the products and supplies used, and supervise workers' schedules.
For the thousands of schools and universities building new facilities or remodeling existing space, construction-management software can help administrators and the key participants involved in a project — architects, contractors, vendors — stay up to speed on the status of a project and identify potential problems before they become too troublesome to solve. Information about a project is conveyed immediately, cutting down on bureaucracy and paperwork, and making each participant in the project more accountable about completing their responsibilities.
In libraries and cafeterias, schools and universities use technology to keep track of their inventory — who's buying food and how much, or who's borrowing which books or other materials.
When the 1990s technology push began, connecting to the Internet in most cases meant wiring schools and classrooms to a schoolwide or systemwide network. The technology of today has schools seeking to untether themselves from wires and serve mobile computer users with wireless Internet connections. NCES statistics show that in 2005, about 45 percent of the schools with Internet access used wireless connections, and about 15 percent of public school classrooms had wireless connections.
Wireless connections can be less costly because wiring typically involves finding ways to hide wires in walls, under floors or in ceilings. Wireless computers unleash students from the cords that limit where they can work. It allows the learning environment to be more flexible and mobile.
At the forefront of the conversion to wireless connections to the Internet is the Philadelphia school system. In 2007, the 170,000-student system announced that it established wireless access to the Internet in all of its classrooms. About 75 percent of the $40 million cost of the system was covered by E-rate subsidies.
Wireless networks also can be set up quickly. In Greensburg, Kan., where a tornado in May 2007 destroyed most of the city, including its schools, workers installed a wireless computer network in less than one day to serve the 14 temporary buildings that comprise the makeshift replacement school.
Technology's ability to enhance security was shown again last month when gunfire erupted in a classroom at Northern Illinois University (NIU) in DeKalb.
Minutes after the shooting began at NIU, the school posted an alert on its website, sent e-mail messages to students and staff, and voice messages to students' residence hall phones warning them of the gunfire. More than a dozen messages were disseminated this way in the hours after the incident. They warned the community to stay away the King Commons, where the shootings occurred; let people know when the campus was again considered safe; and urged students to call their parents.
Such messaging systems have become more common on college campuses since the April 2007 shooting massacre at Virginia Tech. In the aftermath of that massacre, many said that if university officials had sent out a campus alert immediately after the first reports of a shooting, the second, more deadly wave of violence could have been prevented or diminished.
Many of the new messaging systems on campuses also enable colleges and universities to send text messages to cell phones; that feature was not available last month at NIU. Because cell phones have become so common and text messaging has become a routine way for many students to communicate, the ability to reach students this way is critical when information has to be disseminated widely and quickly.
A thousand points of security
Technology also enables schools and universities to provide security to remote parts of buildings and campuses that used to go unmonitored by either security personnel or cameras.
Many campuses have relied on video surveillance for a long time. Such systems provided more security than having no cameras, but were hardly ideal. Old videotape systems often provided grainy, indistinct images. Saving and searching tape archives to unearth the necessary information was cumbersome and timely, if archives were even available.
Now, advancements in computer networks and digital technology have enabled security staff to overcome many of those drawbacks. Instead of just a few cameras at the most strategic “trouble spots” on a campus, schools and universities can afford to think volume and install hundreds of surveillance cameras.
In the 33,000-student Irving (Texas) district, more than 1,200 digital surveillance cameras are being installed on 30 school campuses and other district facilities.
J. Pat Lamb, director of security in the Irving district, says the majority of cameras are at middle and high school campuses — Irving High School will have more than 100 cameras — but each of the district's 20 elementary schools will have at least three cameras: at the front door, in the office and on the playground.
“Our emphasis is on life safety, inside and outside buildings,” says Lamb. “We listen to what the principals say about where to place the cameras — where kids are getting into trouble.”
New systems like the one in Irving operate over the district's Internet-connected computer network, so administrators can view security camera output from their home computers, and outside agencies such as the police and fire departments also have access.
“There is a big deterrence factor for students,” says Lamb. “We want the kids to know that we are watching them.”
And when deterrence doesn't work, and an incident occurs, Lamb says the system enables security personnel to quickly find and review the stored digital video from the relevant cameras. “The images are very crisp,” he adds.
The camera saturation is one element of Irving's $4.2 million expenditure on technology to upgrade security. The schools there also have a system that checks the identity of campuses visitors and checks the names with databases of registered sex offenders.
Upon arriving at a school, a visitor provides a government-issued ID to a school receptionist, which is scanned into the school's system. If the name is not on the sex-offender database, the visitor gets a temporary ID badge with a photo.
“If students or anyone see someone in the school without a visitor badge, they immediately report it, and the person is escorted to the office,” says Lamb.
If the visitor's information turns out to be a match on the sex-offender list, the school follows an established procedure for determining if the visit is appropriate and will be permitted.
Since October, Lamb says, Irving schools have had 62,000 visitors, and the system has flagged about a dozen sex offenders.
“We're a public schoolhouse, and we want people to feel welcome,” says Lamb. “On the other hand, times are changing, and you have to be careful.”
Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at [email protected].
Letting information flow
A university campus is a wellspring of expertise and information. But relatively few people get a taste of all the knowledge available. A student might be getting a comprehensive education at an Ivy League school, but somewhere out there — in California, North Dakota or Poland, or maybe across campus in another department — is a professor or program with a unique outlook that could push the student to greater achievements.
Many higher-education institutions have decided that they don't want to confine what they have to offer to the borders of their campuses. The World Wide Web has erased those boundaries and enabled colleges and universities to share their information and resources with people, no matter how remote and distant.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge began MIT OpenCourseWare in 2002 as a pilot project when the teaching materials — syllabi, lecture notes, assignments and exams — from 50 courses were posted on the school's website (http://ocw.mit.edu). In November 2007, MIT announced that materials from 1,800 courses — virtually every course offered — had been put online as part of the OpenCourseWare program.
MIT says that about 35 million people have accessed course materials since the program began, and 60 percent of those are from outside the United States.
Yale University in New Haven, Conn., is offering seven introductory courses (astronomy, English, philosophy, physics, political science, psychology and religious studies) as part of its Open Yale Courses program (http://open.yale.edu/courses/index.html). Each course is available for free and includes high-quality video versions of class lectures and other course materials such as syllabi, suggested readings and problem sets. The lecture videos can be downloaded, and an audio-only version and lecture transcripts also are available.
The program was begun, the school says, because “Yale … believes that leading universities can make an important contribution to expanding access to educational resources through the use of Internet technology.”
Yale plans to add about 30 more courses in the next three years.
In February, the University of Indiana unveiled an online site, http://podcast.iu.edu, where Internet users can find audio or video podcasts from faculty and staff at all of the IU campuses. The podcasts include lectures, music, radio broadcasts, virtual museum tours and other information from university programs.
In the pre-computer era, schools had chalkboards or overhead projectors that teachers used to display information to a classroom of students. With the widespread availability of computers in classrooms, the information that teachers want to display or add to often is on a computer monitor. The solution for more and more schools is to install interactive whiteboards.
The boards enable instructors to project a computer onto a screen and use markers or styluses to add information to the projected image. Teachers can combine the spontaneity of writing on a chalkboard or whiteboard with the images and data unearthed via computer from the deep resources of the Internet. Hundreds of thousands of interactive whiteboards have been installed in classrooms of K-12 and higher-education campuses.
“Interactive whiteboards allow teachers to illustrate curriculum information visually, reinforce English vocabulary, and provide students opportunities to interact with a variety of visual media,” says the Fairfax County (Va.) district's technology plan for 2008. “While well-chosen visual information for some students enriches their learning experiences, for others it provides critical information that clarifies confusions and allows them to understand the information being taught.”
In December, the Greenwich (Conn.) school system announced that it was installing interactive whiteboards in all classrooms from grades 3 to 12. The plan covers 15 schools and is expected to take four years.