Tech-Support Success Stories
How eight school technology experts have maintained stellar tech support to keep computers and software running and secure without slashing programs
Tighter budgets for states' education spending mean that administrators need to make careful spending and creative budget solutions a top priority. When it comes to technology, protecting what you've purchased is as important as buying the right hardware and software. That's why more and more education technology leaders are making smart investments in tech support. From lockdown systems to outsourcing technology support, creative leaders around the country are making strategic decisions to ensure the longevity and best use of their technology purchases.
STRATEGY #1: OUTSOURCING IN TEXAS
The Richardson Independent School District (RISD), in Richardson, Texas, has taken a unique approach to keeping costs down by partnering with an outside company. In the fall of 2001, district officials signed a five-year contract with Compaq (now HP) that included a replacement plan for desktops, laptops, and network and application servers. The deal also included maintenance and support services. Neil Delerson, RISD's chief information director, says the agreement allowed RISD to reduce its IT staff from around 55 to 35 full-time employees for the 35,000-student district, which has 55 schools, five administrative buildings, and 16,000 computers. While Compaq made no guarantees to RISD employees laid off as a result of the plan, they were encouraged to apply to Compaq; about 16 of them were hired.
Outsourcing support services to a large company, he says, has improved service levels and responsiveness. An HP field manager now handles deployment and implementation of both technology and support staff, and the company provides training on its own products-saving the district professional development costs. There are also obvious reductions in Human Resources time, because the staff is no longer on the RISD payroll. Moreover, Delerson is pleased with other savings, such as being able to use a former computer storage facility for other purposes.
STRATEGY #2: SECURE IN NEW JERSEY
Security is job one at the Southern Regional School District in Manahawkin, New Jersey, says Dan Mathis, the district's network administrator. That's why the district invested in Symantec Enterprise Solutions, one of the world's leading Internet security technology companies. Hiring the company meant five full days of training for Mathis on the Enterprise system. Mathis didn't have to train other staff members for five days, however, because the system is fairly straightforward once it's up and running. Effective customer support services mean that problem solving hasn't been an issue either, and upgrades and patches are simplified through e-mail alerts.
Mathis also decided to install the Enterprise anti-virus program to go along with the system. "If you have one and not the other," he argues, "you might as well not get any of it." Mathis acknowledges that he is lucky to be in a district willing to buy a high-quality security solution, and says he's seen real savings in staff time.
The Symantec solution has also relieved some of Mathis's concerns about being vulnerable to potentially costly security breaches-especially in light of the new NCLB mandates requiring schools to compile and report student data.
STRATEGY #3: MOBILE IN MICHIGAN
Not long ago, teachers in the Novi Community School District, in Novi, Michigan, had to bring their students to a computer lab to use technology. But thanks to a $15-million technology bond, passed in June 2001, mobile computing is now a district practice. Each of 20 carts throughout the district holds 16 computers, a laser printer, charger units, and a cable to hook into the old network drops that were put in during the 1990s.
District officials opted for mobile carts because there was no space to build more labs, explains Jim Fry, Novi schools' director of technology. Fry says that mobile carts might at first seem expensive, because laptops cost more than desktops. But savings are seen in other areas, such as furniture. Fry estimates that a table for two desktop computers runs between $200 and $400. Wiring to the classrooms and in other rooms adds up quickly as well.
Fry says he didn't really look at the carts to save money, but to get more "bang for our buck" in the long run, and to ensure that teachers really begin to integrate technology into the curriculum. (See "Laptops on the Move,") Since the district spent about $6 million to replace network infrastructure and servers and insisted on long warranties for the laptops, Fry expects that he and his staff will finally get out of the repair business.
"Having a consistent platform and operating system and everything at the same versions," he notes, "lets us redirect our efforts to working on application issues and supporting the use of the technology and not fixing and troubleshooting operational problems." In addition, Fry says, it "will help us to do more with less people or assign staff to other tasks that we never had time for in the past."
The mobile carts have already given Fry more time to think through minor changes in the design of the district's entire technology system. For example, he's currently looking to buy more PDAs and equipping them with keyboards, because laptop battery costs have been an issue in nearby districts.
He's also anticipating that kids and teachers may eventually use their own PDAs and tablet PCs, so he's thinking through policies and procedures, and prepping for a variety of mobile devices being used throughout the district.
STRATEGY #4: INDIANA LOCKS DOWN
Greenwood Community School Corporation, in Greenwood, Indiana, has just three support people for 2,200 computers, used by some 6,000 people. And that's all the district needs, says Joe Huber, director of technology. The reason: the lockdown system Deep Freeze, which automatically returns all settings back to a pre-set default mode once a computer is turned off. No matter what a student or teacher does to the computer, turn if off and presto!-it's back to the way it was with no outside help.
The system has saved the district about $100,000, says Huber, partly because he didn't have to fill a full-time position that he needed before the lockdown was in place. With a volume discount, the system costs the district just $3.75 per workstation, plus 75 cents per workstation per year for the ongoing maintenance package. Huber's 540K-lockdown application is stored on a hard drive and takes only 40 seconds to install. And it protects the computers from some viruses.
"My superintendent went to a conference and picked up the NIMBDA virus" on his laptop, Huber recalls. "We had 2,000 [of the district's 2,200] machines loaded with Deep Freeze, and these had no problems." Huber just took the virus off the servers, and turned off the Deep Freeze machines, which simply reset. It took him two days to rebuild the other 200 computers from scratch.
When choosing a lockdown product, Huber suggests looking for one that doesn't restrict teachers too much, and making sure that it has a feature that allows technicians to program changes remotely during off-hours, without having to go
to each school. "It's been almost three years, and we've never had a computer fail because of the software," Huber says.
STRATEGY #5: TRACKING TROUBLE IN MAINE
At the Maine School Administrative District #71 in Kennebunk, officials have been able to cut costs but still provide quality technical support through an e-mail "triage system." Each of the district's seven schools has a technician. If anything goes wrong, teachers or other staff send them an e-mail first.
If the school-site technicians can't fix the problem, it is posted to a web-based work service for the reporting, tracking, and solving of technology issues. TroubleTrakker tracks technology problems from inception to solution, allowing administrators, technicians, and end users to keep track of the process.
At TroubleTrakker, a problem is reviewed and then assigned to a more experienced district technician, all through e-mail. "It's a fairly inexpensive way to place someone in the building," says Sharon Betts, the district's tech coordinator since 1998. The district pays about $10 an hour for school-site techs versus $16 for district technicians.
Betts says the e-mail system also gives her more organizational control, and she likes the fact that she can check on any location at any time, and sort where the problems are by site and by machine. This helps her in budgeting and acquisition. For example, she can track whether a particular machine has broken down 15 times in one week. There's also a hidden benefit, says Betts. "When a staff member says we never got to them, I have a record now."
STRATEGY #6: STANDARDIZING, CALIFORNIA STYLE
Many people think that standardizing technology is just about computers. Charlie Garten, executive director of the educational technology and information services department at Poway Unified School District in Poway, California, says that's
only the beginning.
Garten's department is responsible for everything that comes out of the wall except electricity. Poway used to run nine different phone systems, and every time a phone technician was called to help, he or she had to spend time researching the phone systems in use in that building. Because there were so many systems, shelf inventory, training, and integration were huge money pits.
In addition to phones, Garten manages everything from intercoms to touch pads for swim meets-and all have been standardized. Poway is standardized on Cisco Switchers as well, which cuts down on school visits because it allows technicians to work on problems remotely. Garten prefers to standardize on a single company, rather than a product, because he can work with the company and its partners on solutions to problems as they arise.
By setting district-wide standards, Poway district officials have cut down on endless arguments with general contractors and architects, are not as vulnerable to low bids, and can upgrade more easily. Garten says he'd like to standardize his operating systems, and is investigating thin clients for many applications, which would be easier to support and more centralized. But he says most ASPs still cost too much. "We currently use Win, two different Mac OS, NT4, Win2000, and XP on our workstations, and we would like to get that to XP and one Mac OS," he notes, adding that his experience standardizing on other technology shows that this is the way to go.
STRATEGY #7: STUDENT HELP IN KENTUCKY
High school students in Daviess City Public Schools (DCPS), in Owensboro, Kentucky, are the district's first line of defense for tech support. "We use them for answering easy questions and doing just-in-time training," explains district tech coordinator Susan Smith. She adds that it's been a win-win situation for everyone.
To qualify, students must take upper-level tech courses, get a teacher's recommendation, and be interviewed to test their people skills. The students then go to the district's computer operations center for one class period every day or every other day, where they man the phones, answer questions, and walk users through problems-all for class credit.
Smith says these teens don't impact her budget, and really free up her limited tech staff-11 technicians for 3,800 machines-to tackle some of the district's bigger, more complex technology problems.
Farther west, at Capitol Hill High School in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, kids are tackling other tech-support jobs. The district is working with the Generation Yes program, which trains students one-on-one with teachers to help prepare lesson materials, such as PowerPoint presentations. Assistant Principal Carol Worth, who was the school's original Generation Yes teacher, says teachers were resistant at first, but staff is now responding better since they've seen
how good the presentations are.
STRATEGY #8: SUPER SERVICE IN NEW MEXICO
Robert Kosslyn believes school technicians often get too wrapped up in big picture issues, and don't support individuals as much as they should. But that's not the case in the Santa Fe (NM) Public School District, where Kosslyn is director of technology. "We are a customer service department," he says. Kosslyn urges his 18 technicians to respond quickly to even the smallest queries, rather than waiting until the problem mushrooms into something larger and more costly to fix. Even worse, Kosslyn says, would be if teachers stopped using a computer because they don't understand something and didn't get help.
These days customer-centric means data-centric for Santa Fe schools. New Mexico's education department requires all districts to electronically transmit student and teacher data three times a year. This includes student attendance records, test scores, assessment and teacher personnel information, and more. To keep the district compliant, Kosslyn is aggressively researching a new database system to handle all of the student and teacher information in order to make it easier and less costly for a range of stakeholders-administrators, district staff, teachers, and parents-to query for data.
The research is intensive and not yet complete. When the database is in place, Kosslyn expects a big payoff in customer satisfaction and an opportunity to get his technicians out of the growing data loop.
Pamela Wheaton Shorr is editor of The Heller Reports' Educational Sales and Marketing Insider, and is a frequent contributor to Scholastic Administr@tor.