It's no secret that school technology initiatives frequently fail to reach their intended goals. Often, the problem isn't the technology; it's the process or people. Whether it's developing plans and specifications, bidding the project, awarding the contract or installing the system, all too often school administrators neither understand the project's goals, nor do they give it the attention it deserves. In the end, they execute it poorly.

Without a clear understanding of where to go and how to get there, any attempt to articulate a strategic process is doomed. Choosing the right technology for a school isn't easy; the task is to choose technology that will serve teaching and learning. Administrators responsible for new construction must consider some of the risks when planning technology for their buildings.

Who's calling the shots?

One of the largest pitfalls in new construction happens before the first brick is placed on the building. Before many administrators realize it, their idea of a state-of-the-art technology building is gone. The main reason for this pitfall is that in writing the specifications for constructing a new building, the people providing the technology components are many times not qualified to do so.

Who are the people making technology decisions? If your technology specifications are being written by an architect or local vendor and placed into a division of construction known as Electrical Division 16, they may be unqualified to make important decisions that will affect instruction.

In school building construction, architects and some consultants often group all technology systems within the high-voltage electrical contractor's specification Division 16. In this scenario, untrained personnel who know little to nothing about educational technology may choose a technology vendor based on price alone. There also is a chance that the technology vendor included in the Division 16 bid may never install it. How could this happen? The Division 16 electrical contractor, in competition with other contractors, frequently will shop prices after being awarded a project, resulting in a totally different technology subcontractor. Even worse, an electrical contractor often will try to do the work himself.

School administrators should demand that all technology plans and specifications be prepared by educators and placed in Division 17. Why Division 17? Unlike other building systems, the solution for a building's technology infrastructure and the systems that run on it have a direct impact on academic instruction, learning and achievement. Using Division 17 allows qualified technology vendors to bid directly to the district or campus rather than to electrical or general contractors. The decision on the bid award can then be made by the district's technology committee in conjunction with the institution's technology consultant, not the general contractor, who is concerned only with price. The Division 17 bidding process eliminates architects, electricians, general contractors and local vendors from deciding on what technology is placed in the building. No education institution would defer to a general construction contractor on the selection of other curricular materials, and technology systems should be no different.

Infrastructure: today and tomorrow

In the early 1990s, Category 3 cabling was the choice for networking infrastructure. Standards have moved through CAT 5, CAT 5e, (1992) into CAT 6 (2002), and now CAT 7 standards are in the works.

Those institutions that installed fiber-optic cable in their classrooms during the past 10 years surely must be smiling today, and they will for years to come. A few years ago, copper wire was easier and cheaper to work with than fiber. But, according to industry sources, 80 to 90 percent of recent copper cable network installations do not deliver their rated capacity. Why? Installation errors.

Twenty percent of every dollar initially spent on technology for a new building is on the wiring infrastructure. The physical linkages responsible for carrying a school's voice, data, video and security systems are the most neglected components of the typical network — to the extent that nearly 70 percent of all network-related problems result from poor cabling.

Copper cabling is viewed by many in the industry as a throwaway medium. Cat 3 replaced coaxial cable, Cat 5 replaced Cat 3, and Cat 6 is replacing Cat 5 and Cat 5e. Can anyone guarantee that the same trend won't continue over the next several years? The copper cabling infrastructure seems to be constructed for replacement, and replacement is costly for schools.

Today's technology administrators can cost-justify installing optic fiber in every classroom. Fiber produces benefits that are both hard-dollar and strategic in nature; it also lowers the cost of ownership. For example, recent bidding estimates have shown that fiber can be just as economical as copper and doesn't require re-cabling every few years. Optic fiber transmission systems offer higher bandwidth services and high transmitting speeds, as well as a more efficient transmission mode, and costly wiring closets through the building are eliminated.

Fiber to the classroom provides the opportunity to converge the three primary communication channels (voice, video and data) into a streamlined, high-bandwidth communication environment that supports new technologies and a new wave of integrated applications.

On the phone again

Call it more than just the latest technology trend: a growing number of education institutions nationwide are tapping into voice-over-internet-protocol (VoIP) technology to reap what could add up to substantial long-term savings on their telecommunications systems.

Providing each teacher with a traditional phone that uses lines from a telecommunications company is costly. However, many school districts have reduced this extra cost successfully by operating their telephone system in-house over their high-speed data networks.

With VoIP in place, schools can use their existing data network to provide a telephone in each classroom, voice mail for each teacher, caller ID, an emergency speaker in each classroom, conferencing calling, three-way conference calling and more. These are functions that most classrooms previously have not had available.

No opportunity to save is without some drawbacks. One valid concern about VoIP systems is that if the data system fails, the entire phone system goes with it. Like any computer network, VoIP systems are susceptible to viruses. The majority of VoIP systems are Windows-based, and if a virus gets in the network and the IP server is on the network, then it will take the phone system down as well.

That being said, schools can and should put in place redundancy plans to ensure this doesn't happen. The first step is that if one system fails, it won't take down the whole network. With data communications, people can tolerate an hour of down time, but with voice traffic, they can't tolerate anything less than 100 percent reliability.

Day is senior analyst with KBD Planning Group, Inc., Bloomington, Ind., and AS&U's “Tech Talk” columnist.

NOTABLE

  • 80 to 90

    Estimated percentage of copper cable network installations made in recent history that do not deliver their rated capacity.

  • 7

    The newest Category standard for cabling.

  • 20

    Percentage of every dollar initially spent on technology for a new building on wiring infrastructure.

  • 70

    Percentage of network-related problems that result from poor cabling.

Things to remember

Pitfalls that you can control:

  1. Don't assume that all architects and vendors are educators; it is not guaranteed that they understand the needs of teachers and students.

  2. It is difficult to accurately estimate the wiring capacity needed to accommodate the instructional and administrative needs of tomorrow. Identify the greatest amount of information transfer imaginable for a facility, and then multiply that need by at least four.

  3. Don't let local technology vendors become embedded with your technology staff. Their knowledge often is limited to what they have to sell.

  4. Don't rush during the planning stages. Some technology vendors count on costly changes after the initial bid process.

  5. Remember — the school controls the process.