March 23, 2006
 

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Posted: 05.04

Making the Grade

A school district pushes the learning curve with a technology upgrade and gains a 30-percent ROI in three years.
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By Teresa von Fuchs




While public schools may be the best place to learn calculus, they aren’t always so advanced when it comes to innovative technology. Think back to your high school teacher who could never operate the VCR.

Few schools have since become hotbeds of technology, and until two years ago, Pennsylvania’s Somerset Area School District (SASD) was an example of how badly many schools were in need of a technological upgrade. That’s why SASD took a leap, hired Julio Velasquez as director of IT and invested $1.8 million in a total upgrade.

SASD is composed of one main building with five remote locations. Velasquez says that when he started, SASD was more than a decade behind the technology curve. SASD was operating on two separate network topologies. There were no standards for desktop hardware, office software or applications, and no firewall or security system. Everyone had heard of e-mail but very few were actually using it.

Office personnel used typewriters to create a daily internal bulletin that was shared with all teachers and staff at each of the buildings. After typing, each building’s secretary would fax the bulletin to the other schools, and it would then be photocopied and distributed. If something changed on the bulletin, a secretary would have to go back and repeat the process.

Building Links

Velasquez’s first project was to connect each building, automate processes like bulletins and maintenance, standardize and update hardware and software and develop a link between the technology available and established teaching/learning paradigms. Before his first summer was over, Velasquez and his team completely rewired the schools for Ethernet, Fast Ethernet and Gigabit networks. They installed Compaq servers and migrated all data and 3,000-plus user accounts from Netware to Microsoft AD, and all applications and data were reformatted using MS Office and uploaded to the new servers.

More than 850 new Dell desktops were installed and integrated into the network. The network design included: Internet filtering; a firewall; an internal Intranet; a Web site to provide information to the community; groupware e-mail; and an in-house, Web-based application that handles all administrative processes such as student attendance, grading and health records.

Having completed all this in time for the first day of school, Velasquez realized this was just the beginning. “Next,” he says, “we needed to address our goal of providing access to these resources to increase communication and improve teaching processes and students’ learning ability.” With so much sensitive data—from attendance and discipline reports to health records—now accessible via a Web-based application called the Student Management System, “off-campus access was a dilemma,” says Velasquez. To protect confidential data with a VPN, the district could have handed out direct-dial capabilities to more than 3,000 teachers and staff, but high costs and support hassles ruled that out. So the question was how to secure access for users with dial-up, dynamic IP addresses.

“We looked at Netscreen’s Instant Virtual Extranet (IVE) products,” says Velas-quez, “and it was the best way to go.” The Netscreen Access 3000 series SSL VPN is a Web-based, secure access product that requires no client software to deploy or install, no changes required to servers, virtually no ongoing support and users can access it from any PC. Netscreen recently acquired this product and other technology from Neoteris.

Because the Netscreen solution requires so little administrative attention—Velasquez said it took half an hour to set up and configure, and he hasn’t touched it since—it translates to huge ROI when labor is a major cost. “We needed something that was not going to add tremendous overhead and would integrate easily into our existing infrastructure,” notes Velasquez, “and we haven’t had one single problem, not one instance where a user hasn’t been able to connect.”

Learning With Laptops

Now SASD is looking to mobilize more of its applications. Velasquez supports a thin-client model and evaluates applications in terms of mobility. Already 40 laptops have been deployed for use in areas where staff is not assigned a specific room.

Wireless has also helped resolve the lack of space for new computer labs. Velasquez built a wireless cart. “We have a cart that holds 24 laptops and a wireless access point,” explains Velasquez. “In about 30 minutes, any classroom is up and running as a lab.”

Now Velasquez is exploring how handhelds can be integrated into the administration and classroom learning. A pilot project involves rolling out Dell Axim PDAs to principals and high-level administrators. Velasquez explains that for tasks like teacher’s reviews, when principals observe teachers and grade their performance, “with a PDA they could complete the forms from the classroom and the information would be immediately uploaded in the system.”

Somerset has also received a grant to test 25 Palm M515s. The units have integrated GPS receivers and digital cameras. Students use the GPS for mapping and the camera for digital image collection while doing “field research.”

For the most part, the staff has been receptive to the changes in business processes. As in every organization, Velasquez intones, there are SASD personnel who don’t want to change, but he is satisfied to have enough “individuals wanting more technology every day.” And the school board is happy, too, with a 30-percent ROI in three years.

But Velasquez thinks there are more important issues at stake here than money. “The manual way we did things was a reactive way. Technology gives you a proactive way to manage resources and be more effective. Because in this environment, if you don’t embrace technology, then students are going to be teaching you.”•
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