With bandwidth demands on K-12 networks increasing and education budgets shrinking, school IT departments are hard pressed to deliver on the promise of education technology.
Growing Demand for Edutech Places Growing Demands on Networks
The explosive demand for education technology has resulted in year-over-year network capacity growth of 60 percent in some U.S. school districts, according to EdTech. This means that capacity needs are doubling every 18 months or so. Factors that are contributing to the skyrocketing demands on network capacity include the following:
- More and more mobile devices are being added to school networks. Edutech is increasingly becoming mobile tech as a growing number of schools follow the lead of corporate America and adopt BYOD policies for students so they can communicate with each other and their teachers outside of the classroom. With the proliferation of devices, however, comes the need for more network capacity.
- Connected classrooms, a staple of edutech, also tax a school system's network. Collaborating online on projects, watching streaming video to supplement a lesson or using games to stoke classroom engagement can all be powerful teaching tools. However, they can also fail miserably if they're crippled by unpredictable or sluggish network performance.
- Student management has moved to the network. Learning management systems are edutech's answer to planners and blue books. These systems allow teachers to administer online tests to students and they remove some of the grunt work of test grading. They also provide timely feedback to both students and parents. These systems, too, place demands on network capacity.
Managing Your Edutech Budget
Dealing with edutech's growing capacity demands won't be easy, even though IT spending is expected to remain relatively healthy in 2016. While many school systems are facing budget cuts, the spend for K-12 IT this year is expected to be $11.7 billion, according to e.Republic. And, for some districts, an additional $1.5 billion will be available through the federal E-Rate program, according to the Center for Digital Education.
When planning IT budgets for school districts, it's most important to avoid myopia and shiny-new-tech blindness. By taking the long view, schools can get a better handle on their future technology needs and avoid the pitfalls of short-term solutions. Here are some strategies that will help you plan for the future while protecting your budget:
Repurpose Allocations From Non-Digital Resources
As textbooks are phased out, those funds can be allocated to technology projects. The same is true for learning tools such as globes, maps and periodicals. Sure, funds will need to be spent on digital equivalents, but in most cases those equivalents will cost less than their physical counterparts and will be easier to keep up to date.
Finance the Acquisition of Devices, Network Upgrades and Professional Services
Paying for hardware over a period of years with an option to buy is a good way to reduce the annual bite it can take out of the budget. The same is true for network infrastructure; it can be paid for over time from the capital budget. Moreover, such improvements may be eligible for E-Rate funds.
Use Network Monitoring Tools
Network monitoring tools can be invaluable to school districts with tight budgets. These tools can act as a manpower multiplier, allowing fewer people to do more. For example, some tools allow a network and its appliances and applications to be monitored from a single console. With that kind of big-picture view, network issues can be resolved quickly with minimal support staff. By allowing IT to troubleshoot problems, monitor network response times and check application usage, such tools can also be very helpful in planning for future capacity demand.
As the IT director of one school district told EdTech magazine, "Corporate America would never run a network as big as I have with the number of people I've got. The only way we're able to do that is with very effective network tools."
"IT staffing often is seen as overhead, which school districts are trying to keep at a minimum," he continued. "Network tools allow me to supplement my staffing levels without having a real body here. They're like a team member, but we don't have to pay them benefits, and they don't collect a paycheck."
Education technology promises to be a critical component of the 21st-century classroom. And, as the technology becomes more advanced, it will only place greater demands on network capacity. Schools should prepare for the future now by investing in long-term, forward-thinking solutions and implementing network monitoring tools that allow their IT teams to do more with less.