Friday, 4 November 2011

Schools updating tech capabilities and policies

The school district has spent the last several years updating out-dated computer and telephone systems – and is saving money doing so – but don’t expect to see students using iPads any time soon.

Those were the highlights of an Oct. 25 School Committee work session with Doug Snow, technology director for the district.

Since he joined the district in 2004, the IT Department has been changing over analog phone systems to a voice over IP network system – a move that brought large cost savings.

“You never get a busy signal, and it took the phone bill down,” Snow said. “Broad Rock is still analog, and it doesn’t integrate – it is kind of a stepchild and it’s very expensive – $1,000 a month just for this building. But we are working on upgrades.”

The district was paying $12,000 to $13,000 a month for phone service, he said, but that has been reduced to $4,000.

The VoIP system also offers caller identification and the ability for teachers who are outside the building – walking a class to Old Mountain Field, for example – to call a dedicated line in case of an emergency.

Snow said an upcoming priority is replacing building keys with swipe cards. While it will replace the handful of keys many administrators must carry and will cut down on security breaches – there are students who have keys to the buildings – teachers have expressed concerns.

“Teachers are scared of it,” Snow said. “They worry it tracks them coming in and out of their classrooms.”

Snow said that is not the intent.

“Students have keys to the buildings, and do get in at night,” Snow said. “The [security] cameras are outdated, even though they were installed in 2000. Students would have to swipe in, and we’d know they are there.”

The swipe system would run on the buildings’ current technology, Snow said, and would allow administrators to view security footage from their home computers or smart phones.

“Wakefield has had issues with vandalism and we couldn’t figure out why the cameras weren’t working,” Snow said. “They had spray-painted all of them.”

Snow was not enthusiastic about some of the latest trends in school computing, such as iPads for every student.

“One-on-one iPads are a huge cost – millions of dollars,” Snow said. “I don’t see us going in that direction. We would need to be 100 percent wireless, and it would cost approximately $550,000 to have 100 percent coverage for our district.”

Snow said the jury was also still out on Smart Boards – interactive whiteboards.

“They are a big buzzword, but they are very expensive and very labor intensive,” Snow said. “A lot [of teachers] are using them as high-priced overhead projectors – we could get those for $800 each.”

Snow tested a Smart Board for more than a month and found it kept freezing up.

“It was frustrating,” he said. “It has to work all the time, when [it is used] in classrooms.”

But Snow was supportive of Ncomputing – desktop virtualization – something the district has been beta testing and is now out to bid on.

“It gets a lot of machinery into the classroom – high-end Windows machines,” he said.

Ncomputing uses one CPU that serves up to 10 monitors on a single cable, without slowdown. The district must link each computer to the server, at a cost of $150 each.

“It is perfect for an elementary school to get machines in the classroom,” Snow said. “It was really impressive to us. There is one network per classroom. It reduces use on the server and reduces the [energy use] footprint.”

Snow said the district is working with APC by Schneider Electric, which has been performing a municipal and town energy audit, and will go out to bid on the computers with hopes of installing them over Christmas vacation.

Snow said his department also is drafting updated rules on mobile phone use, since rules vary widely by school. Students with smart phones can connect to the Internet via the phone’s 3G network, he said.

He said the policy could include registration, so the district can track who has the devices. But with technology changing rapidly, he warned against getting locked in.

“I am glad you are looking at the mobile device policy,” said Vice Chairman Anthony Mega. “It is easy to take the pessimistic view – that it is a distraction, and how to take secure exams, but they are critical devices. As we round at the hospital, we access information and education medical students – all on mobile devices. If we are not using them, we are not working on 21st-century learning.”

But Committee Chairwoman Maureen Cotter expressed concerns about equity.

“Not all students have smart phones or Kindles,” Cotter said. “And even among the schools themselves there are different policies.”

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