Monday, March 21, 2016

A Refreshing Approach To Technology

At last week’s board meeting, we heard an excellent presentation from our district’s Chief Information Officer, Don Wolff, on a new approach to the technology refresh problem.     Since this is a fundamental change in philosophy that could save the district millions of dollars, I thought some of you might be interested.

As we all know, the schools have been continually increasing their use of technology.     Aside from the obvious example of the Hillsboro Online Academy and direct online course delivery, computer usage is growing at nearly every level.     Students use computers in areas as varied as word processing, topical research, project collaboration, rapid calculation, or for access to new texts that emphasize online use.   For teachers, aside from these uses, technology can enable live interaction with a large class and improved communication with students, as well as being essential for mundane tasks like grading and paperwork.  We are rapidly moving towards an expectation that all students and teachers have constant access to a PC or tablet.

But with these advances comes the problem of technology refresh:  replacing outdated machines that can no longer run supported software or operating systems (OSs).   Don mentioned that 3500 of our PCs will soon be nearly unusable, as Microsoft pulls support for their version of Windows, and they are not powerful enough to install newer OSs.    Just replacing these would be a significant hit on our budget, aside from the growth we are expecting to need in the next few years.   This is a bad time for this, as we are facing another budget crunch due to the many recent failures of our state legislature:   overturned PERS reform combined with huge new unfunded mandates such as all-day kindergarten and increased PhysEd.    Is there something we can do about this?

Don recommended a new approach to device refresh:   what he calls the “sufficiency plan”.   This is based on recognition (based on recent surveys) that a large majority of the students already own a sufficiently powerful Internet device at home, and would be happy to use their own device in school as well.   These home devices are usually powerful enough to support nearly all the requirements for school use, since home users emphasize media consumption and communication.   (The main exception is for some very advanced science/math uses that may still require lab computers.)   Furthermore, people tend to refresh their own devices when needed.    Thus, instead of expecting to provide a device for every student, and worry about refreshing it every few years, the new plan would expect students to bring their own device, with one provided only in cases where the student does not already have one.

I’m happy to see that our staff is thinking hard about new approaches in this critical area.   There will be a number of challenges with this approach, such as the need to support heterogeneous computing environments, the question of how to handle students who fail to maintain their own devices, information security, etc.   On the other hand some of these issues may turn into positives:  for example, if we are supporting heterogeneous OSs anyway, perhaps we can run the free Linux + OpenOffice on some of the older machines that can no longer handle WIndows.   In any case, this idea looks like something that can enable significant long-term savings for HSD, by getting us off the traditional technology-refresh treadmill.