Sometimes making IT related decisions is tough. Everyone seems to have a solution or idea. This includes co-workers, vendors, and friends outside of school. So I believe you need a philosophy to shape your decisions, and my decisions are driven by this: People need bandwidth to do more interesting work from more places, and more interesting work means larger and more complex projects that need more processing power and storage.
IT at a K-12 school needs to follow a different methodology and strive to create a distributive learning environment. Everyone in the school community and can benefit from the opportunities IT resources provide if they can easily access those resources on and off campus.
Invest in People
If the community is to grow it needs real leadership. If technology is to be a key factor in the growth of a community, then the school needs strong IT leadership. This is not a job for a hobbyist or IT junkie. This is a job for one or more people who have the skills, training, and resourcefulness to initiate and manage change.
Most of the times this simply comes down to salary. Many schools simply hire teachers to fill IT roles on campus. Although I am not opposed to this, I do think they need real qualifications and experience to make infrastructure and purchasing decisions. It is not advisable to put money into an IT initiative, without IT leadership in place. It is also not advisable to allow an out-going IT leader to make purchases that will change the community. This creates a problem for in-coming the IT leadership, and it may haunt them for years if the decision was made poorly.
People need to be there before the technology, and people need to see their decisions through. Invest in this concept. Hire good people before money is spent, and incentivise them to stay until all their major projects are finished.
Invest in Bandwidth
People want speed. They want to be able to send movies to their friends. They want to listen to internet radio. They want to do everything at the same time all the time. Users do not think about using, they just use. They are the reason the IT infrastructure exists in a K-12 environment, and they are also the reason most of the rules and regulations exist.
Many networks limit the amount and type of work a user can do. They do this sometimes for security and also sometimes to help reduce bandwidth consumption. Many schools use network monitoring and user tracking software, this also uses bandwidth and slows down the over all user experience.
I have seen students with laptops that have never been connected to the Internet at school, because they said it was so slow, and it wasn’t worth their time. All the security, and all the software accomplished one thing- they kept the users from using. I understand the need for security, but for every layer of security added, the bandwidth should not be sacrificed unless it is absolutely necessary.
The annual budget needs to include a section dedicated to improving network performance. There are many methods for doing this, and the strategies are constantly changing. Some of the newer solutions are very inexpensive to implement such as using a reverse proxy and on-campus software repositories for common downloads.
Often buildings develop bandwidth bottlenecks that slow down sections of the campus. These can be easily identified and eliminated, but only if it is a school policy to do so. The school leadership should not just assume that its IT department or contracted engineers will do this type of network maintenance by choice. In fact if things are “ON” IT will often say, “Everything is fine.”
Wireless speeds are also important. Investing in better antennas can help tremendously, but the wireless coverage in the building can be mapped and predicted using hardware and software that will not exceed $1000. This investment into wireless testing gear will last a few years and will help administration work with IT to develop a visual plan for wireless coverage and frequency distribution. Ask your IT department how they map and test wireless signals, and see if they have a true solution. If they do not consider the waste and/or drain in bandwidth your community is experiencing due to bad poor planning and lazy implementation1.
Finally there is the bandwidth that the school is paying for each month. This allows the community to access the internet and other external resources. As a rule, I think it is important to buy as much bandwidth as possible. In addition to bandwidth, schools should have server resources to allow for public websites to be created off-campus. This enables the community to create and access resources from home, and it does not strain the local school network.
If you are not sure how much bandwidth you should have consider the following rule: Each distinct user group on campus, should have their own bandwidth and the should all be equal.
Administrators and IT leaders must decide how many groups they have. Some will say four- elementary school, middle school, high school, and administration. However, consider that if each group had a 2mb connection, that administration would have a far faster connection due to fewer users. Therefore, the rule above would be broken. Equal bandwidth does not mean equal line size. It means that each group can have the same potential speed as all the other groups.
Keep it flowing and keep it fair. You can never have too much bandwidth if your users are allowed to be users.
Invest in Servers
Developing a collaborative network and providing users with distributive learning solutions means you need server based applications. Some of these applications will fall into the software you license, others might be free, but all of them will require some back-end muscle.
I use the word server as a loose generic term, but a server is a software service and the machine hosting this service is usually called a “server”. There can be many of these services running on a single machine. For example it is common to run the Apache Web Server and the MYSQL Database Service on the same physical machine.
Servers do not have to always be large and expensive, but they usually need to have a scalable architecture. Once you reach a machines maximum memory limit, you will reach its limit on the number of simultaneous users it can handle.
Schools often forget to investigate off-site solutions for serving their applications. There are many options available, besides maintaining all community resources internally. For example cloud hosting is growing and many organizations are using virtual private servers to host their applications. There is a significant cost decrease from the classic model of a dedicated server and a significant performance increase over the budget shared hosting model.
An annual budget should contain a section that always shows a plan to improve the distribution of solutions and resources. If the schools architecture is large and out-dated, then looking at sharing the load with external partners might be the best plan.
Administrators need to be aware that IT engineers will often be happy with a server as long as it is still within its hardware life-cycles performance range. This means if the server is guaranteed to run for three years, IT will probably not consider upgrading it. It is nearly impossible for the school administration to be involved with server management unless they have a policy requiring IT to map-out the server hardware and solutions so they understand how everything connects.
I am recommending that administrators take the following steps to have a clear understanding of where and how the IT solutions they are depending on are organized:
Require IT to create a simple document that shows the servers name, IP Address, and all the services, and solutions it is hosting.
Require IT to create an annual report showing when each unit was purchased and what upgrades have been made since the original installation. This should not contain any explanations, only the raw data.
Survey the community to see which services or solutions are slow or difficult to use.
Present this report to IT with an expectation of performance improvements.
Address servers that seem to be unbalanced and possibly running too many or too few services or solutions.
The growth of the internet has proven that ideas and people are the most important piece of any new start-up. There are many places where schools can spend their money. I choose to invest in people and they ideas they hold, then give them to tools to distribute those ideas.