Computers in the schools

I'm on vacation this week (a real one without any technology along), and through the miracle of computer scheduling, you have my latest version of my column. I'd thought I'd take the time to tell you why Johnny can't get computers in his school.

I'll been working on and off over the past 16 months with a dedicated group of parents, teachers, and administrators here at the local public k-12 school district in Port Washington. What started as a curiosity over why we had Apple IIe's in our classrooms has turned into an obsession. Along the way, I've learned lots.

First off, selecting technology when you don't have much, can't buy it quickly, and can't hire expertise easily is really tough to do. Those of us that run or ran IS support operations in the business world (once upon a time in a previous life 10 years ago I helped support a 3000- node network of PCs for Transamerica Occidental Life) don't understand this situation readily.

Hiring the right people is hard enough, but when it takes months? For example, here we must hire our support people from a civil service list, and only from the top of the list. But the candidates don't get ranked for several months, so if you like someone without a ranking, you take your chances that they won't be able to work for you. Our purchase process takes equally long: bids have to be created, then advertised, then received, then evaluated, then approved by the board of education. And sometimes the board doesn't like the bids received, go back to square one and start all over again.

But there are plenty of other potholes along the education info- highway: Your district may be obligated by law to hire electrical contractors to install network cabling that could be installed by cheaper phone contractors. Or that you can't poke holes through the walls of the schools until you first make sure that all the asbestos is removed. Or that the teachers' contract requires any of their training be done during the school day on leave time. All of these are things we've had to deal with before buying the first new PC.

Given these restrictions, is it any wonder that our schools aren't innovative when it comes to deploying technology? Still, I am grateful we are moving forward, slow as it is. We have a web server at our high school up and running, we are buying computers this summer and wiring the buildings for Ethernet. We hired a computer czar who has a great background in curriculum and hopefully can mobilize and energize the faculty. And maybe by the time my daughter graduates from elementary school we'll have some truly wonderful things happening in the classroom.

An interesting side-note on all of this: we are buying Win95 PCs, not Macs -- that decision was made by our district superintendent last spring, right at the height of all of Apple's management shakeups. While I'd rather see Macs in our classrooms, I can understand why the decision was to go with Win95 and NT.

Awards, self-promotion and sitekeeping dep't

Given our topic this week, I want to applaud the folks at the University of Minnesota for their Web66 efforts. A group of college students and professors have put together a great site, including keeping track of which schools around the country have their own web pages in an attractive image map. A recent addition to Web66 is to benchmark web server behavior, documenting exactly what is being sent back and forth between server and browser. Well worth a look, and for that they get a Big Duck award and my hearty thanks.

As I said, I am out of town and will be back at the end of the month. For those of you about to go on vacation, enjoy it -- don't take any electronic appliances and leave your voice mail instructions at home. We all need to logoff sometimes.

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David Strom
+1 516 944 3407
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