7 Time-Saving Tools

When instructional technology coordinator Bill Burrall gave us his "10 Time-Saving Tools" in March, it got us thinking about the relationship between time and money. Imagine if a technology could shave an hour off your day-or even 15 minutes. How much would that be worth to you? And what value would it bring for your district? With those thoughts in mind, we asked selected administrators to weigh in on technologies they can't live without. Their personal favorites, featured below, represent an eclectic mix of tools that help with multiple jobs, from managing student data to streamlining communication with other staff members.

Handheld Computers

Educator: Kathy Schrock, administrator for technology, Nauset Public Schools, Orleans, Mass.

Tool: A self-professed handheld junkie, Schrock owns a Kyocera 7135 cell phone/handheld computer; four flavors of the Palm Tungsten (T3, T, E, and C); a Palm m130; a Garmin iQue 3600; an AlphaSmart Dana; and a HP iPAQ 1935. For device newcomers, she advises: "Start out with the lowest-priced handheld that includes color and an expansion slot. Later you may want to upgrade to a model with more bells and whistles."

MO: From the moment she rouses herself from bed at 5 a.m., Schrock relies on her handheld computers for a variety of tasks. She starts by exercising to music blasting through external speakers she's hooked up to her Tungsten T3. A couple hours later, she's using the device to scribble staff meeting notes, check the district's computer inventory, and organize training materials. In classrooms, she demos inflation-comparison applications to social studies students and tessellation design programs to art classes-achieved by using her Tungsten E, Margi Presenter-to-Go technology, and a video projector. When not in her office, Schrock flips open her cell phone to check e-mail on the fly. Fast forward to the evening, and you might find her curled up with one of her handhelds reading a Stephanie Plum e-book. (Editor's note: For more, see Schrock's "Day in the Life of an Educator's Handheld" presentation at NECC in New Orleans on June 21.)

Biggest Time-Saver: "Having all my information with me wherever I go-from names, addresses, calendars, and phone numbers to databases with passwords, professional development events, and log-in information for the networked computers in the district."

Student Information Systems

Educator: Kathleen McNamara, superintendent and principal, Beaver Island School District, Beaver Island, Mich.

Tool: McNamara uses Student Administrative System from Specialized Data Systems to facilitate all her student record keeping. She says the product isn't hard to learn and comes with strong Web and phone support.

MO: As the sole administrator of a small K-12 school located on an island in the middle of Lake Michigan, McNamara single-handedly manages the data for the community's 87 students, a task she's streamlined using Student Administrative System. In August, McNamara logs on to the application to create individual student schedules; in June, she creates transcripts; and in between she enters grades, prints report cards, audits graduation requirements, and calculates GPAs. Day-to-day discipline can be managed as well, thanks to a feature that lets her enter infraction data, actions taken, and comments. "It's easy to check attendance, grades, and see if it's always the same teacher [making a discipline complaint]. It's an eye-opener for the parents, too. They can see patterns and draw their own conclusions," says McNamara.

Biggest Time-Saver: "Creating the individual student schedules, because once you have the data entered, you just hit the button and it punches out the schedule. We used to do that all by hand."

Tablet PCs

Educators: Eric Levitt, principal of the Middle School of Pacolet and Donna Lipscomb, principal of Cannons Elementary School, Spartanburg School District 3, Spartanburg, S.C.

Tool: Like all principals in Spartanburg School District 3, Eric Levitt and Donna Lipscomb started school in 2003 with a Toshiba Portege 3505 Tablet PC that runs on Windows XP Tablet PC Edition. Lipscomb's advice to new users: "Review the tutorials carefully-then just use it and experiment."

MO: "It's so compact and portable I can go anywhere in the building with it," says Lipscomb, who types up notes on the 4.2-pound Portege 3505 during teacher observation rounds and also takes advantage of the built-in microphone and voice recognition software for transcribing sensitive phone conversations she's had with parents.

Levitt takes his Tablet PC along for teacher observations, too, but unlike Lipscomb, he uses the stylus to write longhand notes onto the tablet screen. He employs the same method for taking district meeting notes, because "it's an etiquette thing not to be typing while the superintendent's talking." During a typical day at school, Levitt drafts letters, sends e-mail, and creates PowerPoint presentations for the graduate technology courses he teaches while in the Tablet's "PC mode." Once at home, he switches to "Tablet mode" for easy Internet scrolling-with the stylus he can check e-mail with one hand while he minds his newborn with the other.

Biggest Time-Saver: According to Levitt: "The tablet feature makes writing teacher observations quicker for me. I can write in the journal anytime, anywhere, and then get my notes converted to text and back to a teacher or ready for a report."

Firewall and VPN Technology

Educator: Eric Svetcov, technology director at St. Ignatius College Preparatory, San Francisco, Calif.

Tool: Svetcov's first act as technology director was to install SonicWALL PRO 3060 Education Edition for firewall security and virtual private network remote access, which means he and authorized users can securely connect to the school's internal network from home or on the road.

MO: Svetcov needs to detect and fix school network problems as soon as they occur, no matter the hour or day, and VPN technology affords him this freedom when he's not at school. One Saturday, for example, he received a call at home that the school's printers went down during a weekend activity. Svetcov was able to log in remotely using VPN and Windows Terminal Server and solve the dilemma within minutes. The technology also comes in handy when he has to remotely monitor the school's internal help request system and perform routine network maintenance during off-peak hours. "We can log in late at night or on the weekends, perform our maintenance, and reboot our servers without ever having to get in our cars," says Svetcov.

Biggest Time-Saver: "The fact that I can monitor the school server from home. It lets me know much sooner if a problem exists and I can respond more quickly in an emergency."

Closed-Circuit Security Systems

Educator: Kevin Lusk, principal of Prosser High School, Prosser School District, Prosser, Wash.

Tool: Kevin Lusk monitors campus activity using closed-circuit cameras- 16 digital and eight analog-and software provided by local company CCTV Camera Scan.

MO: Lusk starts his mornings inspecting his over 100,000 square-foot campus by computer. He could view all 16 digital camera images at once, but generally he chooses the four busiest areas-including the vending corner and attendance hallway-to observe. The digital system records images and times to a hard drive, and it's helped Lusk clear up many situations. For instance, he and his colleagues solved a locker theft by reviewing a tape that showed a student ducking into the gym and emerging with a bag. "We e-mailed the middle school his picture and five seconds later they identified him," Lusk says. The cameras also cut down on investigation time. When one girl accused another of a hallway affront, Lusk just pulled it up on the camera and saw the accuser all alone in the hall. "The information doesn't lie, so it was easy to resolve and move on," he says.

Biggest Time-Saver: "There's nothing like being able to go right back to the incident without all the investigation, where this kid says this and that kid says that. It makes the school more secure, we have documentation for accountability, and it feels good to help the innocent victims."

Live Chat Technology

Educator: Steven Moscowitz, technology director, Brewster Central School District, Brewster, N.Y.

Tool: After his daughter showed him the ropes, Steven Moscowitz adopted AOL Instant Messenger as his preferred communication tool. "All you need is a Web browser," Moscovitz reports. "The accounts are free and they work cross-platform."

MO: When Moscovitz has a quick question for one of his technicians, help desk staff, or vendors, he checks his Buddy List to see who's online and available. From there he can zap a note to the person, invite a third or fourth party to join the chat, and save or print the conversation. And when he wants to talk to someone on the phone, he first instant messages a note requesting a call. "Communication used to be very inconvenient," Moscovitz recalls, "but now it's kind of cool. It's easy to see who's there and get a quick response. It's a really popular technology with kids, but I think it also has good business uses."

Biggest Time-Saver: "Not to have to go through the phone system. Today's phone systems are voice mail driven. Before the world of shared secretaries, someone could pop in and interrupt with a phone call, but now it's hard to get people, and instant messaging avoids that."

Interactive Voice-Response Systems

Educator: Richard Langford, deputy CIO, New York City Public Schools, New York, N.Y.

Tool: The Parent Line, an automated voice-response system that lets parents phone in to the district for their child's attendance, grades, and other information. Developed jointly by district programmers and Microsoft using the company's Speech Server 2004 software, the application came in response to Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein's call for increased parental engagement in education.

MO: With over 3 million parent names in their files, New York City needed a school-to-home communication solution that could handle heavy volumes of both data and traffic. The Parent Line, piloted this spring, lets parents and legal guardians dial in to a local number using a 10-digit username and a six-digit password they request from their school's parent coordinator. What comes next is akin to what you'd hear if you called United Airlines-a pleasant computerized voice prompting the caller to identify what data they need. "We've already built a Web portal that opens up student information to parents," says Langford. "So this system is essentially a voice interface attached to that database." Currently the district's testing out The Parent Line using attendance information; next year they plan to incorporate transportation and grade information, and eventually homework assignments. Other features include a natural language function that allows seasoned users to bypass the prompts-for example, a parent could simply say "I want to hear Mary's grades" and the system zeros in on this data.

Biggest Time-Saver: "It's not so much replacing anything but providing an extremely valuable additional service," says Langford, especially for parents who don't have readily available Internet access to look at attendance and grades online, or don't have time to go down to the school in person for the information.

Stephanie Gold is a San Francisco-based educational consultant and freelance writer.

Amy Poftak is executive editor of Technology & Learning.

Bill Burrall's 10 Time-Saving Tools

Today's technologies make it possible for educators to maximize productivity and multitask to the extreme. Here, one busy technology coordinator's favorites.

  1. Corex CardScan
  2. Seiko Smart Label Printer
  3. almOne Zire 71
  4. ELMO HD-80XG Document Camera
  5. GoToMyPC
  6. Iomega Micro Mini drive
  7. AB Tutor Control
  8. WS_FTP PRO file transfer program
  9. Kano ATLAS Stand-Alone Duplication Tower
  10. Microsoft Outlook Express

To read the full article, click here.

Productivity Resources
To link up to the products featured in "Seven Time-Saving Tools," plus a sampling of similar technologies, read on.

Closed-Circuit Security Cameras
CCTV Camera Scan ((800) 444-1002)
WizKid OptoTech

Live Chat Technologies
AOL Instant Messenger
MSN Messenger
Yahoo! Messenger

Interactive Voice-Response Systems
AVA Technology

Handheld Computers

Student Information Systems
Specialized Data Systems
For additional student information systems, click here. Details about other types of data management tools are available here.

Tablet PCs
Find more information about Tablet PC hardware and software, plus how-to tutorials, here.

Firewall and VPN Appliances
Juniper Networks
Netilla Networks
Secure Computing