Calculating Costs

The public expects that schools will use technology in instruction and communication. But as educators work to increase access and use, they are learning that the purchase price of hardware and software is just the tip of the iceberg. Training and technical support — as well as utility bills and supplies — cost districts at least 50 percent of the original price of the technology. Accordingly, many educators worry far less about getting equipment than they do about keeping what they already have operational.

Total cost of ownership (TCO) refers to the true cost of purchasing and maintaining technology. Educational institutions have long recognized the need to plan for ongoing costs in some areas; facilities and transportation, for example, are two departments where maintenance and upkeep are continuously funded. However, large purchases of most instructional materials have traditionally been tied to six- or seven-year textbook adoption cycles. Unfortunately, most new technologies become obsolete in just three to five years. With these odds, technology-based instructional programs will not thrive if educators do not rethink spending patterns.

Teachers and students cannot make best use of their resources when they don't understand how to use the technology or when the infrastructure isn't reliable. In response, administrators are developing strategies to fund ongoing support of instructional technologies. As mentioned in September's Bottom Line column, one increasingly popular solution is for districts to charge schools a flat fee or a percentage of the total cost for every new technology purchase, which covers a variety of recurring expenses. Some districts now charge schools a monthly per-computer fee to cover TCO for existing technologies. Others leave these costs to sites and departments but require that a TCO plan be reflected in budgets and annual programmatic plans.

If your school or district is grappling with these issues, visit Taking TCO to the Classroom, hosted by the Consortium of School Networking (CoSN) at This site offers free publications, tools, case studies, and other resources to help educators develop effective strategies for handling TCO.

Susan Brooks-Young is an educational consultant and writer.