With more than 235 facilities, 166,000 students, 70,000 workstations, and an annual budget of close to $2 billion, Virginia’s Fairfax County Public Schools boasts one of the largest and most sophisticated educational technology systems in the country. CIO Maribeth Luftglass shares lessons learned in that challenging and unforgiving environment.
Q: What has been your experience with wireless networking at Fairfax?
A: FCPS started focused pilot programs with wireless LAN carts very early on. We’ve seen almost exponential growth of wireless LAN use since then. At this point, we’re buying more wireless laptops than desktops. One of our IT initiatives has been focused around expanding our infrastructure to accommodate wireless networks in a controlled manner. Having wireless access points on carts works, but you have to keep the wireless devices close, and that limits flexibility. With permanent wireless infrastructure in each building, you can take your laptop anywhere you need to go and work in small, flexible groups on a variety of projects. Security is an issue, and we have done a lot of up-front work in securing our wireless infrastructure. We haven’t had any major security issues. That said, there are a few things, like grading, that we’re not doing wirelessly. We haven’t experienced any real problems; we’re just being conservative. We are, however, doing online testing using wireless labs.
Q: What are the biggest barriers to effective K–12 IT service delivery?
A: There are two main areas where we see significant difficulties. The first is providing adequate support, by which I mean the actual support staff. A lot of available funding, whether from the state or grants, is focused largely on hardware, software, and training, but support, which is key to success, has been neglected or underemphasized. Fairfax has invested in support for the technology in our schools, but it is still a significant barrier to increased use of IT resources. The second barrier has to do with assuring adequate refreshment of our technology. Schools don’t want to get rid of old equipment because it’s still perceived as useful, and better an old piece of equipment that works than no equipment at all. But from the perspectives of cost, maintenance, and capability, we’re trying to keep computers to no more than five years old. The challenge is to build in actual replacement cycles and not just add new equipment on top of the old.
Q:Your perspective on open source software?
A: We’ve tried to find a middle ground with open source. Much of our commonly-used instructional software for K–12 may only work with Apple or Microsoft environments. Some others, though, will work on Linux. Support is the other key issue. If support isn’t available for an open source product, chances are we won’t use it. We’re approaching it case by case; we do use Linux-based systems for Internet content filtering and other uses, and we have some open source database applications deployed.
Q: The IT shops in many larger K–12 districts are looking much like enterprise IT operations, but your mission is different than a typical Fortune 500 firm. What do you see as the role of IT in the school?
A: FCPS is a very large district— with over 30,000 employees, we are the largest single employer in the state of Virginia. So we need to provide infrastructure and support sufficient to run a major enterprise, including the line-ofbusiness functions like payroll, financials, HR, and so on. At the same time, our bottom-line mission is to provide an environment for learning. What we’re always seeking is the balance here between the enterprise and individual student needs, weighing hardware and software standards against flexibility and intellectual and instructional control by teachers.