The Challenge of Coordinating District-wide Communications

By Marty Weil, Contributing Editor

The great American conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein once said that technique is communication; to conductors the two words are synonymous. For school executives and administrators who are orchestrating communications across their districts, technology is communication; and their ability to piece together the right array of technological solutions in a time of tight budgets is likely to determine whether they’ll be applauded or have to face the music generated by disconcerted constituents. It’s not an easy task.

“What educational management needs to implement is a unified strategy that involves all forms of communication throughout the campus and beyond, including security and controls,” says Bill Rust, research director at the Stamford, Connecticut, analyst Gartner. As a tool to help managers looking to devise district-wide communication strategies, Rust suggests a framework that looks at technology from three perspectives:

1) Operational efficiency

2) Constituent-service level

3) Political capital/return

According to Rust, operational efficiency is simply how well the technology works. Constituent-service level is the degree to which it meets educational requirements, including communication among staff, parents, students, and other stakeholders. Political capital/return relates to overall risk. “Is the particular technology you’re considering risky in terms of support?” he asks. “Will it receive widespread support, or are you going to be subject to criticism? Will it generate good feelings toward the district and, in particular, IT?”

Rebecca Swensen, analyst for Mobility and IP Communications Services at Framingham, Massachusetts, analyst IDC, suggests that management will ask another question at the start of any discussion: “What’s the cost?” “Especially in this day and age, cost will be the top consideration of administrators,” she says. “Districts are having a hard time finding the money to be at the level they want, so cost is always a big issue.”

Considerations for the CIO

Swensen says that in looking at cost, the first major decision to be made is between a solution that resides within the network of the district and one that resides in the network of the service provider. “If you have something that’s within your network, you have to pay for all the infrastructure,” she says. “You have to pay for the management of that network. Do you hire an IT staff on your own or have a service provider take care of that for you?”

The cost of a hosted approach has certain benefits, including greater control over the network and which applications can be run on it, the ability to change more rapidly, and better security in terms of infrastructure design. Hosted solutions tend to be significantly more cost-effective, especially if each location within the district has no more than a couple of dozen seats. “Say you need 20 seats per site; then it really becomes expensive if you want to put a PBX [private telephone switchboard] on each of these locations,” says Swensen. With a hosted solution, the district pays per seat but the vendor hosts the PBX.

According to Rust, efficiency and reliability are also top-of-mind issues for the chief information officer. “Whatever they have has to work and work flawlessly,” he says. “They have a lot more to do than worry about the telephony piece. So they’re looking for a rock-solid solution, with lower total cost of ownership, which means that support problems have to be minimal and downtime virtually nonexistent.”

Swensen agrees. “The concern after cost is reliability,” she says. “Not just how a vendor responds to, or compensates for, outages, but is there something built into the service that allows for quick recovery in case of a natural disaster or other emergency?” After that, which features and functionality provide value must be determined. “This really depends on how the schools within the district communicate, how teaching is handled, how parents are kept in the loop, and so on,” says Swensen.

In terms of technologies being adopted, Rust says that what he sees is “a lot of VoIP [Voice over Internet Protocol] and a lot of school staff with mobile devices, including walkie-talkies.”

For smaller and midsized districts, Swensen believes, the advantage of hosted solutions is compelling: “These districts are served by reliable solutions with a reputable carrier with strong SLAs [service level agreements],” she says. “Add to that having it as a VoIP solution, because you can put an IP phone into each location, and from there you can provide much more functionality. Security and alarm features are on the phone itself, as well as quick access to online services. There’s a lot of security within an IP platform; a smaller district can have this very cost-effectively.”

Field Movements

Cresskill Public School System, in Cresskill, New Jersey, is a typical small-to-midsized district, encompassing K–12 in three buildings: two elementary, one K–5, and a main building that combines middle school and high school. The district, which has approximately 2,000 students and 180 staff, migrated to a VoIP system two years ago. “Previously we had a very old Nortel system at the high school that serviced the high-school building,” says Kevin Whitney, Cresskill’s technology coordinator.

According to Whitney, this was a typical old, legacy-type system: hard to get serviced, and troublesome in that it was hard to make changes for users in phone stations. “We were looking for something that was cost-effective and gave us flexibility in the future,” notes Whitney. “We were also looking for unified communication-type features, like delivering voice mail to e-mail, and so forth, but we didn’t want something overly complex. We’re a very small staff in terms of supporting technology; we’re on a tight budget, so like everyone else we wanted to put something in place that would run itself and not need a lot of attention.”

When Cresskill first implemented VoIP, it had a wide area network (WAN) provided through a major telecom company. “This was a small ATM network,” Whitney says. “It was pretty expensive yet had very limited bandwidth; our Internet became stressed in terms of the bandwidth that was provided at a certain budget.” The district explored the possibility of doing a private fiber network, but when the costs were added up—along with the worries about managing such a project internally—that idea was abandoned. Cresskill ultimately chose an outside vendor to increase connections between its buildings using gigabit fiber. “We went from having a one-lane dirt road to having an interstate highway between the buildings,” says Whitney.

Before the change, Cresskill’s Internet connection came into the ATM cloud at the main building, with three-meg pipes going to the other buildings. Services provided were VoIP traffic, Internet service, e-mail, Active Directory, and other internal systems. This worked fine when the district put in the system, eight years ago, but the infrastructure growth in terms of systems and technology outpaced the capacity for moving data between the buildings. The result was very slow service and increasingly poor user experience.

“Since we’ve upgraded the connections, everything has changed for the better,” Whitney concludes. “If you’re a user in one of the outlying buildings, it’s no different than sitting in the main building. It’s like you’re sitting on a hard-wire no matter where you are.”

Garnet Valley School District, in Glen Mills, Pennsylvania, a medium-sized district for that state (5,000 students, 800 staff, and five buildings, with four on the same campus), faced its own set of challenges as one of Pennsylvania’s fastest-growing districts. “We grew fast, and communications grew with it,” says Paul Sanfrancesco, Garnet Valley’s director of technology. He says that a lot of the decision making for the district’s communication structure was based on emergency communications. “We didn’t want to be tied into our own network, in case of an emergency,” he says.

All the staff at Garnet Valley have walkie-talkies through Nextel, and most administrators have BlackBerrys. “For us it goes back to the reliability of the system,” says Sanfrancesco. The district had worked with Sprint/Nextel for some time. The area had a history of bad service coverage, so the vendor came out and put a repeater on the high school to strengthen the signal throughout the campus at no cost to Garnet Valley. That response helped the district stay with that service; since it had worked with Sprint before, it saved on the costs of switching to another vendor.

The mobile nature of administrators’ work prompted Garnet Valley to add BlackBerrys to the mix. “It’s the device in the principal’s or administrator’s hand that makes a difference, because in our district, administrators are never at their desks,” says Sanfrancesco. “They’re constantly somewhere on campus or in the building, so they need e-mail and text on their devices. They need to have their phones with them at all times.”

Sanfrancesco points to a recent incident to illustrate why he believes it is better for schools to have a hosted, rather than an in-network, basis for communications: “There was an accident on one of the highways nearby that knocked out power to the district. It was midday, so we had to make the call to dismiss or keep the kids in school. Because there was still much of the school day left, we determined to keep them in school; but we couldn’t communicate with the outside world. Everything was down here. We turned to a Web site portal we subscribe to, Schoolwires, since we don’t host that. Using a wireless card in a laptop, we sent out a message to all the parents saying that school was staying open. The electric company informed us of what was going on, and we relayed this to the parents as well. We also updated our Web page. Everything was communicated out; it was a seamless transition, and yet we had no power.”

That piece of communications saved Garnet Valley the chaos of having scores of parents driving up unannounced. According to Sanfrancesco, a district down the street had many calls and drive-ups from parents; that district hosted its own network.

The Future Is Out There

As Rust looks to trends on the horizon, he sees one that should please administrators: less need to provision. “As communications becomes more ubiquitous and multipurpose, as we’re developing multi-channeled technology, there are more and more personally owned devices that are capable of meeting communication requirements. Administrators may begin to think of leveraging what people have as opposed to provisioning everything.”

Rust acknowledges a fear factor in considering this tactic but says that it is dissipating. “Standing in front of the train is not something you want to do,” he says.