In an ideal world, school technology budgets would provide each classroom with 3D projectors using interactive tablets loaded with complete software suites. Instead many schools face a hodge-podge of legacy equipment that force IT personnel into constant firefighter mode. Optimizing a school infrastructure is often quite a daunting challenge, especially with yearly decreasing budgets. The Journal brought this up recently with the article: You Want Me to What?
I have been exploring alternative technology solutions to bring down costs of integration, without sacrificing clear needs of instructional and information technology. I have decided to come up with a list of technology solutions for school organizations on a serious budget. Thanks to the #EduIT community on Twitter who helped with this list. This list will continue to evolve and most likely change as new technologies come to fruition. In the meantime, equipping your schools with these open sourced, low-cost or free technologies will help provide the solutions until you score that million dollar grant.
Operating Systems – Ubuntu or the education version Edubuntu will provide all the necessary OS needs for your school computers. The 2Go Convertible Classroom PC allows you to run Linux OS. It will provide the interactive tablet capabilities on a budget. We shall see how the iPad survives the classroom durability test. For the alpha geeks, here is a list of 10 more alternative operating systems.
Communication and Collaborative Tools – Forget running your own email exchange and web servers, migrate all your communication needs to Google Apps Education for free. According to their site, there seems to be no limit of how many accounts you can ask for. I have heard sites asking for 5000+ accounts from Google. Without going into too much detail, GAE provides real time communication tools with their plethora of application services ranging from Google Docs to wiki technologies in Google Sites. From an administrative IT point of view, scaling and tech support has never been simpler. Using GAE will eliminate most of Microsoft Office needs. However, as an alternative, Microsoft does have a couple solutions to GAE with Small Office Live and Live@Edu. Another alternative communication solution that is gaining followers in the web 2.0 space is Zoho.
Microsoft Office – Despite the plethora of alternatives, Microsoft Office still lingers as the predominant solution. It reminds me of the times I use to work in the networking industry when we use to say “you can’t get fired for buying Cisco.” Although Microsoft continues to dominate, it is a great time to start looking at alternative solutions. On top of the solutions above, Open Office has been a steady alternative to Microsoft. It will be interesting to see what happens to Open Office with the recent acquisition of Sun Microsystems. ThinkFree, SSuite and AjaxOffice are relatively unknown, but provide word processing, spreadsheets, and presentation software. As individual applications, there has been a explosion of web2.0 apps that provide collaborative capabilities on Office technologies. For example, presentation software have evolved to replace PowerPoint with web2.0 apps such as Sliderocket, Prezi, and Ahead. Another Microsoft tool that I use to love using was Visio, but I have replaced it with web2.0 app Creately.
Adobe Creative Suite – The expensive design suite has sparked an abundance of alternatives that provide solutions for the education market. It may not provide all the professional tools of Creative Suite, but it gives young inspiring graphic designers cheaper solutions to start with. Photoshop is probably the most famous of the Creative Suite, and the open source community has a stable alternative with GIMP. If GIMP is too much of a learning curve, try these other alternatives to Photoshop. InDesign page layout software can be replaced with Scribus. Illustrator can be replaced with InkScape. Flash can be replaced with Synfig. Dreamweaver can be replaced with Nvu. Premiere can be replaced with Avidemux.
Content Management System – In the education market, CMS is clearly dominated by open source solutions. I have seen websites run entirely under open source solutions such as Joomla, Moodle, and Drupal. Others may call this space as Learning Management Systems and Virtual Learning Environments. There are a host of others, including WordPress, but the three above seem to be the most used in education.
Student Information System – SIS can eat into a budget quite easily as most companies charge per student. There are open source alternatives out there, but have gained little traction in the education market. I for one would like to see if OpenSIS, Moodle, and Focus/SIS can be viable alternatives to the PowerSchools of SIS.
Computer Lab Management – Deploying student desktops and laptops can be a management nightmare for IT operations. iTALC is an open source solution for lab management.
Firewalls – There are host of firewall security open source solutions on the market. Here are seven that I have seen or heard people use in school infrastructures: SmoothWall, IPCop, Endian, Clark Connect, pfSense, Untangle, & Shorewall. There are also a host of content filtering solutions built into firewalls, but for a cloud solution look to OpenDNS. Just point your network to use OpenDNS servers to proxy the Internet. It is CIPA compliant as well.
Network Analyzers – IT operations could not do without having sniffer software to analyze TCP/IP data on the network. Wireshark runs on Windows, Linux, and OSX platforms and will analyze a spectrum of protocols on the network. Ethereal, Spiceworks and DNA are also available for download.
Interactive Whiteboards – The cost of IWB can be expensive when a school tries to outfit each class with one. However, there is an evolving alternative to IWBs and one solution gaining popularity is the AverPen. Here is a snippet of their marketing: “Ever imagine it would be possible to combine Interactive Whiteboard, Wireless Slate and Student Response System features into one complete, yet affordable solution?” Wiimote IWB: Great add from @jasontbedell.
Data Storage – Cloud computing allows many options for data storage. However, it always comes down to security questions from IT departments of information. For the most part, migration to the cloud using services like Google Docs, Mozy, Box.net, and Drop.io have gained traction as basic free storage solutions. There are too many to choose from, check the security features and cost before transferring files. For privacy concerns, purchasing network attached storage is always an option.
Computer Sharing Technology – NComputing and Fiddlehead are computer sharing technologies where one single desktop can act as many computers. The single desktop will connect multiple monitors and treats each monitor as if they are a separate desktop. It is using desktop virtualization for cost effectiveness.
Tech Support Ticket System – Depending on the size of your school, a tech support ticket system may not be necessary and using Google Forms would suffice. However, if you are in need of a true tech support ticket system that is full featured and open source, try osTicket.
Paperless LCD Writing Tablets – MyBoogieBoard is a great low budget technology solution that gives students a writing platform that can replace those Expo markers and white boards.
*For your desktop users, they can check out this site for the best free apps for PC’s and Macs.
My high school interns finished their mission of designing, implementing, and now supporting the new Adelante PC Lab for our teachers and students to use. It began with design concepts using Creately and discussing options with our technical team. The interns accounted for space and measured every inch to determine what we needed for materials. It was a thorough process and that was needed to design a meticulous and professional laboratory. After three weeks of physical and mental labor, the interns designed an impressive 36 networked computer laboratory for everyone to use.
It illustrated the point that anyone can accomplish a project when one puts their mind into it. These boys were savvy tech users, but never had to build an entire lab from scratch. It was definitely a test of self directed learning, peer-based learning, and sheer determination. It was a memorable experience that they can add to their resume as they begin looking for universities to attend in the coming years. For me, it hit home how capable teenagers are, and it drives me further to push my younger students to experience real world opportunities. I can see future schools relying on their students to become the in house tech support system for our teachers. They are capable and I have seen it in action with my interns and with my younger students. It is possible…
It has been a hit or miss at times when training teachers with using technology. I use different professional development strategies such as 1:1 training, peer-based learning, formal instruction, and virtual sessions. All have pros and cons when working with a diverse group of teachers.
I want to experiment with another method of reaching teachers by having my students become the technology trainers. I have an advanced group of students who work with me every morning on various technology projects. We have worked on many projects together using web 2.0 tools such as GoAnimate, MyStudiyo, and Wikispaces. Some of my students even provide tech support by going out to fix and troubleshoot computers for the school.
The students’ project is to select one staff member and show them how to use the zooming presentation editor tool called Prezi. I hope using students to model technology tools will motivate teachers in using Prezi and other web 2.0 applications. I am excited about this experiment and hoping for 100% success. I told them I will assess their project by checking if the teacher will actually use the software in his/her classroom. No pressure at all 🙂
I write this post as a strong advocate of using technology not only in education, but in life. I also write this post as a strong advocate of authentic human relationships and connectedness with our spiritual nature. I am a husband, father of two beautiful girls, and a lifelong professional who has worked in many capacities pushing technology into the forefront of learning. It is important I state that this is a personal reflection on my digital life.
As much as I believe technology should be part of the way I live, I also think there is a fine line in between helping and consuming. As an example, since I started using Twitter, I have grown exponentially with my professional network and have learned about many new ideas and resources through my PLN members. It has been an experience that could not have happened without using technology as a part of my life. However, I have also seen how Twitter consumed my life in a negative way. I am not sure if I call it an addiction, but I do find myself needing to check my account for latest updates, conversations, and nonessential followings. Unfortunately, it sometimes consumes me while I ignore other important priorities in my life. This is when I need to realize the value and balance of using technologies such as Twitter, that you can jump in and out anytime without feeling the need to constantly check.
I am not going to go on a digital cleanse like some people have recommended, but rather rethink about balancing what is important in my life. Watching Digital Nation with my students has helped bring back perspective about balance in life. When was the last time I picked up a good novel and discussed it with someone? When was the last time I had a good debate in person about issues of the world? When was the last time I took a hike and enjoyed the beauty of nature. I am thankful I have maintained some digital perspective and that I need to realize when technology helps versus when technology consumes our lives.