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Technology at Your Fingertips
Chapter 1: Knowing What to Do

Chapter 2: Knowing What You Need

Chapter 3: Knowing What You Have

Chapter 4: Knowing What to Get

What Kinds of Things Should You Consider?

How Do You Decide What to Get?

How Do You Analyze Costs and Establish a Budget?

How Do You Document You Decision?

Chapter 5: Knowing How to Implement Your Solution

Chapter 6: Knowing How to Train Users

Chapter 7: Knowing How to Support and Maintain Your Technology Solution
Chapter 4: Knowing What to Get

Select a technology solution that best meets your organization's goals and needs, projected costs and expected benefits.

What kinds of things should you consider?
There are many things you need to consider before making a final decision (or a recommendation to the ultimate decision maker) about the desired technology solution. You know what you want and what you've got, and by now you have seen lots of examples and possibilities. Now you need to weigh these possibilities against your organization's capacity. There are many different labels and buzzwords commonly applied to these types of analyses (build versus buy analysis, feasibility study, alternatives analysis, etc.). Rather than focusing on the jargon, keep in mind these basic questions that must be answered:
  • What do you want to do with the technology?
  • What is the best approach to meeting your requirements (i.e., filling the identified gap)?
  • How much is this solution going to cost?
  • What will my organization gain from this solution? Is it worthwhile?
The first question embodies many more detailed ones (e.g., Should we build or buy? Do we upgrade or start over from scratch? Who will do the work? How long will it take?). Answering these questions should help you decide on what is the best technology solution for your organization. Deciding on a solution is not enough, however. You need to look at what the solution will cost and consider establishing priorities and looking for other funding to make the solution happen. Finally, the decision will have to be put into perspective as it relates to the goals of the organization. It should be answered partly through a comparison of projected costs to some measures of the expected benefits of meeting the needs you have uncovered. Everything you do in this phase will be critical for the final decision.

Because this phase is so important, you may need some help with these types of questions. If so, you may want to develop a small advisory team consisting of:

  • Someone very familiar with the functional requirements (perhaps a teacher, administrator or instructional supervisor).
  • Someone very familiar with current system capabilities (perhaps a technical support person).
  • Someone who has been through the system implementation process before, ideally in your organization.
If the solution must meet the needs of several types of users, it is probably best to have all types represented. Another approach, depending on the size of the organization, might be to bring in an outside consultant to more objectively facilitate this process. Sometimes the people involved in the planning process have preconceived ideas about the solutions. It may be necessary to have someone from the outside make certain that all voices are heard.

Considering Your Software Options (In the Office)
In years past, many organizations and businesses chose "a custom-developed solution" because there were fewer software programs on the market, and those that did exist were limited in scope. If you wanted a computer system to do something, you had to write computer programs or hire someone to write programs that would address your needs. Today, there is a much wider and richer commercial market of software products to meet many of the needs of education organizations. Still, it isn't safe to assume there are products that will exactly meet your requirements. You need to consider an array of possible solution approaches.

Chances are, your technology solution will include a number of different software products and applications. Some of these software products may work together efficiently because they are part of a suite (such as Microsoft Office Suite, SmartSuite, or Corel Office) or because they have been specifically programmed to take advantage of a particular operating system. Often, however, you will be choosing a set of software packages that do not relate to one another and may need custom programming to make them work together. For instance, you may choose a student information system package, a personnel information system package, and an accounting package from three different companies. If you want to use information from two or more of these packages (such as personnel and payroll), you may have to have special programming done to create an interface among them.

Figure 4.1 lists the key software design options you should consider for each type of software application you need.

Figure 4.2 illustrates that there is a trade-off between the amount of effort needed to implement these types of solutions and the cost of the solution. The trade-off between these components may be vitally important to your organization.

As you can see in the figure, the options are listed in ascending order with regard to the cost your organization would incur, and in descending order with regard to the amount of effort your staff would need to dedicate to implementing and maintaining the technology system. Note, however, that the diagonal line doesn't quite touch the corners of the rectangle, because all alternatives involve a bit of both. Even custom development is likely to involve some additional costs above and beyond the cost of program development such as having to purchase software development tools. On the other hand, completely outsourcing a function still requires some internal effort, if only to negotiate and administer the outsourcing contract.

Many education organizations find that many of their technology needs are handled best by service bureaus or outsourcing agents. If you decide this is the best solution for your needs, you need not limit your search for service bureaus or outsourcing agents to the commercial world. In many parts of the country, there are county and regional education agencies, college/university consortia, and state information management offices that offer technology services to individual institutions or school districts on a cost-recovery basis. Some states have well-developed cooperatives providing information processing to education agencies.

There are several key questions to ask when looking for a service or product that will meet the needs of your organization.

If you opt for a market survey in search of a software product, there are several published compendiums that you could consult, such as those published by DataPro and Auerbach. There are also many sources available on the World Wide Web that can provide copious information on commercially available products, and listservs where you can ask questions of colleagues in other parts of the country. Some of these sources are listed at the end of the book. Finally, with respect to software and software development, you will want to make certain that all applications are "web enabled." That is, the applications should run over the Internet and be viewable over the World Wide Web. While this raises security issues, they can be solved. And with web enabled software, you won't have to worry about the computers or the operating systems that are in use at your remote sites. (Translation: If a school system can't decide on a single operating system, web enabled applications will run on Macs, Windows or, even, Linux machines.)

Doing a Build Versus Buy Analysis
There are many aspects to deciding whether to buy or build a new computer and networking system. As you read in the last section, widely distributed, commercial software applications may not meet all the needs of your organization, either initially or over time.

key questions

Modifications or additional features may be desired. If you identify a software product that meets most - but not all - of your requirements, you should determine the options, costs, and staffing needs for modifying it to accommodate your remaining needs. If the product still seems to be a viable option, then contact should be made with the software manufacturer to ensure that support will still be provided even after you have modified the product.

Modifications that add or change a software product's functionality are generally feasible. Modifications to improve the speed or other aspects of a product's performance, or to enable it to run on different types of hardware, are usually not feasible. Therefore, you should not attempt to make them. Technical software compatibility and performance problems may reflect fundamental aspects of the product's code (i.e., formulas for operation) that can be changed only with great difficulty and by persons with a thorough knowledge of the program.

While customizing a current software product's features to match an organization's needs can increase the software's usefulness, and may eliminate or postpone the need to replace it with a different software product, the organization must determine that the costs of the modifications can be justified by the anticipated benefits. On a cautionary note, be aware that customizations to any commercial software product may cause your organization's copy of the software to become out of sync with the basic product, so that future releases or updates from the developer may not work with your customized edition.

Once you have answered these basic questions about software products, you still may have to address some additional questions about hardware. In some education organizations, some staff use IBM-compatible computers and software, while other staff use Apples and Macintoshes. Accommodating existing hardware may be more trouble than it is worth if the equipment is outdated or if your organization has computers using different platforms. There are still many glitches encountered when networking different computer platforms, although it is possible if the equipment is not too outdated and there is software available for use on both platforms. You may prefer to accommodate the platform wishes of your various staff members by spending the extra money and effort to develop a system that keeps everyone happy (rather than declaring that everyone must use the same platform). New solutions to networking are being developed every day.

key questions

Software for Classrooms
School districts should decide on specific sets of software that each classroom will have. Then, using an economy of scale, the districts can negotiate "site licenses" with the software vendors in order to reduce costs. Selecting the software to purchase could be difficult if different schools (or even different teachers) want different software packages. Some things, however, should be standardized. Microsoft Office Suite or Corel Office Suite are just two applications that can run on different platforms. (Remember the Mac vs. Windows war!) Beyond that, ask your teachers what they need.

Evaluating Your Human Resources
Once you have an idea about the approach you want to take, you need to look at your organization's human capacity for handling the implementation and support of the solution. The choice is generally among:

  • Internal user staff.
  • Internal technology or computer systems staff.
  • External technology/systems staff - employees of another affiliated agency responsible for implementing your technology (e.g., a state MIS department doing a project for a state education agency).
  • External contractors or product vendors.
Often a combination of several of these categories makes the most sense. Contracting for customizations or development makes sense when:
  • Staff are not available or are not trained or experienced for the task.
  • The cost for contracting is less than the equivalent cost of staff time.
  • The time line for completion is short and the contractor can meet it more easily than staff.
On the other hand, using internal staff makes sense when:
  • Local staff are trained and experienced for the task.
  • Staff fully understand the required solution and its functions.
  • Staff are available at the time of implementation, and their availability through the life expectancy of the software application is reasonably assured.
Resist the urge to make your decision only on the basis of who can get the solution initially implemented. Remember, someone will also have to support your technology on an ongoing basis afterward. When discussing the support and maintenance of your technology, be very specific about your expectations. For example, can a district afford to have a payroll system down for 24 hours? Can a classroom teacher afford to have a school network down for 24 hours? And what will the penalty be if the vendor is unable to repair the computer, provide a substitute, or fix the system in the allotted time.

When your staff is evaluating the resources needed to implement and support hardware or software, be certain that they consider the classroom environment. Since the most important activity of our "business" is the education of students, we must concern ourselves with what happens when a prepared lesson cannot be implemented because the system will not do what is expected of it. Is there staff at the school that can help the teacher? Can the vendor respond immediately?

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