The IT Challenges Schools Face Regardless of Geography

The pandemic underscored the IT challenges schools across the country face.

When schools across the country abruptly closed in March 2020, many quickly appreciated the extent of their IT challenges, both in terms of hardware and software as well as teacher training and issues with student accessibility.

While more resourced schools could provide each student with their individual Chromebook, others scrambled to secure the devices necessary to conduct a high-quality remote learning program. Similarly, schools that had established online instructional platforms began using these tools at higher frequencies, supplanting in-person instruction with online instructional modules. By contrast, schools who hadn’t used–or even heard of–online instructional platforms had to launch the programs in real-time and train teachers accordingly.

Likewise, schools with predominantly affluent student populations had little trouble ensuring each family had access to wireless internet outside the school building. In contrast, high-poverty schools confronted frequent accessibility and technology equity issues. Even if a school could issue the student a device, it made little difference if they lacked internet access at home.

But while the pandemic underscored these challenges, it didn’t create them: schools across the country, regardless of geography, confront many of the same technology issues. Below, we outline a few of these challenges and discuss the trade-offs school leaders face when designing world-class technology programs that meet their educational needs.

Schools need a way to track and maintain their existing device inventory.

One of the most common technology challenges facing schools is tracking, maintaining, and replacing their existing technology inventory. While “device inventory” may connote student and teacher laptops, it includes so much more. From projectors, SMART Boards, and iPads to assistive technology and specialized equipment (e.g., hardware for a school’s robotics lab), a school’s technology inventory is often expansive, covering a range of educational contexts beyond the traditional classroom.

These challenges are particularly acute when schools allow students to take their school-issued devices home for extended periods of time. Until the student actually returns the device, it’s often difficult for the school to precisely know the number of working devices it has on hand. By the time students return their devices to the school at the end of the year, for example, only seventy-five percent may be in working order, requiring the school to make a bulk, last-minute purchase for the following year.

To solve these challenges, schools should ideally work with their in-house IT team or managed IT provider to create a “golden source” of device-tracking information that allows the school to keep tabs, in mostly real-time, of each of its devices. Suppose a teacher hears that a student is having an issue with their Chromebook, for example. In that case, the teacher can update the device tracker to reflect the issue and have the in-house IT team or managed IT provider follow up with the student or family and attempt to resolve it.

This process is beneficial in the budgeting context. By having an accurate gauge of the number of devices the school will likely need for the following year, school leaders can devote scarce fiscal resources to other instructional priorities that the school’s technology needs might otherwise eclipse.

Schools also confront issues of IT equity among their students.

As discussed above, most schools confront issues of technology equity within their buildings. These issues were especially visible during the pandemic, during which students without reliable internet access were sometimes unable to access the online instructional content provided to their peers.

While some of these students were eventually able to attend, for example, a local library or recreational center, these options simply weren’t available at the beginning of the pandemic. Some school districts got creative, parking school buses equipped with WiFi hotspots in low-income students’ neighborhoods in the face of these constraints. For the period of time when it was parked, the bus provided these students with reliable internet access that allowed them to engage with online instructional content, Zoom with their peers, and more generally take advantage of the school’s remote learning program to a greater extent than otherwise possible.

With this context in mind, schools have begun to invest in individual WiFi hotspots they can distribute, as needed, to students. At a relatively low cost, hotspots ensured that students who lacked internet access at home could still get online to complete their academic work. As with student laptops and other educational hardware, schools that effectively “track” these devices can also make sure they’re available for students beyond the current year.

Among other IT challenges, a lack of professional development can prevent teachers from fully utilizing their school’s technology resources.

Of course, a school’s investment in technology resources doesn’t mean much if teachers and, to a lesser extent, students don’t know how to use them. While many students are familiar with standard computer functions, content-sharing systems and can generally intuit basic technology concepts, teachers are far less fluent in many of the latest educational products.

For this reason, schools must invest the necessary time and professional development resources into training their teachers on the school’s technology. For example, during the school’s professional development days before the school year, school leaders can conduct multiple sessions devoted to the school’s online instructional platforms, student information systems, data and assessment platforms, Google Classroom, and content-management systems like Google Drive. Beyond these basics, school leaders might also offer optional sessions that take a “deeper dive” into the topics covered in the more general, whole-school sessions.

The school can also regularly “assess” teacher fluency in its educational technology resources by requiring teachers to regularly engage with its student information system or data and assessment platform. Rather than simply asking teachers how their students are doing in a particular subject, a school leader might instead ask teachers to pull a custom report that displays students’ attendance, social-emotional, and academic data alongside one another. Teachers who don’t understand or seem to struggle with creating the report can then be targeted for interventions that get them up to speed.

Without regular use of its technology resources, a school may fail to see a return on its investment in educational technology. More generally, a teacher who isn’t schooled in the ins and outs of the school’s technology resources can’t possibly help their students make the most of those resources for instructional purposes.

Schools must also constantly make the most of their limited financial resources.

It should go without saying that schools aren’t made of money, either. In some jurisdictions, the pandemic may have even resulted in decreases in schools’ per-pupil funding amounts, requiring them to stretch every dollar further than ever before.

For many schools, it’s tempting to invest in an “as needed” IT service package in which an external IT provider only charges the school for the services it performs rather than a flat fee that covers the whole school year. With increasing technology use in classrooms across the country, however, this temptation is often misplaced. If a school’s wireless internet goes down, a switch needs replacing, or the school scales a one-to-one student-device ratio across its grades, replacement and troubleshooting costs can quickly add up.

For this reason, it often makes sense for schools using an external IT provider to seek out a flat-rate plan that provides a guaranteed level of support in exchange for a quarterly or another regular fee schedule. Of course, more resourced schools might invest in a full-fledged in-house IT team, but this isn’t something the majority of schools across the country can stomach.

Investing in a comprehensive suite of IT services not only gives the school peace of mind that its standard technology issues will be taken care of but also provides more predictability in costs: if a school knows with one-hundred percent certainty how much it needs to spend on IT services in a given year, it can invest resources in other instructional or non-instructional priorities and avoid “surprise” charges that a fee-for-service model can yield.

While it may seem counterintuitive, less isn’t always more when it comes to a managed IT provider. With instruction increasingly shifting to the online space, schools will gradually be forced to reckon with any shortcomings in their IT support programming and, in some cases, have to expend precious time and energy on problems for which they should ideally seek out regular support.

At CTS, we help schools tackle their most pressing IT challenges so they can accomplish their unique missions.

Our team has decades of experience in the educational technology sector and has worked with more than sixty schools across the United States to accomplish their unique missions. From schools just starting out to more established schools or networks with multiple sites, our team has worked in various educational contexts and can develop solutions to meet the needs of your school regardless of geography, enrollment, or instructional model. Contact us today to learn more about our services and how we can help your school accomplish its unique mission.

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