AISD Working Out Technology Costs and Kinks

Austin ISD goes on computer-buying spree

Louis Malfaro
Louis Malfaro (Photo by John Anderson)

There's a saying among technologists: It's never the right time to buy a computer. Next month's model will be faster, with more memory and better applications. But the Austin Independent School District is on a major buying spree, and the requirements of modern education mean waiting is not an option. "Technology's going to play an increasingly important part in how we deliver instruction to students," said AISD trustee Robert Schneider.

The district's 2008 bond issue, which pays for the investment, was originally planned as a technology bond, and that remained the biggest single component ($70 million out of $344 million). Several major infrastructure components, such as installing wireless on all campuses, have been completed, as has the replacement of 2,000 desktop computers and several hundred printers. Now the discussion revolves around two components: innovation stations and computer carts. "Innovation stations" is the district's term for integrated systems, including document cameras, hi-def projectors, and audio-visual equipment, that allow teachers to bring multimedia learning into the classroom. The computer carts are not only a way of transporting computers to classrooms but also a secure recharging and docking station for multiple laptops. As technical specifications are finalized, some trustees worry that the district is trimming the carts to buy deluxe innovation stations.

The original estimate for the innovation stations was $2,500 per classroom, but that's crept up nearer to $4,000. In part, that's come down to the district staff clarifying its needs, such as wanting ceiling-mounted projectors rather than mobile equipment on a cart. Part of the cost increase can be attributed to the district having a better understanding of what technology is available, and part was a result of technical necessity, such as needing more powerful projectors for larger classrooms. The plan, explained Gray Sala­da, AISD's executive director of technology, "is to install 1,500 classrooms this year, then another 1,500 next year, and then see how much money we have left and continue as far as we can go."

Staff believe that higher-end equipment, complete with warranties, will be a cost saver over time. In addition, the stations make televisions redundant, meaning the district will be able to pull out all its old coaxial cable. Staff are also balancing the relative merits of using smaller, less powerful netbooks rather than full-fledged laptops for their mobile carts, cutting costs from $24,000 per unit to around $12,000.

But some trustees worry that rising specifications and costs may leave some schools with either no equipment or a substandard substitute. Board Vice President Vince Tor­res is concerned that netbooks are being proposed because they are replaceable and cheap rather than because they meet students' needs. "I hate to be purchasing a throw-away item with bond money," he said. But Schneider said he liked the idea of a "$300 netbook that we can put all the textbooks on, plus give students fundamentals like word processors and Internet access." While smaller netbooks can't handle heavy-duty tasks like video editing, they will be supplemented by other, more powerful machines, and, he added, "It gives [students] a significant foothold into a technology environment that was not there before."

Once the vendor contract and the technical details are confirmed, staff will work on the rollout of the new equipment. Conscious of not leaving comparable schools lagging, Sala­da said the district will work with the eventual vendor to decide "the quickest, most efficient way to do it. The plan right now is to do the high schools, then the middle schools, then the elementaries." The exact order of campuses, he said, is still undecided.

The district has already started instructing about 1,100 teachers on using the stations as a teaching tool. Salada called them "the early adopters," who will serve as technology advocates and mentors to their colleagues. But Education Austin President Louis Mal­fa­ro said the district must get past "the bling factor" of new equipment and take teacher training seriously. While he applauded the district's decision to give every teacher a laptop and access to the data warehouse of school records, "We found the majority of teachers had never accessed the system." It wasn't technophobia: The district had never trained them "to use the data in a meaningful way to integrate it into the learning process."

Salada said the district is working on becoming more tech-friendly and pointed to innovations like the online grade book ParentConnection, which allows parents to access student records online. Schneider welcomed such changes but called them "way overdue" and said there is plenty left to do at all levels. If students are using electronic textbooks, he asked, why can't trustees get their weekly reports sent to them electronically? "There's no reason to be doing that any more. We could be using the same hardware to get our work done." Beneath that, he argued, are deeper questions about whether the district should look at open-source software rather than defaulting to a major vendor. "The community supports [open source] a lot more than the district does," he said.

Torres was equally worried about the lack of fiscal planning. As a former bond advisory committee member, he included a 10% contingency into construction bonds for budget overrun. That staff didn't have that same mindset for the tech budget, especially when prices and specifications can fluctuate so fast, he said, "doesn't give me a warm fuzzy feeling."

Schneider and Torres agreed that the district must do a better job of integrating technology spending into the regular budget. The current model of buying high-end equipment with big bonds once a decade, then supporting it with the state's annual $1.9 million technology allotment, just won't cut it any more, Schneider said, but "it's going to take a while to get out of that mindset."

Got something to say on the subject? Send a letter to the editor.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

READ MORE
More Austin ISD
AISD Picks a Search Team for New Superintendent
AISD Picks a Search Team for New Superintendent
Picking the pickers

Maggie Q. Thompson, Feb. 3, 2023

Superintendent Says AISD Will Honor Staff Health Accommodations Through End of Year
Superintendent Says AISD Will Honor Staff Health Accommodations Through End of Year
Online or in person? AISD readies for "all of the above"

Beth Sullivan, Oct. 30, 2020

More by Richard Whittaker
Wrecking Mansions and Perfecting Accents With <i>Abigail</i>’s Directors
Wrecking Mansions and Perfecting Accents With Abigail’s Directors
Tyler Gillett and Matt Bettinelli-Olpin take a bite out of vampires

April 20, 2024

Earth Day, Record Store Day, and More Recommended Events
Earth Day, Record Store Day, and More Recommended Events
Go green in a number of ways this week

April 19, 2024

KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Austin ISD, computers, technology, Vince Torres, Robert Schneider, Louis Malfaro

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle