Technology dependent on critical infrastructure upgrades

Posted Monday, Apr. 22, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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If those working for or attending Weatherford ISD schools have no idea who Harry Jones is, that’s a good thing.

As chief technology officer, Jones knows that if his phone isn’t ringing, that means everything is running smoothly. Unfortunately, as technology needs grow within the district, so does the potential for problems.

On May 11, Weatherford voters will go to the polls to decide on a $107.32 million bond. If approved, approximately $11 million will go toward technology upgrades for classrooms, labs and the network’s infrastructure.

“There’s so much people don’t see and in I.T., most people don’t realize it’s there and that’s good,” Jones said. “By the time they realize there is a problem with infrastructure, it’s pretty serious.”

Jones said the $11 million is divided into three “critical” areas but that they are all dependent on one - infrastructure.

“It’s upgrading the backbone of our network throughout the whole district,” he explained. “Right now, we’re running at 100 percent of our backbone capacity. Until we can increase the infrastructure, we won’t be able to grow as far as data services and being able to offer more.”

When WISD implemented the Bring Your Own Technology (BYOT) initiative a couple years ago, Jones said it was a success but there was a catch.

“It maxed out everything. We’re running at 100 percent from about 7:30 in the morning to about 4 in the afternoon,” he said. “The servers, the routers, the switches...many of them are over 10 years old and we’re still using a lot of the equipment that was purchased from the last bond; not just the computers but there was infrastructure in the last bond and a lot of the routers and switches we’re still using are going out.”

The district's proposal is to also have a standard classroom configuration that would include digital interactive whiteboards that would include a presentation station with a document camera, a wireless tablet that the teacher can pass to the students and the whiteboard.

“Think of it as like a mobile mouse and you can hand it to the student and say solve this problem and look what’s on the board and the student can pass it around,” Jones said. “It makes it a little more usable and it also increases the classroom wireless capabilities.”

With that, though, there would have to be an access point in each classroom.

“Right now at the high school, there’s about 17 access points and there’s way more classrooms than that and coverage is spotty and isn’t as fast as it needs to me,” he added.

Currently, only 40 of the district's 586 classrooms (7 percent) are equipped with digital interactive whiteboards.

“The biggest argument I’ve heard against the whiteboards has to do with the training but there would be training with the department of the whiteboards,” Jones stressed. “Right now, we have an electronic curriculum and this would give us a delivery method of that curriculum directly to the classroom.

“We’ve got a curriculum with lesson plans and what I envision the whiteboards to allow us to do is build an electronic conduit between the curriculum and the classroom and that’s where the real power is.”

Jones said with that, teachers can actually develop the lessons and put it on a server and they, as well as other teachers, can just pull those lessons over the server.

“They can pick and choose from resources and present it right there,” he said. “That’s where I see us heading. It’ll allow us to do more and be more paperless but right now, our biggest bottleneck is the infrastructure on the wireless end.”

The third section of the technology package has to to with direct student access to computers, mainly through updating computer labs and increasing the mobile laptop labs.

“Right now, most of the fixed labs are for specific classes and the mobile labs are for classrooms. You may have five mobile labs to share at a whole campus,” Jones said. “This will allow us to give one mobile lab for every three to five classrooms, depending on configuration of the campus. It varies a little with grade level and what the needs are.”

Jones said the biggest complaint he gets from teachers is about what they don’t have access to.

“They want access to more technology and right now we give them what we can but we can’t reach what they need and what they want,” he said.

A large number (about 80 percent) of the computers the district are using were purchased in the last bond package from 1999. This year, Jones said the department has had to reinstall anti-virus software on all the computers because the current software will no longer be supported on the machines. There have also been outages associated with the old equipment.

“We try to get them up as quick as possible but the main thing is the lack of speed has cut into instructional time,” he said. “Probably a good test is to ask a kid on the BYOT network how quick it is - their feedback to us is that it’s slow.

“The bad news is they’re using it to the point that it’s slowing it down and the good news is they’re using it to the point it slows down. It’s really encouraging to see them using it but you have to support it in order for it to be successful.”

Opponents of the bond question why the district would pay for computers and such equipment for 30 years but Jones said a majority will be paid off in the first five years and all of it in the first 15 years. The computer costs of $5.7 million will be paid of in five years, for instance, the digital whiteboards and Wi-Fi devices (about $3 million) would be paid off in 10 years and the infrastructure in 15 years.

“I want [opponents] to know we’ve addressed that,” he said. “The computer stuff that won’t last beyond a few years would be paid off first and the things that last the longest would be spread out over a little bit longer period of time.”

Because of the sheer number of them, the classroom upgrades are the most expensive but Jones said those can’t happen without the infrastructure and there is a large cost associated with that.

“You would build a strong house with a strong foundation and it’s the same analogy here, you’ve got to have the infrastructure to support the resources,” he said. “We’ve got to be able to give students the skills they need for after they graduate and in order to do that, we have to have the equipment.

“There comes a point where you can’t support growth and keep up with industry standards. We’re a ‘now’ society and we can’t do that on yester-year technology. I saw a kindergartner go into a lab, sit down and start touching the screen to get the computer to work. There is a certain expectation and we have to meet it.”

If the bond passes, Jones said the infrastructure would be upgraded first, then the classrooms would immediately follow.

Impact on WISD taxpayers

The cost to the average homeowner in Weatherford should the $107.32 million bond be approved would be about $15 a month (178.25 annually), based on the average home value in Weatherford of $130,000, less $15,000 homestead exemption.

The current tax rate of 1.40 ($1.17 Maintenance and Operations and 23 cents Interest & Sinking) would increase 15.5 cents to $1.555 ($1.17 M&O and .385 cents I&S).

Anyone 65 and older who has filed for the over 65 homestead exemption will have their taxes frozen and are not affected by the proposed election.

Early voting takes place April 29 - May 7, campus satellite voting will be May 2 (at all 11 WISD campuses) and Election Day is May 11.

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