Schools Graduate to Imaging

Schools give imaging high marks for reducing paperwork and building virtual student portfolios.

by / May 31, 1998 0
A second-grader's crayon drawing of Thanksgiving. A school district's personnel records. An invoice for notebooks. A 10th-grader's essay on the origins of the Civil War. With 46 million students in 85,000 schools, our public school system is awash with paper in filing cabinets, desk drawers and student lockers.

Five years ago, the idea of using document imaging to manage school paperwork would have been far-fetched. Not many schools had networked computers, either in the classroom or in administrative offices. Most computers were either Apples or Macintoshes -- platforms that have received little support from the imaging industry. Finally, few schools had the resources to purchase an imaging system. Equipping an office with as little as 15 users could cost several hundred thousand dollars -- the kind of money most schools don't have sitting around.

However, the penetration of technology into schools -- grades K-12 -- has grown considerably since then. The number of computers in instructional use in public schools has skyrocketed 186 percent, from 2.2 million in 1991-92 to 6.3 million in 1996-97, according to Market Data Retrieval -- a Dun & Bradstreet firm that compiles information on the education market.

Local area networks have also increased and are now found in 65 percent of all schools. The use of Windows-based PCs has also steadily grown to the point where they comprise 44 percent of the instructional-use market and are the computer of choice in 66 percent of administrative offices.

These numbers have created a fertile ground for document imaging to sow, and the New Haven Unified School District typifies the type of school system that is planting imaging technology. The district encompasses Union City and a portion of Hayward, Calif. -- two bedroom communities 30 miles southeast of San Francisco.

Wired Schools

The school district's population is large -- with nearly 14,000 students -- ethnically diverse and expected to grow in the years to come. In 1993, the school district's voters passed a $27 million bond issue to build a massive information technology infrastructure to meet the rising demand for computerized education.

Classrooms in all six elementary, three middle and two high schools are locally wired and are connected to each other and the district's administrative offices by a 100 Mbps fiber-optic wide area network. Included is a analog, two-way video network that's linked to all the schools.

While imaging currently plays a small role in the district's overall technology program, it has proved invaluable. The administrative offices were suffering from a classic case of record management overload, according to Roger Hoyer, assistant superintendent of technology. "A school district's personnel records are substantial," he pointed out. "We were always having internal problems as to the location of files. As the problems went on, the superintendent wasn't anxious to continue buying filing cabinets."

Hoyer and his staff began looking for a document imaging system that would support the district's Macintosh and Windows PCs. "My one priority was to have an open system that ran on industry standards," he said. In 1994, the district awarded a $240,000 contract to Blueridge Technologies for a 20-seat Optix document management system.

Optix runs on a Sun Sparc 20 server and supports 20 users. Each of the district office's five departments has a scanning station. Workstations for viewing documents are a mix of Macintoshes and Windows PCs. Document images are stored on an array of gigabyte hard drives.

In the four years that the New Haven Unified School District has had imaging, nearly all employee files have been scanned and are stored on the server. Since New Haven has a concurrent user license with Blueridge, individual schools can log-on to parts of the system that are accessible to them and remotely view documents on an occasional basis. "If a principal at a school wants to access the file of an applicant for a teaching position, we no longer have to print duplicate copies, then mail or fax them," said Hoyer. "They now have access to the applicant files over the data network and can view them at their desk."

In 1996, the district invested another $150,000 in its imaging application, upgrading the software and replacing parts of the system. According to Hoyer, the upgrade corrected some of the major shortcomings of the original system, including some badly performing hard drives. Among other start-up problems (not related to the software) the district faced was developing an appropriate -- and coherent -- index for the files. "We had a half-dozen false starts," Hoyer recalled.

Other problems have revolved around the system's Computer Output to Laser Disc (COLD) application. COLD can reduce printing costs by storing computer reports and records, such as bills and purchase orders, as images. However, according to Hoyer, the images are taking up too much storage space. Otherwise, the school district has seen some significant productivity gains through better management of its paper documents.

Student Portfolios

Where imaging has not taken hold at the New Haven School District, and at most other schools in the country, is in the area of instructional computing, but that may change. In 1996, 74 percent of the country's school districts were either currently or planning to implement some type of student portfolio management, according to CCA Consulting. Of that group, 77 percent rated imaging as their top choice for managing the portfolios, which could include actual student work and student records, such as grades and assessments.

The New Haven School District's long-term goal concurs with this trend. It believes imaging will play a significant role on the instructional side of education in the years to come. "These days, the evaluation of students is really being done with student portfolios," explained Hoyer. "Schools are faced with the issue of how to collect samples of student work and move them along with the student from year to year."

Hoyer doesn't see New Haven expanding its existing imaging application to include portfolios -- the Optix system isn't designed to be used by teachers and students -- but rather contracting with another vendor to build a system designed for instructional use. That system would be integrated with the Optix system.

At the end of each academic year, teachers would flag certain items that had been saved by them and the students and would transfer them over to the Optix system for long-term archival storage. The electronic file for each student could be easily located, updated and transferred to another school by the fiber network or, if it's a new school in another town, by disk or even CD-ROM.

"The new system has to be easy enough for a student or teacher to use and has to be able to store anything, including a recording of a student reading a poem or a full-color image of art," Hoyer pointed out. "It can be a video clip or a crayon drawing; we don't care what they put in there."

The district's plan is still in the formative stages, developing its vision of what the portfolio system will be and what it will be capable of doing. "We see a lot of opportunities, if we move down that road," said Hoyer, "but we haven't gotten there yet."

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