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3 Tips for Building a Financially Sustainable Ed Tech Initiative

Veteran education leaders share their strategies for digital learning efforts that will last.

by Tanya Roscorla / April 3, 2015
School districts can build their digital learning initiatives one brick at a time as they seek to make them financially sustainable. By MR926 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], vi

Picture this: Your school district bought shiny new laptops and tablets for every student, and everyone's excited to try them out. When it's time to unbox the devices, lines of students stretch around the school gym as they impatiently wait for their new technology. 

But over the next few years, their excitement turns to frustration. The network moves so slowly that videos stall every minute, and loading a standard Web page takes what seems like forever. Their devices and wireless network desperately need upgrades, but the school district didn't set aside money to do them.

Many school districts can contract such a case of nearsightedness and shiny new object syndrome. Let's find out how to avoid these ailments and design a digital learning initiative that will last.

1. Create a Long-Term Plan

First off, a long-term perspective and plan help steer school districts where they need to go. With this perspective on finances and human resources, school leaders can make tough decisions about where to allocate resources over a 10-year period. 

"The moral imperative is to prepare children for their future and not their past, so that means providing the resource that will enable them to be successful in life is incredibly important," said Mark Edwards, superintendent of Mooresville Graded School District in North Carolina. 

A long-term resource allocation plan helps districts find out how much technology costs per student and whether that's reasonable. For example, annual government funding totals about $7,000 per student at the Mooresville district, which is ranked 102 out of 115 North Carolina districts in funding. Of that $7,000, it takes about $200 to $225 per student to pay for hardware, digital content, maintenance and infrastructure.

Spending 2 to 3 percent of this funding directly on student instruction makes sense to Edwards. If this lower-funded district can do it within its operating and capital expense budget, most others can as well. 

2. Repurpose Existing Funds

But to make this work, it's important to repurpose existing funds. Many districts don't buy textbooks anymore because they go out of date quickly and cost thousands to millions of dollars each year. By shifting textbook dollars to technology and open educational resources, school districts spend less money on more up-to-date tools. The Mooresville district purchases online multimedia content for about $75 a student — the price of one textbook — and the current content is better.

Districts can also stop buying physical resources including globes, maps and periodicals. Instead, they can shift to digital map tools and online subscriptions. With access to grades online any time, paper and copying costs drop significantly too.

When schools do get a levy or technology bond passed, they're in a good position to implement new technology, but should also prepare for the future. They can plan for the future by rethinking how to allocate capital resources in their budget to continue the initiative.

3. Invest in Three Areas

Along with repurposing existing funds, another key to building a sustainable initiative is to create a funding strategy that will cover the cost of devices, network upgrades and professional development.

"They may put devices in the kids' hands, and they may upgrade their networks into really robust learning environments, but the center point of all of that is helping the teacher to make the shift from a teacher-driven classroom to a student-centered classroom, and that doesn't come easy," said Debbie Tschirgi, director of digital learning services at Educational Service District 112 in Vancouver, Wash. 

To cover devices, many districts finance technology purchases so they avoid dishing out tons of cash at once. Mooresville pays for devices on a four-year plan with an option to buy. 

As for the network, districts like Mooresville use capital expense funds to pay for infrastructure upgrades. In Vancouver, the service district helps school districts apply for the federal E-rate discount program, which now covers internal network upgrades including wireless access points, switches and cable installation.

And when it comes to professional development, schools get the most value by combining training for two initiatives into one. This way, the district doesn't have to take teachers out of the classroom as much or pay twice the price for substitutes and speakers. 

Similarly, an investment in building up technology integration leaders within school districts will pay off in the long-run as these leaders start multiplying. That's what the Vancouver educational service district does by organizing leadership cadres.

As Tschirgi said, "It's all about a district making the funding of these 21st century classrooms a priority."

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