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This year, the challenge for schools to stay ahead of technology has never been greater. However, despite a weak economy and hiring freezes, the situation has also brought out creativity in purchasing and implementation.

When this year’s budget numbers for DePauw University were crunched, Dennis Trinkle had a problem. As the school’s director of new technology initiatives, he was suddenly faced with a 10 percent budget cut and a mandate to eliminate three staff positions. Yet school administrators still expected new technologies for its incoming students. Time to roll up the sleeves and get to work, Trinkle thought.

DePauw is far from unusual in trying to do more with less money. Cutbacks and layoffs have been rampant in the corporate sector as companies work to streamline, but schools and universities face a greater challenge beyond trying to stay profitable. They have to provide students with the best technology to prepare them for the world outside academia, while keeping costs in line to prevent serious tuition hikes.

This year, the challenge for schools has never been greater. The weak economy, directives to keep expenditures low, and widespread hiring freezes have taxed school IT managers to the Pepto-Bismol point. But the situation has also brought out creativity in purchasing and implementation, allowing schools to keep wired while keeping solvent.

Getting unplugged

Although they’ve always faced tight budgets, schools have often been ahead of the corporate and consumer arenas in the utilization of some technologies. Lest we forget our electronic heritage, remember that e-mail and the Internet were first widely used by universities after the government loosened control of the technology. The mascot for Fetch, that FTP dog with the disk in its mouth, is now a familiar icon around the world but it was once just a puppy at Dartmouth alone.

So, it comes as no surprise that as companies and individuals ponder whether to go Wi-Fi, many schools have already made the leap. Even some K-12 schools have thrown out the cables in favor of the “laptop for every child” approach. When they decide to make the switch, software and hardware vendors are eager to assist. In particular, Apple has rolled out an extensive mobile computing program that offers deep discounts and plenty of support to IT administrators in education.

Often, schools have found that it’s actually cheaper to go wireless than to put more desktops into labs and classrooms. The ability to cut costs and implement technology that students love is a compelling proposition, one that’s difficult to ignore for a budget-conscious tech manager.

Edmond Cooley, director of information technology at Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering, says that when the school was looking at what to purchase last year, one cost difference stood out.

“We saw that the cost of wiring a classroom in the traditional way was in the $10,000 to $15,000 range,” he says. “But for wireless, you bring one cable into the room, buy a $600 piece of equipment, and that’s it. So, you can make a classroom wireless for about $1,200 rather than 10 times that amount. That’s pretty compelling.”

Another consideration beyond cost turned out to be the minimal effort that wireless would present. Those beautiful old buildings on the Dartmouth campus may be lovely to look at while studying on the lawn, but for techies who have to drill into concrete, the beauty fades fast. Cooley says, “Let’s just say that back in the 1950s, they weren’t exactly thinking about Ethernet connections.”

At Greencastle, Ind.-based DePauw, wireless technology has been part of a major, multi-year drive to get unplugged. Trinkle notes that students and staff alike are enthusiastic about the campus-wide rollout of Wi-Fi. He says, “We think of it as being ubiquitous computing, which is important. We’re going to make it a requirement soon that all students and faculty members have laptops.” Even at smaller schools, the appeal of going wireless is compelling. Although it requires skilled administrators who can deal with more complex security issues, competing technologies, and compatibility troubles, the payoff is usually worth it, according to the newly unwired.

“Our wireless initiative is really exciting,” says Richard Parker, director of computing services at Claremont, Calif.-based Harvey Mudd College. “We started rolling it out slowly three years ago, and we’ve had a tremendous response from students and faculty. Usually, we try things out on a small scale and see what kind of reaction they get and based on that, we decide whether to expand a project. Wireless had huge response, and thankfully, it’s not tremendously expensive. The high return on the investment is pretty nice.”

Is it on sale?

While wireless initiatives may inspire cheerleading, the trend in tech purchasing is less worthy of rah-rah boosterism. In many cases, schools are having to make do with older technology that IT departments would prefer to just replace. Having to make minimal hardware and software purchases and blend in the ancient with the new requires more than a little creativity from tech administrators.

Nicole Hoier, director of the applied computing center at Melbourne, Fla.-based Florida Institute of Technology, says simply, “We never buy the latest and greatest.”

Instead, the tech staff watches R & D trends very closely, and monitors what’s happening with vendors. Like a shopper who’s waiting for a big sale on some coveted items, Hoier prefers to pounce when prices finally drop on mostly-new equipment.

She says, “We try to project for the next three years, then select upper- to mid-range equipment right before the introduction of a brand new line of products. This spurs those who hunger for the latest thing to stop purchasing midrange machines.”

Hoier also works with vendors who seem to have too much equipment, getting in on liquidation-style pricing that keeps her budget from boiling over. “Overstocked companies offer incentives such as free upgrades and shipping,” she says. “It’s at this time that we make our major purchases. And of course, we also look for companies that offer special educational pricing.”

The approach of choosing not-quite-new technology has become commonplace on campuses, and many IT departments are issuing new procedures for individual purchases. Louisiana Tech University has put out an entire tech purchasing handbook, and has purchasing staffers at the ready for any faculty who, for example, wonder if that Sony VAIO is really worth the price. Having such a coordinated effort is important when a school is trying to count pennies as well as dollars.

“If you band together to keep costs down, it works,” Trinkle says. “You can get the most out of your resources if everyone is involved.”

To combat rising licensing costs for software, Dartmouth’s Cooley spends a good deal of time negotiating with vendors that have changed their licensing approach. Often, he teams with other parts of the college to raise the number of students and staffers represented by a per-seat software license, since the higher the seat count, the lower the price tag.

Freshening up, kind of

Where tech departments tend to get taxed while keeping costs low is in doing upgrades, and schools seem to be especially hard-pressed to manage intricate upgrade schedules on a shoestring budget. Buying slightly older equipment and keeping previous versions of software can begin to be a headache for tech support, who have to navigate application incompatibilities and hardware issues.

The trend in the past year has been one that most tech support employees would rather not hear: few upgrades, based on directives to “make do for now.” Here, too, IT directors have to keep spirits up and machines running with a mix of creativity and savvy.

The Florida Institute of Technology tackles the problem by separating needs from desires. Sure, the students and faculty would love spiffy new software (and maybe an Alienware system to play “Counter-Strike”), but anyone who suggests it has to get through Hoier first. And that isn’t so easy.

“We feature everything our clients need, and nothing they don’t,” she says. “This is particularly true with server operations. We set our server lifecycle at three to five years. We have to do this because there are so many unknown interactions between operating systems and applications, so we wait for others to find the bugs. When platforms become stable, we deploy them.”

Students who are looking for the latest thing just have to wait, since Hoier says the university holds off on upgrades for up to a year after a software package is introduced, especially if it’s a Microsoft product. She notes, “We use a cautious approach, and have almost eliminated server and workstation downtime due to software conflict, failure, hacking, spamming, and virus attacks.”

Others have taken an even more stringent policy lately: no upgrades, period. Dartmouth tends to hold off upgrades until it becomes absolutely necessary, and Harvey Mudd College has done some network upgrades with recycled equipment.

For computers used by administrators, Mudd’s Parker says that they’ve increased the lifecycle by an extra year, and asked staffers to recognize that the machine they currently have in front of them is perfectly acceptable for their needs.

“We’ve always had a policy of buying the second-fastest machine,” he says. “There are certain places where you need the absolute best, but in general, what we have now is going to work just fine.”

Thanks to such tactics, educators can stay current, even on the most frayed of shoestring budgets.

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