Building an Adaptive Information System

By Putting People’s Needs First, One District Finds New Efficiencies in Technology Use by Jesse Rodriguez

When a student in our school district’s special education program moves to a new address, that information is communicated quickly and efficiently to every office that has a reason to know.

As soon as the new address is logged into the system, a series of automatic communications takes place. First, the system sends an e-mail message to the special education department indicating a change of address. Once that staff reviews the changed record and determines the change in location affects the student’s transportation needs, a staff member flags the digital student record, which triggers another automatic e-mail message to our transportation department indicating a change in transportation needs.

This system exists because the Tucson school district made—as its first priority—the ability to communicate districtwide quickly and reliably. We then built a communications network to make this happen, bought appropriate hardware and software, and finally built a new student record management system to take advantage of what was now in place.

Connectivity Counts

As our faculty, administrators, students and community members in Tucson have discovered, a well-planned information system in a school district significantly improves the ability of stakeholders to communicate easily and efficiently with each other. It also allows staff and students to take advantage of resources beyond the classroom walls.

During the past decade, a digital economy has brought—at least to many organizations, if not to most school districts—voice mail, electronic mail, fax machines, modems, satellite transmission and most recently, Intranets and the Internet.

Although we often think of computer technology in terms of hardware, software, fiber optics, and T1 transmission lines—and all those other foreign-sounding words—connectivity really does not begin with the hardware, software, and peripherals. It begins with people, specifically finding the right systems administrator to plan and implement a sophisticated information systems plan, and then pooling the expertise of many educators and technical people to create the links within the school system and to the world beyond the classroom walls.

Finding the right systems administrator really amounts to two choices: You can search really hard for one right person or you can become technologically savvy and become a systems administrator yourself.

Ideally, don’t put a penny into creating an information system until you have someone on staff with the skills to make the latest technology work for you.

The task of directing the information system for a school district can be overwhelming, particularly for an administrator struggling just to learn to use a personal computer. Technology is advancing so quickly even professionals in the industry have a difficult time staying current. How do you make those tough decisions regarding hardware, software, and operating system when today’s leading-edge technologies are obsolete within 18 months? In addition, how will you solve other key challenges including finding and retaining qualified personnel to run the information systems department? And how will you overcome the age-old practice of acquiring technology to meet a current need without considering how a new purchase can add value to the system so that the information system adapts to new technology and remains sustainable over time?

A Top Priority

It feels rather hopeless at times, but it’s not. Let me walk you through how we’ve faced these issues and continue to grapple with the challenges of technology at Tucson Unified School District.

Arguably the most significant task facing information system administrators is that of creating a high-speed communication network. At TUSD, with more than 62,000 students and 130 district sites (106 of which are schools), our communication network is our highest concern. Think of these networks as highways on which different types of traffic (voice, video, and data) traverse at high speeds delivering their cargo to specific sites or individuals. Just as our interstate highway system has made it possible to move quickly a wide array of goods and services across a great geographic area, so too will a well-designed communication network allow for a more robust medium on which to send voice, video, and data to where it is needed.

As technology becomes more pervasive, it will be these communication highways that allow interconnections not only between different technologies (voice, video and data ), but also between the individuals using the system. This fact makes an organization’s communication network even more important than the individual nodes on the system. To purchase powerful computers for a deficient communication network is like buying a Ferrari but relying on a country road to get where you need to be.

To ensure long-lasting connectivity we wire our sites with fiber optics and Category 5 copper wire. Individual school buildings should use fiber optics to create their communication backbone because this medium allows them to take advantage of emerging high-speed communication technologies.

Today the most cost-effective way to go from the "communication backbone" to the desktop is to use Category 5 copper wire. Category 5 wire readily supports transmission speeds up to 100 million bits per second, thus facilitating the transmission of voice, video, and data to and from the desktop.

Wiring a school building or central office, however, is only one part of the communication network. Every bit as important is a network’s topology. Think of the network topology as the rules and laws for transporting information on our highway. To date, 10BASET Ethernet is the most widely used network topology. It has proven itself reliable and easy to manage and will continue to be a good choice for the next few years.

Assuming fiber optics or Category 5 wiring is in place and Ethernet is the network topology of choice, some thought should be given to installing switching hubs to improve the performance of the Ethernet network. Switching hubs support 10 million bits per second,100 million bits per second, and even faster connections simultaneously. Regardless of which products are purchased, they should allow for remote management and configuration.

Line Speed

After decisions concerning fiber optic and copper wiring are made, the next issue is how to connect between schools and district offices: normal phone lines or high-speed dedicated lines. Normal phone lines transmit information reliably at no more than 33,600 bits per second, whereas high-speed lines, such as T1 lines, can transmit information at 1.5 million bits per second. T1 lines are clearly superior but speed must be weighed against cost.

Each of our district’s 130 sites are connected to the central office and to each other via high-speed T1 lines. At several of our 10 high schools, we installed two T1 lines to accommodate greater data transfer and voice requirements. All T1 lines ultimately end up at the central office where a dedicated T1 line provides access into the Internet.

Each school and central-office site has upgraded or installed telephone lines to either a digital PBX or key system, rather than the outdated analog PBX’s, which remain standard fare in many schools. The typical Tucson school site also has a Cisco router to connect the T1 line and the school servers.

Schools that still have analog PBX’s for data or voice connections outside the site should be upgraded to digital-based telephone lines when the time comes to replace them..

If built correctly, the communications network of a district provides schools with the ability to increase, at minimal cost, the amount of voice, data, and video that can be sent over the network. At some critical point, the communications over a wide area network will be as fast as within the local area network.

Vendor Reliability

Servers and network operating systems are another aspect of an information systems network. Although school administrators face many choices when it comes to computer hardware and a fair number when it comes to network operating system software, several guidelines can reduce connectivity problems. Two guidelines should rule: buy from a top-tier vendor and standardize wherever possible.

Compaq, Hewlett Packard and IBM make machines that have proven reliable. They have features that make managing them straightforward from the perspective of the information systems staff. For example, much of the equipment comes with error-correcting memory, which lessens the likelihood that the server will crash because of bad RAM (random access memory).

Also, servers from these companies support various RAID (Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks) schemes that not only provide a large degree of protection for stored data but are ideal for multimedia applications. Some configurations support the ability to "hot swap" a failed drive with a good drive while the system is in use. Look for machines that have additional features, such as support for multiple central processing units and redundant power supplies. These systems should be easily managed either locally or remotely.

Schools considering purchase of PowerPC-based server systems should give this careful thought. The jury is still out on how well the network operating system and other third-party vendors will support this platform.

Currently, Novell's Netware and Microsoft's NT Server are the dominant network operating systems in the K-12 education arena. Regardless of the product purchased, a key aspect of a network operating system is how it rates as an application server. The trend for network operating systems is that in addition to providing file and print services, network operating systems now are being required to provide other services such as the following:

* act as an Internet, Intranet and e-mail host;

* perform software distribution;

* provide linkages to SQL databases; and

* allow remote access to the network as well as other applications.

The more tightly coupled these services are to the core operating system, the easier it will be for information systems staff to manage these services. This ease of management is an important consideration given that schools will want their servers to handle multiple tasks out of the same box or operating system.

Adding these services to a network operating system will require that it be able to perform well under a greater load. Does the network operating system have a graphical interface making it easier to use? How well does it perform in a mixed environment of Macintoshes, personal computers, and mainframe systems? These questions are not trivial as they have enormous bearing on how much information systems will cost initially, how much they will cost to maintain, and what expertise level will be needed to keep the system running.

Standardized Setup

Having standardized in our school district on Compaq to provide both server and client computers, a school server will consist of a powerful Pentium-based Compaq Proliant or Prosignia computer running Microsoft’s Windows NT Server and NT SQL Server software. Which model is used depends on school size, but the key point here is that each server be set up identically.

As of this writing, the minimum client configuration allowed on the network is a Compaq 4000 Pentium-based computer with 16MB of random access memory and a 15-inch SVGA color monitor. Client workstations are running either Microsoft Windows 3.11 or Windows 95, though our intention is to move all client workstations to Windows 95 in the near future. Bay Networks provides the 10BASET Ethernet hubs and switching hubs.

Because we have standardized the key equipment used on the network, management becomes easier and cheaper. Using Compaq’s Insight Manager software, the health of all computers on our network can be tracked.

For example, if a server’s hard drive begins to degrade or if the hardware drivers at a school site become out-of-date, Insight Manager software will notify the district’s local area network’s operations group. Then they can take appropriate action long before the drive fails. (They may need to replace the hard drive, and can thus schedule a convenient time to do so, or if the hardware driver is the problem, they may need only to download the appropriate driver across the wire and remotely restart the computer.)

Using Hewlett Packards Openview software, the same can be done with our Cisco routers and Bay Networks hubs. Even asset management can be done remotely. With Microsoft’s SMS software, remote upgrades of operating and applications software are now possible. This level of standardization and purchasing equipment with built in "smarts" allows the district to do more with fewer people and reduce hardware maintenance costs by not having to stock multiple replacement parts from multiple vendors.

Integrated Software

Finally, we come to application software. Critical data is being generated at the desktop; therefore, serious thought should be given to the client hardware purchases made. The enormous number of choices complicate the purchase.

Choose software appropriate to your instructional and administrative needs. Yet be aware that the trend is to provide students with the same tools and software as business so both instructional and administrative needs are identical.

Purchase software that integrates well with other software. Software suites—those software packages that integrate word processing, spreadsheet, database and presentation graphics—are very good at this. One should look at those suites that provide cross-platform capabilities.

These software suite products should be e-mail enabled or at least e-mail aware since users may well create documents they want to send to colleagues electronically. The software should also be Internet- and Intranet-aware.

Software suites boast some practical advantages. Usually they are easier to support because of the degree of integration between the different applications. The amount of training required to make staff and students proficient in the software suites’ use is typically somewhat less than if individual packages with different interfaces were purchased. Finally, the number of staff required to maintain and support the system is typically fewer.

Use one vendor for both client and server systems to lessen the difficulty of managing and supporting software, and potentially requiring less personnel.

For selecting application software in Tucson, we relied on Microsoft’s Office suite for our productivity software (word processor, spread sheet, database, and presentation graphics), Exchange and Schedule+ for e-mail and calendar functions, and Internet Explorer for browsing the Internet. And because the application software is produced by the same vendor that produces our operating systems, we have only one vendor to contend with when we run into software-related problems.

By standardizing to such a degree, it costs the district only $4,100 to support one individual from a capital, maintenance, and training standpoint for three years. (This figure does not include salaries of support personnel or electricity.) The cost, however, is considerably less if the equipment is already in place.

The districtwide student-record management system that we designed in house—composed of an NT server, NT SQL, and Exchange mail—takes full advantage of our high-speed, high-reliability communications network. The network’s connectivity allows any site in the district to share and transfer student information.

For example, if a student withdraws from one school and goes to another, his or her records can be transferred immediately via the electronic network to the new school. With data now available instantaneously districtwide, we no longer contend with the problems of invalid or duplicate data that we had with our old system.

Valuable Expertise

Of course an information system is more than just hardware and software. It requires highly skilled people to implement and maintain. The harsh reality is that these people will be hard to come by, especially for school districts because of the low salaries paid in the education sector.

School districts that succeed in attracting highly skilled information management systems people will be those willing to pay market wages. These districts will recognize that the recruitment and retainment of skilled systems people is not only highly desirable but ultimately necessary because of the growing complexity of technology. The key to making this possible is understanding that information systems—staff and technology—can help organizations reduce overall operating costs even as costs related to information systems increase.

Those districts willing to take the plunge to build sustainable information management systems are likely to reap benefits similar to those experienced in recent years by the business sector.

Jesse Rodriguez, Director of Information Technologies, Tucson Unified School District No. 1, Tucson, Ariz.