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« Getting the most from your tech dollar 5: Free is good | Main | Getting the most from your tech dollar 3: Sustainable technology »

Getting the most from your tech dollar 4: Right tool for the right job

Over the next few days, I'll be addressing some strategies school districts use to get the most from their technology dollars. See the full list hereAny budget stretching strategies you're willing to share?

4. The right tool for the right job: avoid buying a new semi when a used pickup will do.

For as long as I can remember, the rule of thumb for buying a computer or other piece of technology has been: buy as powerful a machine as you can afford to keep it from becoming rapidly obsolescent. And this has been easy since technology vendors are always happy to upsell on any purchase. You can never be too rich, too thin, or have too much bandwidth was my motto.

But the model is changing. Computer speed, processing memory and hard drive capacity have reached the point where even fairly low-end machines are fast enough for most purposes. Memory can be added to most computers when or if needed and servers are becoming scalable. Bandwidth can be monitored and regulated with packetshapers and other devices. The new rule seems to be: buy what you need for today's purposes, but make sure it can be upgraded.

Nobody wants to buy a semi when a pickup truck will do nicely for the task at hand. To prevent "over-buying," I try to ask these questions:

1. Is this a job for technology at all? Will a set of regular books do at less cost what a subscription to e-books and a set of reading devices would do? Can a print test measure as much as a computerized test? Will paper flash cards do what drill and kill software might? Is the cost of digitizing paper records offset by fewer secretarial hours? If a subscription to a service is not being used, does it need to be renewed? (And is anybody checking to see if the service is being used?)

There are only two reasons to implement a technology in schools: to do a task less expensively or to do something important than can be done no other way. Technology for the sake of technology is both stupid and immoral.

2. What exactly will be users be doing with the equipment? If the only use of a computer is to write papers and access the Internet, one does not need the most powerful computer on the market. Apple makes a great computer for creating video, audio and graphics, but there is little reason to use such machines in labs used for primarily for testing or learning management systems. Does the camera need to be 10 megapixel when all the images produced will be going on the web at a low resolution? Do second graders need any more than a Flip-like camera (or its successor) to make video? As schools use the Internet for both file and application storage (see next post), are a large hard drive or a CD/DVD drive needed? Do employees need a a smartphone with a data plan or just a cellphone? 

Do not buy over-juiced equipment "just-in-case." I've yet to see just-in-case arrive. Base purchases on actual tasks.

4. Where will the machine be used? Laptop computers have a high TCO (total cost of owenership). They usually cost more intially, break more often, need replacement batteries, and have a shorter life span. Does a classroom teacher need a laptop or will a less expensive desktop do the job? This is actually a sub-set of the previous question, but a good one to be asking.

5. Will a reconditioned machine do as well as a new one? We've been finding that reconditiones computers with new monitors, keyboards and mice that come with a 5-year warantee cost us about half the price of new computers. Again, what will the computer be used for and will the used machine do the job? If you do purchase reconditioned machines, use a reputable vendor, get a warantee, and make sure each order is made up of the same model and make of machine.

You won't win any popularity contests helping people answer questions like the ones above. But the lure of the new, the shiney and the over-hyped is very powerful force in the technology world. For the sake of smart budgeting, we must help others resist the pull of the dark side.



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Reader Comments (2)

I did a demonstration/training on SMART Boards for one of our elementary schools this winter. After I was done, the principal asked me "what should we start buying?" I responded, "what are your goals?" Figure out what you want to do and then find something that works. He didn't like that answer...

May 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNathan Mielke

Hi Nathan,

I am constantly fighting this battle - now with iPads!


May 27, 2011 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

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