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AAA-AA Technology Strategy

by James Punderson
Published in Inside Education September 2001

Ok, so you are probably asking yourself, just what the heck does AAA-AA Technology mean?  Well, did you ever notice in the phone book how the various vendors strive to have the first listing in the Yellow Pages so we are treated to AAA Air Conditioning who is then outdone the following year by AAAA Air Conditioning only to lose first place the very next year to AAAAA Air Conditioning. That’s not it.

AAA stands for Appropriate, Affordable and Available. When I started our consulting business, I phrased what we did as, “The Technology You Need, The Price You Can Afford, and The Assurance That It Works.” Same thing. And the other AA? It’s not what you’re thinking either. These recent additions (see, you do get wiser as well as older) are Acceptance and Adoption. I suppose if this were a Ph.D. dissertation I would start referring to these three words as “meta-concepts,” “First Principles” or some such abstract terminology. But I’m not and I won’t. But let’s just say that they form a checklist that must be considered in making all the decisions concerning a technology strategy, a mental framework to evaluate the various proposals, choose workable ones and successfully implement them in your district. Ignore this checklist at your peril!

Appropriate is First For a Reason

Before purchasing anything, the question to be answered is “Why; what’s it for?” If you can’t answer that question, the rest on the list don’t matter. The main thing to keep in mind here is to not be interested in a certain technology for its own sake. (Now settle down, all you gadget-lovers out there!) Purchasing equipment should be the end—not the beginning—of a tech strategy. Technology is a tool, not qualitatively any different than paper, pens, school buses, electric drills and so on. We don’t want it, the technology; we want to do the things that that particular technology will make easier, faster and/or better. (So when you’re checking out the newest nuclear-powered laser blackboard erasers, at least make sure you have some actual blackboards to erase). Technology, like all tools, when properly used, can both simplify existing tasks and make long-desired functions possible for the first time. 

Assuming you now know what task you’re trying to do, and you’re looking at different proposed solutions, you want to know whether each one can do the job. Is it the right tool for the job? One of my favorite cartoons shows a man behind a desk explaining why his computer is upside down on some papers. “It’s not that it doesn’t work as a computer; it’s just that it works better as a paperweight”.

Using Palm Pilots to write essays is possible but it’s the wrong tool for the job. Using cell phones for Internet access is possible but it’s the wrong tool for the job. And so on. One size does not fit all when it comes to technology. A laptop computer for younger children to carry around is a very questionable idea even though it very well may be a wonderful solution for older students and staff. Laptops are just too delicate, heavy and expensive to be a great solution for everyone.

Don’t Be a Hero

I suppose we all like to have the latest thing but it can be a real mistake in technology. It’s like having a brand-new car model; it usually takes the manufacturers at least a year to work out all the bugs. Or as we say about software, “Never buy version 1.0 of a program!” The same goes for the latest hardware. It goes double when there’s more than one manufacturer involved whose equipment is “supposed to” work together because they both use an “industry standard.” I remember looking at a proposal for a VOIP (Voice over IP—basically using your network and Internet connection as your telephone network). The vendor proposing it could not name a single school using this combination of equipment from different vendors and it later turned out the some of the software hadn’t been written yet. And as I asked the school, “Do you really want all your phones to be down whenever your network technician screws up your network. Just remember that you can always tell who the technology pioneers are; they are the ones with the arrows sticking out of their backs.

OK, It’s Appropriate but is it Affordable?

Don’t kid yourself. Just being able to come up with the money to purchase something doesn’t make it affordable. You have to look at the total cost picture. If a school spends all its money on hardware, budgeting little or nothing for training, maintenance and software, then that expenditure was not affordable because there will be training costs; there will be maintenance costs, there will be software costs.

Provide staff training or purchase another 50 computers? Hmm. Faced with that decision, all too many schools opt for the computers. Perhaps the Education Department’s 30% of the project training recommendation is too much but the 5% or less many districts allocate is certainly too little.

An area that some schools have studiously ignored in the past is computer software licensing. With the major vendors, especially including Microsoft) and the Business Software Alliance (BSA) sending out a barrage of threatening mail and advertising about software piracy and even pursuing legal action against schools it is not only unethical but also legally and financially irresponsible to install or allow to be installed unlicensed copies of commercial software. Their purchase must be budgeted for. [Many school people I’ve talked to over the years have taken the position that “We’re a school and they should give us the software for free so it’s OK if I buy (or borrow) a copy and then duplicate it on to all the machines in the computer lab. Well, maybe they should give it to you but they didn’t so if you really, really have to have that piece of software then don’t spend all your technology funds on hardware.] 

And consider this. If you purchase new technology, does your existing staff have the technical know-how to handle it, and even if they do, do they have the time? You may end having to send them for expensive training and/or you may have to hire additional staff members. All part of the affordability question.

Don’t Lose Your Balance

Again drawing on an example from our experience, many schools dramatically overspend on the network technology infrastructure—the hubs, switches, wiring, and servers—and then have no money left to buy enough computers. (The E-Rate program has only made this problem worse by funding ONLY the infrastructure and not the equipment needed to use it.) Or a district will run fiber optic cabling all over the school and have no money left to buy servers. Remember the network only exists for the benefit of the computers connected to it; without them it performs no useful work whatever.

Technology has been in the enviable position in many school districts in having what seems like almost unlimited funding thrown at it. Enjoy the ride, but don’t count on that continuing. At some point, if history is any guide, there will be a backlash and some other area will start to get the funding that technology used to get. It might be school renovation or staff salaries or field trips but it will be something.

Available—the Assurance that it works

You can’t use what the vendor never made work .As part of our project management services, we always offered to perform acceptance testing of the entire project when it was finished. The vendors did not get paid until everything they supplied was properly installed and fully operational. Do likewise.

You can’t use what you can’t keep working. If the technology is too complicated or the time demands are too high for your tech staff to maintain, then make sure you have appropriate service contracts with written response time provisions. One step beyond that may be desirable for certain critical technology areas such as e-mail.

For a steadily increasing number of districts, e-mail is now used for more than personal messages; it is THE district communication system, as essential as the telephone system or heat in the winter. Under those circumstances, everything can really grind to a halt when the e-mail server is not “available”. Making sure it is “always there” may require additional server purchases, additional staffing and so on. If you’re not willing to make that investment then you should do what some major corporations did, you should look into outsourcing your e-mail system to a company that specializes in providing that service.

Acceptance and Adoption—The Biggest Challenges!

By now, after billions and billions of E-Rate, state and local dollars have been spent, close to 90% of America’s classrooms have Internet access. I’d guess the percentage of them in which that access plays an important part in learning is a teeny, tiny fraction of that. What’s lacking is buy-in on the part of the staff. 

Face it, folks, many people who work in schools do not have a burning desire to learn new things. Their jobs are secure, pay raises are assured and the consequences of not being enthusiastic about every new thing the administration dreams up are not high. 

Buy-in comes in two stages. To keep our AAA thing going, we came up with Acceptance and Adoption to describe them. Both are necessary for success. Perhaps an example will best serve to illustrate their meaning: 

Let’s say that you, the superintendent, have found a great new Internet-based secure encrypted e-mail system for confidential documents. It is appropriate, affordable and available. School administration staff members, school board members, child study team members can all use it to send and receive highly confidential messages and documents with the assurance that no one else can intercept them in transit.  These groups think this is a great idea and it should be used in the school district. This technology has now reached the acceptance level. In principle, they love it but that is not the same as them personally using it. Notice the reaction to the proposed system was, “It should be used” not “I will use it”.

When the system is ready for use, those who do begin and continue using are usually described as the early adopters, the enthusiasts. Some of them may even have been experimenting with the system prior to its purchase. The critical moment is what happens next; will enough of the rest of the intended users start using it, will “critical mass” be achieved? If not, the project will fail and all the time, money and sleep expended in defining requirements, testing, installing, purchasing and training will have been wasted.

Or let’s suppose your district is beginning to use a new Internet-based technology to report, track and manage technology problems instead of your old system of paper forms and spreadsheets. What’s really great about the new system is that teachers and other staff members can report their problems on the spot and get instant feedback automatically as the problem is assigned to a technician and fixed. But if the staff won’t use it to report problems or the technicians don’t read their e-mail or don’t file their work reports using the system (and no one makes them do it), the system will fail miserably and the users will go back to calling on the phone to get action.

So an extremely critical part of any technology strategy is how best to achieve not only acceptance (“I buy the concept”), but also and more importantly, adoption (“It works for me”). Fortunately, if the earlier parts of your technology strategy are done properly, it won’t be an insurmountable task to win acceptance and adoption because the technology will have real, demonstrable benefits for the parties involved.

Getting that crucial last step accomplished is much easier if you follow these steps:

  • Make sure that you really had acceptance, that the users do understand how the system will help them do their job better and/or make their life easier.
  • Provide training sessions both before the system goes into use and then again afterwards for the stragglers who didn’t buy-in at the beginning and either skipped the training or refused to pay attention. 
  • Phase in the system, if possible starting with a function that is very easy to do but provides a great benefit. One thing we learned while completing many school wiring/internet projects was that the single best way to motivate teachers to use classroom computers was showing them how to browse the Internet and encouraging the school to use e-mail as the official communication channel. As I’m sure you know, both of these activities can be addicting. After that, it’s much easier to talk about filling in forms, taking attendance and other tasks because the users are comfortable using the system.
  • Keep soliciting feedback from the users about the ease of use and results of the new system. It may have been incorrectly set up and changes need to be made fast before the users lose confidence and interest.
  • Make sure that school leaders, both the formal ones and the informal ones, themselves use the system. Do as I say, not as I do is always a very hard sell. And if the school leaders themselves experience the benefits, they can sell the concept better. (And if they experience the almost inevitable teething problems themselves, the problems will get fixed for everyone much sooner.

AAA-AA—You heard it here first! 




James M. Punderson IV, M.Ed., is a former teacher, school board president, network engineer and author. He is the founder of Networks & More! Inc. (www.k12usa.com), an educational technology and e-rate consulting company providing Internet-based software services exclusively to schools. He can be reached at jpunderson@k12usa.com.

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