Addictions can be exciting.
Witness education’s evolving addiction to computers and the internet.
Payson schools have grown increasingly dependent on computers hooked up to the internet to administer tests, replace textbooks, show instructional videos, update curriculum, assign homework and do group projects.
But it’s expensive: As in $300,000 a year, every year, from now on, a sobered Payson School Board learned this week in a budget study session.
But schools have little choice, Payson Unified Director of Technology Victoria Andrews told the board.
“These items are critical in terms of why we show up every day — the kids. Everything is based on our network and our server infrastructure,” said Andrews.
Just since January, the number of documents created on the district’s system has increased 227 percent, said Andrews.
Unfortunately, these days, computers and servers and other hardware literally become obsolete every five years. The companies that make servers and Chromebooks and other equipment only provide software upgrades and patches for about five years.
In part, that’s because of the breakneck pace of technological change — with every generation of computers needing faster processors and more storage to handle the increasingly complex software.
But it also reflects a new reality: Hackers have learned to lock schools and towns out of their own computer systems and demand ransom to restore control.
That already happened to schools in Flagstaff and Camp Verde. They both tried to fix their own systems and suffered major headaches and costs as a result, said Andrews. The lurking hackers seeking ransom have made it much too risky to keep using equipment beyond the date manufacturers cut off support and patches.
“If hardware died on us or was exploited — the manufacturer is no longer accountable,” said Andrews. “The potential for loss of support on some of this hardware is serious. Everything is based on our network and server infrastructure — down to the phones for both security and instruction. Unfortunately, it’s not plug and play,” so if the servers change, everything changes. “It’s like your iPhone 4 case won’t fit on your iPhone 9.”
In the old days, schools would buy computers and software and use them for a decade. These days everything expires — and new operating systems often can’t use the old software.
But now the district faces the “end of life” date not only for its servers, but for many of the 3,500 Chromebooks students and teachers use in classrooms. Each Chromebook costs about $300, which includes the license to use the array of software accessed online to make the things work.
The district needs about $335,000 to replace the aging servers. It also needs to replace at least 2,000 of its Chromebooks, nearing their own “end of life” support from the manufacturer, said Andrews at a study session on Monday to prepare the school board for looming budget decisions. The technology needs merited early discussion so the district can order the equipment it needs — which won’t arrive for about three months. The technology department can then install the new equipment over the summer.
Last year, the district spent about $50,000 updating its technology, including buying Chromebooks, computers and servers. But it wasn’t nearly enough. The bill for upgrades threatens to balloon rapidly.
So Andrews recommended the district instead spend $300,000 a year leasing equipment so everything remains up to date and secure from hackers.
Andrews said computers have gone from being a luxury to a necessity — whether it’s taking the standardized tests on which the state bases school grades or updating the now digital textbooks students study on their Chromebooks.
“It’s not a luxury anymore — there’s a digital component to the math and English curriculum and we use our fleet of Chromebooks to do all our testing.”