Technology has moved beyond the clunky desktop computer of the '80s and the simple cell phone of the '90s. Administrators have access to instant information at the click of a mouse, temperature control at the push of a button and security faster than you can say Marco Polo.

"Technology is bringing information available all over the world into the classroom at the click of a mouse or using a cell phone or a PDA," says Alfred N. Basilicato, chairman and CEO of Montgomeryville, Pa.-based Numonics. "Technology is giving unparalleled access in nanoseconds, and wireless is an added benefit."

Indeed, wireless technology is being implemented at the speed of lightning. "Wireless technology is becoming more prevalent in our industry," says Mark Rehwald, senior marketing manager with Buffalo Grove, Ill.-based Siemens Building Technologies. "It's making it easier to install devices and have them operate reliably. We're still not 100 percent there yet, but we're close."

Fortunately for administrators, technology developers are moving past adding bells and whistles for the sake of adding bells and whistles, and are now designing products that meet specific needs simply. "We have a unique point of view in regard to product design," says Mark Cummings, manager of Marketing Communications for Suwanee, Ga.-based PolyVision. "It begins with something we like to call FUMIFU: First Use Must Inspire Future Use. We like to design products that inspire people to use them."

Cummings points out that, if you've ever tried to program your VCR or do certain things on the computer, you know it can be difficult. If it's a tool you can live without, there's a pretty small chance you'll go back to try again. If you do try and fail a second time, you won't go back and try a third time. "Administrators want technology that's as simple to use as their toaster," he says. "You put the bread in, slam the lever down and wait until it's done."

As Lee Prevost, president and cofounder of Cary, N.C.-based SchoolDude, sees it, all this technology is doing two things to improve education. First, it's extending the boundaries of the classroom. Second, it's helping the limited staff do more with what they have.

Ironically, technology also has created a bottleneck. "One of the themes that we're seeing," says Prevost, "is that there's an unprecedented amount of technology stuff, but there's not been a commensurate amount of staff added to take care of the stuff."

The technology revolution isn't over yet — there's still more to be done. "I think that, since 9/11, the stakes have been raised, and it’s a different world today," says Larry O'Shaughnessy, director of Marketing in the Atlanta office of Schaumburg, Ill.-based Motorola. "I think that schools still have an opportunity to embrace technology a little bit more."

The following pieces explore some of the technology that's available so that administrators can see what tools of the trade they still have to embrace.

SIDEBAR Instant Communication Boosts Efficiency and Increases Security

"On your average K-12 campus, every staff member can substantially increase his own efficiency by using a two-way radio," says a spokesperson for Suwanee, Ga.-based Kenwood Communications. "That includes administrative and office staff, facilities and maintenance personnel, security, teachers and coaches both on and off campus."

That sentiment is echoed by two other instant-communication manufacturers: Reston, Va.-based Nextel and Schaumburg, Ill.-based Motorola.

"Part of the concern that administrators have is how to make schools more efficient," says Chris Hackett, a vice president with Nextel.

Thanks to a partnership with SchoolDude, Nextel's Direct Connect communication tool helps not only in day-to-day facility operations, but also in maintenance emergencies to make schools more efficient. "For example, if a principal is walking down a hallway and sees a light is out or a water spill, he can use his phone in real time and send a trouble ticket to the maintenance person, who may not even be in that building," Hackett says. "Trouble tickets can help prioritize jobs. They can even be tracked: how many were open, who opened them and how long they were open."

Also improving their product for greater efficiency, Motorola has just launched the Digital Two Way (DTR) portfolio of radios. "What's newsworthy is that they're digital, not like the tried-and-true analog radios," says Larry O'Shaughnessy, director of Marketing in Motorola's Atlanta office. "They allow you to speak from one specific radio to another.

"The old analog radios would have you talking to a channel using a frequency, and there could be one person or 400 people listening in on that channel," O'Shaughnessy continues. "In addition, the radios can be programmed to include a specific subset of users. I can talk just to my security staff, administrative team or janitorial staff — or all of them."

All three firms note that, in addition to improved efficiency, increased security is a major selling point for instant communication. "One of the primary requirements of a K-12 facility is assuring the safety and security of students, both to enhance their learning experience and for the piece of mind of all parents and guardians," says Kenwood's spokesperson.

A key use of instant communication is in transportation for bus drivers to maintain schedules, accommodate special requests and further assure student security, notes Kenwood's spokesperson. Plus, many school buses are incorporating AVL (Automatic Vehicle Location) technology into their mobile radio system for even greater efficiency and security. This has helped prevent or diminish the impact of many dangerous incidents involving school buses and passengers in recent years.

Instant communication tools work so well in emergency situations that Nextel's devices now also hold a school's emergency procedures manual. "We have wirelessly enabled that manual so I can take all the information in it and deliver it in real time to the principal, the teacher, the district administrator — whoever needs the information," says Hackett.

Instant communication allows everyone, whether teachers, administrators or crossing guards, to keep in touch and respond to situations more quickly to prevent small problems from escalating into bigger ones, sums up O'Shaughnessy.

SIDEBAR #2 Interactive Whiteboards Meet the Needs of Today's Learners

Today's K-12 students are technology savvy, using a range of devices in their everyday life: game systems, cell phones with multiple features, Internet-enabled personal computers and more.

"What we're seeing happening in the U.S. classroom is that students' attentions spans are less, based on articles I've read," says Alfred N. Basilicato, chairman and CEO of Montgomeryville, Pa.-based Numonics Corp. "They live in an electronic world and are bombarded every day by electronic devices. They've got to be fully engaged. If they're not fully engaged, their attention span disappears."

The solution to engaging students is interactive whiteboards. "The teacher can flash data in front of the students in a manner that's similar to what they're experiencing at home on their game systems," says Basilicato. "The major way this is helping is making sure that the information the teacher is trying to deliver is actually received — and in a manner that students today are accustomed to seeing."

Mark Cummings, manager of Marketing Communications for Suwanee, Ga.-based PolyVision, agrees, noting that the whiteboard is an interactive tool as opposed to a one- or two-dimensional tool. "The technology is a lot of fun. My wife is a teacher, and she talks about how the kids practically fight to come up and use the board."

To that end, interactive whiteboards have come a long way.

PolyVision's new product, Lightning, is calibration-free. "When setting it up at the beginning of the day, or if it gets out of calibration during the day, all you have to do is point the projector at the board and push one button," says Cummings.

Numonic's interactive whiteboards now come with a library of almost 2,500 clip art images that teachers can use to enhance lessons. Another enhancement is EZ Teach Studio content software. "It covers five different disciplines, and it's focused on elementary and middle school," says Basilicato.

Finally, Numonic's premier product, Interactive Presentation Manager, is the only product on the market that provides software that lets a teacher stack up to 11 URL sites in Editor and execute reaching those URL sites by touching an icon on the interactive whiteboard. "You can sequence the Websites in advance of your class and then access them during class without losing contact with your students or having to wait for files to open and close," says Basilicato.

SIDEBAR #3 Facilities Technology Provides a Comfortable Environment and Reduces Maintenance and Operations Costs

"Research has shown a strong linkage between well-maintained, safe facilities and student performance — as well as teacher retention," says Lee Prevost, president and cofounder of Cary, N.C.-based SchoolDude. "If educators and students are in a comfortable learning environment, they're more likely to be successful."

Not surprisingly, these sentiments are echoed by Greg Turner, director of Global Offer Management for Minneapolis-based Honeywell International. "One of the things we've learned about our customers is that the condition of the space has an enormous impact on the quality of the education environment," he says. "When it's too hot or too cold, you have to send students home.”

Another observation these men have made about technology on the facilities side of education is that it has become more and more affordable. So affordable, in fact, that now even the smallest and poorest school districts can use technology to make facility improvements.

"We're adding one to two new clients a day in both school districts and colleges — and the bulk of those are very small," says Prevost. "They're the small organizations that, before, were left out. They thought they couldn't take advantage of technology because of how complicated it was, how expensive it was and the base level of sophistication needed."

"One of the things that's really important is that there used to be technologies that only big districts could do and only made economic sense for large installations," echoes Turner.

Here's how technology is making it possible for all districts to tighten their maintenance and operation budgets — including small districts.

Facility Management Software. Austin, Texas-based MicroMain produces two kinds of facility management software: Computerized Maintenance Management Systems (CMMS) and Computer-Aided Facility Management (CAFM). Version seven of MicroMain XM is being released this month; the program's newest feature is contract management. In addition, the firm provides capital planning services for developing a Facility Condition Index (CFI).

MicroMain's technology provides the mechanism to ensure that facilities are maintained properly, essentially eliminating deferred maintenance. "Setting up scheduled maintenance activities, to ensure that a 20-year roof lasts 20 years, or even 25 years, translates directly into cost savings," says President Patrick Conroy.

Automated Building Management. Buffalo Grove, Ill.-based Siemens Building Technologies, offers building systems and services to make managing and running buildings more efficient. They also offer energy, maintenance and performance contracting services. "Our services save money so that school districts can focus on the business of education rather than the business of maintaining buildings," says Mark Rehwald, senior marketing manager.

Building Enterprise Systems. Honeywell's building enterprise system recognizes that the various components of a building are no longer separate and uses an open systems platform to tie them all together. The system sits on a LAN infrastructure to provide a way to manage facilities from a desktop computer. The firm's offering allows school districts to detect problems early, be more efficient and save operation dollars.

Internet-based Software. SchoolDude provides a suite of internet-based software that helps school districts effectively manage their support operations, including facilities and maintenance. The firm is launching a field trip application called TripDirect and recently launched ITDirect, which manages IT trouble tickets for incident requests. "Our suite of tools help extend the reach and services of a small, generally understaffed group of people, whether that be on the IT side or the maintenance and facilities side of the operation," says Prevost.