Technology is an increasingly important aspect of education in the 21st century, and between software, hardware and infrastructure expenses, education technology (edtech) can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, per school. How a school district spends the money allocated to edtech on an annual basis is tied directly to the corporations and vendors that provide them with technology—it’s a relationship that directly affects a school district’s financial resources, as well as the quality of education they can provide.
In the spring of 2022, Quantum Technologies and the Southern Door School District in Door County, Wisconsin began a partnership that has grown throughout the course of the past year to include the installation and support of its network infrastructure, while simultaneously maintaining the district’s technological and financial independence.
There’s no way around it—education technology is expensive
The most recent analysis available by EdTech Evidence Exchange found that, in 2019, “U.S. K-12 schools spent between $26 billion and $41 billion…on education technology.” That same study also estimated that post pandemic edtech spending during the 2020-2021 school year would exceed $50 billion. And, while breaking those larger estimates down can be a little tricky, it is estimated that out of the total annual expenditures, digital instruction materials accounted for roughly $5.4 billion of spending in 2019, while networks and devices accounted for around $15.5 billion.
The problem is, a lot of that money is wasted
When it comes to digital instruction materials—software like digital textbooks and apps like ABC Mouse—most are underutilized. According to data gathered by BrightBytes on 48 school districts that represent close to 400,000 students, 98% of edtech software licenses “aren’t used intensively, [and] a median of 30% never get used at all.” Indeed, a four-year analysis published by LearnPlatform in 2019 found that, of the total US schools spent annually on software licenses, roughly $1 billion was wasted.
Licensing fees for network and infrastructure technology can add up as well. “In general, school districts play within a certain vendor space—companies like Cisco and Heartland—that require really expensive licensing to run their appliances and infrastructure technology,” remarks Nathan Drager, owner of Quantum Technologies. “A lot of times,” he continues, “school districts end up handcuffed to network solutions, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to license, because ‘this is the way it’s done,’ and moving outside of that vendor space might have unforeseen downsides.”
When it comes to educational technology, what ultimately ends up costing school districts a lot of money is licensing fees.
What exactly is technology licensing and how does it work?
Technology licensing is a legal agreement in which a company—the licensor—grants permission to another company—the licensee—to use its technology, patents, or intellectual property in exchange for a fee or royalty payments. The licensor then retains ownership of the technology, while the licensee gains the right to use it for a specified period and in a specific way, as outlined in the licensing agreement. The licensee may also have the option to modify or improve the technology to suit their needs, but this is not always the case and is contingent upon the terms of the agreement.
Familiar licensing agreements—and the fees that come with them—are those connected to popular application software like Microsoft Office (which includes Excel and Word) and the Adobe Creative Suite (which includes Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign). When you download the Creative Suite, you have it on your computer, but it will not work until you’ve paid the monthly or annual license fee to activate the software. In a sense, you own the technology, but cannot use it (or activate it) until you pay the licensing fee.
The same applies to network and infrastructure technology. Ethernet/network switches, firewalls, mainframes, phone systems—the actual, physical pieces of equipment that create a school’s network infrastructure—are often sold to a school district by the company (or companies) that then license the software to run each component piece of hardware. “The school’s own the hardware,” Drager comments, “but they have to pay a licensing fee to use it. And, if they don’t,” he adds, “Cisco, or whichever company it happens to be, turns off the equipment. It’s like you both own, and don’t, own the hardware—it can be the worst of all worlds.”
The upsides to licensing network infrastructure equipment…
There are advantages to licensing equipment from large vendors. Particularly, as part of the agreement with the school, the company (the licensor/vendor) will set up the school’s network, or whichever portion of it they are responsible for.
“Additionally,” Drager notes, “when you have that licensing agreement and the hardware fails, the vendor will replace the equipment that same day. So,” he adds, “this is the route a lot of the biggest companies in the world go—around here, companies like Oshkosh Truck or DaVita Dialysis—and when their half million dollar network stack with hot spares needs replacement, it’s immediate.”
…and the downsides to licensing network infrastructure equipment
“But,” Drager continues, “school districts aren’t Fortune 100 companies—they don’t have the same financial flexibility those companies have, and they’re constantly battling budget constraints, so any waste—any unnecessary costs—can weigh heavily on the entire district and can reduce the quality of the education they’re able to provide.”
Aside from the high aforementioned costs associated with vendor-related licensing fees, there are additional downsides to licensing proprietary technology, which include:
The initial cost of the hardware: Often, the companies that produce hardware, and vendors that supply that hardware, are one in the same. If this is the case, the vendor supplying your firewall has little incentive to shop around for a cheaper, but equally effective, alternative. As a result, school districts often pay much more for their hardware than is necessary.
Multiple vendors: Generally, there isn’t one company or vendor that does it all—instead the vendor that supplies the network switches is different from the company that supplies the security equipment, and so on. When each vendor is responsible only for the hardware they install, no thought is given to the overall functionality of the whole system. As Drager describes it, “The different techs, each installing their portion of the network at a different time, end up creating this ‘spaghetti bowl of wires,’ with no care for layout or accessibility. This can create problems for the school district’s IT manager down the road—it becomes difficult to maintain and manage.”
Reduces the role of the IT manager: “The IT manager at any school (or business) wants visibility into their network,” notes Drager, adding, “They want to be able to see the dashboard and see which devices are connected—that’s literally what they’re at the school to do. Then, if an access point is non-functional, they can walk down the hallway and take a look at it—replace it if needed.” With multiple vendors, not only does the “spaghetti bowls of wires” reduce visibility and inhibit troubleshooting, often the IT manager is not allowed to address a problem per the terms of the licensing agreement. “Instead,” Drager says, “they have to call the vendor’s tech support, open a ticket, and wait for an authorized technician to come to the school to resolve the issue. This slows down repairs,” he continues, “and reduces the role of the IT manager to something like a ‘technology secretary’—scheduling maintenance calls with the different vendors.”
Upgrading Southern Door School District’s network infrastructure
When Quantum Technologies began providing IT support and services for the Southern Door School District, the initial project was the installation of a VoIP (voice over internet protocol) system to replace the aging landline phones. “We had a Cisco-based system—very old and obsolete,” recalls Josh Klopf, Technology Manager at Southern Door. “We ended up replacing it with a modern Grandstream system that Quantum helped us install and configure.”
“The Grandstream phone system is great,” Drager says, adding, “The office phones are full color touchscreen, and the cell phone apps allow for the complete integration of cell phones into the system. It’s a very flexible and cost effective system—a huge step up from a traditional, landline phone system.”
“Unfortunately,” Drager continues, “what we discovered when planning for the rollout of the new phone system, was that the network switches—the hardware routing data throughout the system—did not have capacity for the more high powered, VoIP-enabled devices. We were in a ‘cart before the horse’ situation,” he remarks, “and so,” he adds, “what we ended up doing was a complete technology refresh—an overhaul of the school district’s network.”
When Quantum began addressing the issue, what they found was several different switches throughout the building that were old, obsolete, and difficult to manage. “Distributed throughout the building,” recalls Klopf, “were a combination of Cisco switches, some very, very old Aruba switches, and HP Procurve switches. Quantum replaced everything with UniFi switches.”
“We also updated our firewall,” Klopf continues, “We went from an older Palo Alto to a newer and better functioning Netgate pfSense, which assisted with creating the DHCP scopes and the VLAN—all the different parts needed to protect our students online. From the bottom up,” he adds, “Quantum installed a new firewall, replaced all of our existing network switches, so we had better functionality, and updated our entire phone system to a VoIP system.”
“The firewall and network switches provide the backbone infrastructure for critical systems at the school—security cameras, phones, computers, Wi-Fi, door locks, smart boards—literally all network devices rely on this infrastructure to function properly,” explains Drager. “Implementing a technology refresh for the entire School District was a serious endeavor,” he adds, “it meant positioning an engineer at the school nearly full-time last summer to integrate all of the new equipment into the existing systems before the start of school in the fall.”
Cleaning up the network
After Quantum’s technicians replaced Southern Door’s network stack, they went a step further and got to work cleaning up the cabling and patch bays left by various other vendors. “We worked hard to organize the network—make it one integrated building,” explains Drager. “We tore everything out and rebuilt it from the bottom up. “All of the wiring,” he notes, “the routing, the integration of other systems now makes sense. Everything is labeled—it’s clean, it’s easy to maintain and manage.”
“Over the summer,” Klopf recalls, “Quantum came in and cleaned up the cabling mess in our main server room—they restructured it and rearranged it. Now,” Klopf adds, “I have one pane of glass to look under—I literally have transparency into our system. Before, when any issues would arise, I would need to outsource to a vendor, who would have the capacity to get into our system and make those changes. With the changes Quantum made, we’re able to locate wires quicker and solve problems faster—that saves us money in the long run, because we’re able to maintain our network independently, in house, with the support and backup of Quantum Technologies as needed.”
Extensive and perpetual cost savings for Southern Door School District
“We paid for multiple licenses to run our old phone system,” recounts Klopf. “For every phone we had, there was a license—with every line, we paid a licensing fee for the switches. By going with Quantum’s phone system,” he says, “we were able to entirely eliminate the licensing feature. This allowed us to add as many phones as needed to ensure optimal setup and safety for our school district.”
“And,” he continues, “because of their age, there were no associated licensing fees with older switches. However, if we had wanted to upgrade to newer, modern switches, we were looking at a whole new set of fees to utilize our previous vendor’s online resources. Instead,” Klopf notes, “with the switches Quantum installed, there’s no licensing involved—rather, we’re able to do cloud management through Quantum.”
“With regard to the firewall,” he adds, “we will purchase a smaller license for that as needed—just to maintain firewall protection—but it’s a far cry from what our previous network cost from a licensing perspective.”
“In licensing fees alone,” Klopf notes, “going with Quantum has already saved us, and will continue to save us, tens of thousands of dollars a year.”
Savings beyond licensing fees
Moreover, the Southern Door School District didn’t only save on monthly and annual licensing fees, they also saved when it came to the cost of network appliances. “The original, proposed cost for new Aruba switches,” recalls Drager, “was $445,000. Our alternative—the UniFi network switches—was $165,000. And, the Meraki firewall—their original upgrade path—was $45,000. The solution we sold them,” Drager continues, “was $14,000. We’re talking about saving the school 60% to 70%.”
“When you save a school over $300,000,” Drager explains, “having vendor-supplied hot spares isn’t really a necessity. Instead, they can buy two of every piece of equipment and build their own redundancy.”
“Quantum has done such a great job that we’re having them come back this summer to assist with a modification of the network,” Klopf notes, adding, “Essentially they’ll be setting up an area of the school where a new office will be located, ensuring that area has a clearer, more concise, and more organized network layout—making sure everything is rock solid.”
“Quantum’s dedication is—hands down—the best we’ve ever seen,” he continues, “When we’ve had issues with our network, they were here burning the midnight oil—making sure things were going to be working for our students as quickly as possible. I would absolutely recommend Quantum Technologies, and their products—the UniFi switches and Grandstream phones systems—to other school districts,” Klopf says. “Their care, their commitment, and their loyalty to their customers is both amazing and unbelievable.”
“Working with Josh and the Southern Door School District has been fantastic—it’s been a great relationship and partnership,” Drager adds. “Our children go to Southern Door, and we are all proud of Quantum’s involvement at the school—the sense of community is very strong.”
“Regarding cable installation, engineering and configuration of equipment, installation of devices, and follow-up assistance with maintenance and management, Southern Door is an ideal candidate for having a single vendor that provides end-to-end technology implementation,” Drager says. “Southern Door School District,” he adds, “is a top priority client, and we are looking forward to all future projects, and will continue to rise to any challenges they might face with their day-to-day responsibilities and operations.”