Being a member of the Technological Committee for my local school district since its 1994 creation, I have seen first hand the exponential increase in the number of computers, servers, printers, white boards, digital cameras and other technology tools for faculty and students to access each other and the world. Striving to achieve student-to-computer ratios of 5:1, down from 20:1 or higher just 10 years ago—along with database systems capable of supporting the testing and administrative requirements for local, state and federal technology plans—has had a big financial impact on schools for the equipment, maintenance, support costs and ongoing replacements.
Additionally, schools depend on technology being integrated into curricula. School districts spend millions of dollars on technology each year without any decrease in sight. The U.S. Department of Education offers an Enhancing Education Through Technology program that was recently appropriated more than a quarter of a billion dollars to support technology in education. And, according to the department, the price of technology, coupled with other increasing educational costs, is causing school budgets to grow faster than inflation.
The uptime requirements for these systems increases as technology becomes more infused into the normal school day, which unfortunately is contrary to the mean-time-to-failure calculations for such equipment, and as the quantities increase, the equipment gets worse.
No longer are PCs only used for side projects that can be rescheduled if the systems are down. Attendance, grades and daily homework assignments are posted on password-protected sites, so parents can review their children’s progress. Budgets, schedules, college applications and the like are done through integrated computer systems. Distance learning, e-learning and virtual school programs are proliferating and only possible with the uninterrupted operation of the technology equipment. This sounds very similar to the business operations, for which many of the students are being educated to fulfill future roles. Speaking of similarity to business, what about the effects of electronic equipment on the quality of the electric supply in the school buildings, as well as the quality of the supply needed to operate all of the equipment properly?
Are schools different than an industrial or commercial site in this regard?
Yes, and no. No, since the equipment doesn’t know where it is located or who is operating it. Ohm’s Law and Kirchoff’s Laws, which govern how the effects of harmonics and load changes propagate through the electrical infrastructure, don’t change. The big question: are the buildings being rewired to accommodate these loads according to the recommendations of the IEEE and the requirements of the National Electrical Code?
In the national, state and/or local technology plans, are there any provisions or requirements to educate the maintenance staff on power quality? Is there any mention of upgrading the infrastructure to support these plans?
Yes, there is a difference between the business community and the primary and secondary educational systems. The latter basically ignore what many companies have already learned is essential to being competitive in today’s global economy. About the only mention of this on the department’s Web site is the following: “Most public schools, colleges and universities now have access to high-speed, high-capacity broadband communications. However, broadband access 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year could help teachers and students to realize the full potential of this technology, and broadband technology needs to be properly maintained.” What costs and training are allocated towards achieving these goals?
A review of the customer lists of several of the power quality monitoring companies shows not a single school district. Although some universities have heard the message, it often is driven by the uninterruptibility and system compatibility needs of the research groups at the universities. Many Web sites are dedicated to helping teachers use and integrate technology into the curriculum. Perhaps it also is time to educate those who support and maintain the IT equipment and systems that the educators rely on for their “end product”—the students of today and workers of tomorrow.
An often-quoted line from IEEE 1100 (the Emerald Book) points out that equipment “can be both a contributor to and a victim of powering and grounding incompatibilities in the power system.” Schools don’t get a free pass from power-quality-related interruptions to the educational process any more than business can ignore sags, transients, harmonics and the lot. If we are going to spend all of this money on technology for the schools, let’s see that it is efficiently and productively put to use.
BINGHAM, a contributing editor for power quality, can be reached at 732.287.3680.