Apr. 9--Tele-Communications Inc. is eyeing the education market in a big way with plans to provide a complete ``turnkey'' package of hardware, software and network connections to school districts on a lease basis.
The Englewood-based cable giant is doing its first feasibility study with the Douglas County School District. The school board gave the go-ahead Tuesday night for a 60-day, $35,000 analysis of the district's technology needs.
The contract calls for TCI to analyze what the district has now in the way of equipment; what it needs to connect schools, administrative offices and homes to a network; how to train teachers and staff to use computers in teaching; and finally a plan to assess whether all this technology actually enhances instruction.
Neither TCI nor the school district has commited to anything after the assessment is completed. But TCI thinks is has hit upon a solution to a problem plaguing most school districts - how to afford expensive new tools and keep up with rapidly changing technology.
TCI is serious about education, serious enough to form a new unit -TCI Educational Technologies Inc. - within the Technologies Ventures arm of the company. The company already has made a commitment to technology education through its J.C. Sparkman Center for Education Technology in Littleton.
The center opened last spring to teach teachers how to use new multimedia tools for education.
What makes TCI's turnkey proposal unique is that it's not a pilot project or marketing trial. It is a commitment from the nation's largest cable company to go into the education business. TCI clearly sees a potential revenue stream from education.
``It's the same approach as we take with entertainment,'' said Pat Wright, vice president of TCI's educational services. ``We'll sell a bundle of services to schools, not just cable connections but computers, modems, TVs, routers, whatever they need.'' The schools buy the package of services, which includes equipment, but not the equipment.
TCI sees it as a long-term relationship, Wright said. It entails a heavy upfront investment with the payback sometime in the future, but Wright says TCI is commited to funding it. He wouldn't say how much the company will invest.
TCI will be a value-added reseller, packaging equipment it buys from computer and software manufacturers and services such as training and technical support, which it will lease to schools.
Wright says it's a viable option that addresses three major barriers school districts face when they want to introduce technology. He should know what he's talking about: Wright was a high-school principal in Carrollton, Ga., before joining TCI.
``All schools face the same obstacles,'' he said - large initial investments in equipment, obsolescence as technology overtakes the life of the equipment and unpredictable costs.
Wright thinks TCI's solution will appeal to many school districts because the company, not the school district, owns the equipment and will trade out old pieces for new, and the pricing is based on a per-student cost.
``We are convinced as a company that you can't have metered access to the information highway. Our idea is to bundle all of the costs together and come up with a price per student,'' he said. That should make it easier for school districts to redirect money from existing budgets because they'll know how much it will cost, Wright said.
And the leases will be renewable at negotiated intervals. In Colorado, by law school districts can only enter into leases one year at a time.
Douglas County may be the perfect place to test the hypothesis. The district has 20,000 students and is adding students at a rate of 10 percent a year. It has 19 elementary schools, with three more slated to open this summer, and six secondary schools, with three on target to open over the next two years.
``It's hard to keep up with the growth,'' said Gary Murphy, director of technology for the district. ``When you're looking at technology, it's scary trying to predict what you need. By the time you can put it in, the needs have changed again,'' he said.
Murphy said all of the district's schools have computer labs, but classrooms with multiple computers are rare.
Wright said TCI research indicates that four to six computers per classroom appears to be a benchmark, but each school district's needs will be unique.
What appeals to Murphy about TCI's approach is that it makes wide-scale deployment of technology affordable. ``It makes no sense to float a 20-year bond issue to pay for something that has a practical lifespan of four to seven years,'' he said.
Initial TCI models indicate an average price range of about $200 to $275 per student per year, but Wright points out that could be on the high side. ``It depends on what they need and want.'' END!J&$3?DP-TCI
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