My most recent column for the Madison schools’ family and community newsletter discusses the school district’s proposed technology plan. (The plan has been revised since I wrote the column so that devices will be provided for kindergarteners and first graders on a one-device-to-two-students ratio, rather than one-to-one.)
Here is what I wrote:
There is quite a bit going on in your school district these days. What seems to be getting the most buzz is the recently-released draft of a proposed five-year Information and Technology Plan for the district.
Most of the attention has focused on the proposal for one-to-one computing for students. This means that all our students would have wireless computing devices available to them when needed. The report calls for tablets for students K-5, with keyboard covers added for students in grades 3-5. Secondary students 6-12 would be provided with a notebook device. No decision has been made on the type of device. The devices would be acquired on three-year leases with insurance included for lost, broken or stolen devices.
According to the plan, a school district Student Computing Team will be assembled that will be drawn from the ranks of the various stakeholders in the project, including teachers and students. The team will advise on device selection and address policy issues like students’ ability to take devices home, screen time, students bringing their own devices (BYOD), filters and privacy settings, appropriate and responsible use, ands customization of devices. One advantage of the fact that we’re not exactly first out of the gate on a project like this is that we’ll be able to draw from experiences of other school districts and avoid some of the problems that the early-adopters ran into.
Other parts of the Technology Plan call for providing notebooks or similar devices to all staff and better equipping our classrooms, with interactive projection devices paired with white boards, document cameras, microphones, speakers and software. We’ll also update library media centers, create virtual learning spaces, and continue to maintain computer labs. We’ll need to upgrade our networks and servers, improve our systems for handling student information, including Infinite Campus, and, importantly, offer sufficient professional learning and technical support for our staff. In addition, the report mentions the possibility of a “student technical support program” that would “provide real world training to students while giving additional school-based support to students and staff.”
The draft Information and Technology Plan was just released a matter of days ago and we first discussed it at a Board meeting on Monday, January 13. The Board’s reception was generally positive, but good questions were raised – particularly about one-on-one computers for elementary students – that we’ll have to look into and work through. We are scheduled to consider approving the plan at our Board meeting on January 27.
How will we pay for it all? The plan calls for a five-year roll-out and this gradual implementation will assist us in incorporating the plan’s cost into our operations budget. The challenge in budgeting is accommodating year-to-year increases in spending in particular areas. Currently, we spend about $1.5 million per year on technology. Under the Technology Plan, this is projected to increase next year (2014-15) by about $2.6 million, up to a total of about $4.1 million. For various reasons, we are relatively well-positioned to absorb this kind of increase next year, without a big jump in the property tax levy. The remaining four years of the plan call for annual increases in spending that average out to about $1 million per year. While these are substantial sums, they should, with careful planning, be manageable.
Initial news reports on the plan mentioned the possibility of a referendum. Technology spending is best thought of as an ongoing, year-to-year operating expense and so does not resemble the kind of longer-term capital investments that referenda typically fund. It is possible that our school district’s long-term building maintenance needs may prompt us to consider a referendum, but the Board is not scheduled to take up maintenance issues until March.
In the long term, the Technology Plan projects annual technology expenses of about $7 million per year. This works out roughly to about $250 per student per year, which is in line with national norms. (How much do you spend per year per family member on technology? It adds up.) The fact is that the school district has been skimping in this area and we need to catch up.
My personal view is that it is not a question of whether we make a large investment in providing our students with improved technology but rather how we do it. Whether it is Kindergarten students with iPads or high school students communicating through some software platform I don’t understand, technology is increasingly prevalent in the lives of our students. If we are to prepare out students to be college, career and community ready, we have to provide them with the tools and help them develop the skills they need. We’ll also need an upgrade in technology to enable us to explore potentially effective instructional strategies, like “flipped” classrooms.
A one-to-one computing strategy should also help our students who have less access to technology at home and so could be a step toward bridging our community’s digital divide. To this end, we’d certainly look for opportunities to work with the city and other interested parties on efforts to make free or low-cost, high-speed internet access available in all our neighborhoods.
In the end, the path we pursue will be shaped by the understanding that any technology we acquire must be a complement to, and not a substitute for, great teaching, which remains the heart of our enterprise.
The formation of the technology plan benefited from a review of literature and best practices, and nearly 30 input and feedback sessions with students, families, staff, technology experts and digital media in education faculty from UW-Madison. You can find links to resources that helped shape the plan here.
Please take some time to look at the plan. If you have thoughts, questions, recommendations, or a reaction to share, we’d love to hear from you. Fire up the digital device of your choice, and send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you think we’re making a mistake by proposing to race headlong into this technology thing, let us know that as well. But you might want to deliver that message via the Postal Service.