If schools were being built today, they would look very different, said Hamilton County Board of Education member Greg Martin. He is also a member of the Technology Committee which met Friday afternoon to discuss how to bring the school system into compliance with the mandate that testing will be done on IPads by 2014.
Some of the school buildings are over 100 years old, said Superintendent Rick Smith, and it isn’t easy to set up spaces like that, with wireless Internet service so that it reaches every nook and cranny. Even brand new schools are problems because they are constructed with metal in the walls which interferes with reception. He said that is something that architects designing schools in the future will have to consider.
Cost will be the starting point, said Mr. Smith. Just to provide the infrastructure of Internet access, will cost around $1 million. To provide an IPad to every student K-12 will cost several million. The board members hope that various civic organizations may partner with the schools to help to fund the project. The increased power of centralized purchasing was emphasized as a way to lower the cost by buying in large quantities. The possibility of leasing the equipment was also suggested as a possibility.
Other considerations are the system’s current capabilities and the need for infrastructure to be flexible. By the end of 2013 there will be 100 percent Internet access in all schools. That doesn’t mean there is bandwidth available for 100 percent of the students, however. If too many devices are in use, the machines just won’t move, it was stated.
Another matter is students bringing their own personal equipment to school. If a personal device is given access to the school system’s Internet, there is a chance of security issues and that a virus might be introduced. With the right planning, this can be overcome.
In some schools, the PTA or community contributes funds and equipment. Mr. Smith said that what is provided, then becomes the property of the school. It would be wise for any equipment that is bought to conform to the plan of the system as a whole. Board member Jeffrey Wilson said this creates disparity with schools that don’t have the resources available to supplement what is provided by the system. To this, committee member Martin replied that he would never want to say no to those groups or communities that help the schools. He commented that if various PTAs pool their resources perhaps more equipment could be purchased.
Mr. Wilson continued by saying that there is a digital divide where schools with greater income have more technology and that issue needs to be addressed. He suggested partnering with as many organizations as they can.
Jonathan Welch, member of the technology committee, said that online learning is growing, and that there are many apps available which provide enormous potential. Some schools have purchased computerized-based learning systems on their own. Any new technology provided to the schools needs to be managed by the system to make sure they fit the technical network, said Mr. Smith.
This new technology is a totally different way of learning, said Mr. Smith. It’s not just about sending emails to students, or to take notes, but more importantly he added that they should be looking at IPads in terms of “instruction.” This system might also be used for security. It was suggested that federal funds might be available because of this.
Now, every principal has an IPad. In a strategic plan, implemented in stages, the next to be provided the devices would be department heads. Then all teachers would get the equipment and be trained on them before their students. Mr. Welch said if teachers are not comfortable using them to teach, the IPads could become “very nice paper weights.” This progression to go district wide, has taken two-three years in some school systems, it was noted.
Mr. Martin asked which schools in the local area and the Southeast had made the most progress in this regard. He was told that Huntsville, Ala., Greenville, S.C. and Pinellas County, Fla.,, all have similar-sized systems and demographics and have successfully implemented digital learning into their school systems. He suggested that the board members visit these to learn more about how it was accomplished.
In a statewide meeting last week, Superintendent Smith told the group that the Hamilton County School System is no different from the other large urban school systemin East Tennessee such as Nashville and Memphis. No one is ready for the 2014 deadline, but the date still exists to do online testing.
The next meeting of the technology committee will be Friday, Feb. 15, at noon.