The stimulus bill has put school districts in an unfamiliar quandary: how to spend a surplus of ed tech money. A broad section of educators offer their views on where a big surge of <br />technology funds would do the most good.
- By John K. Waters
With many districts still tidying up their ARRA applications, we got to wondering just what would be the most constructive way to use a sudden windfall of ed tech funds, unbound by the idiosyncracies of grant requirements. We put the question to a host of K-12 IT leaders: If you had a one-shot chance to spend a big sum of technology money, where would you begin? Here are their shopping lists.
Ask Elizabeth Knittle, technology integration specialist at the Barnstable Public School District in Hyannis, MA, what would be her first target, and she doesn’t hesitate.
“Bandwidth is definitely No. 1,” Knittle says. “With the advent of Web 2.0, we’re downloading content, creating content, and streaming video—and demand for network capacity just keeps growing. In the old days the teachers would be frustrated because the computers didn’t work, or they ran too slowly, or needed troubleshooting. Now, after you point them to great YouTube videos, interesting Discovery Education Streaming clips, or cool virtual worlds, they’re frustrated because the network is too slow. The good news is, they’re all doing it; the bad news is, they’re all doing it.”
The Fine Print
Is Broadband Eligible? (Sorta.)
The $650 million that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) earmarks for educational technology is delivered through the No Child Left Behind Act’s Enhancing Education Through Technology program. Typically, EETT funds go toward instructional technologies—digital content, interactive whiteboards—as well as professional development. The bandwidth piece—the servers and internet connectivity technologies—is usually handled by the E-Rate program, which, under the auspices of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), aims to help schools and libraries obtain affordable telecom tech.
This customary divide between the two funding pots has left some with the erroneous notion that broadband isn’t an eligible use of ARRA funds. The guidelines for the bill, US Department of Education spokesperson Jo Ann Webb points out, say that the stimulus money can be used for “acquiring connectivity linkages,” which would include broadband.
But while nothing in the legislation keeps districts from using the funds for broadband, some states have chosen to focus ARRA grants on 21st century learning environments, systemic reform, or additional professional development. The bill, however, does include several funding sources and programs that can be put toward broadband services. For a more detailed clarification, you can find a US Department of Education fact sheet at ed.gov/programs/edtech/factsheet.html.
Any school aspiring to deliver 21st century classrooms must first provide adequate bandwidth, Knittle says, not to mention the wiring and switches to handle all the traffic. She points to her own district as an example.
“When the schools were first built they put in internet access, with the goal of getting one connected computer into the classroom,” she says. “And that’s still basically our network infrastructure. We have 3,000 computers trying to run on a system that was set up for a few hundred.”
High-speed networking technology is a priority at Westerly Public Schools in Rhode Island, says the district’s director of technology, Mark Lamson. Lamson would send a surge of funds in the direction of any cost-effective technology that boosts the local network bandwidth. Westerly is currently considering a new system from Proxim Wireless.
“Virtually all the other educational technologies you use nowadays—laptops, web-based content, collaboration systems, etc.—depend on adequate bandwidth,” Lamson says. “And it’s true that many districts have a serious bandwidth gap. The WAN [wide-area network] networking infrastructure between buildings drives your ability to innovate everywhere else.”
Higher bandwidth also makes it possible to invest in cost-saving virtualization technologies, Lamson points out. “Until you get to a 100-megabit Ethernet handoff, you still have to have local servers in buildings, which means that you can’t really capitalize on the advantages of virtualization—collapsing your data center, driving down your costs by having less capital expenditure, lower maintenance costs. It’s a way of doing more with less that pays off long-term.”
Alice Owen, executive director of technology for Texas’ Irving Independent School District , agrees. “To me, broadband is the logical investment,” she says. “Everything is moving to the web, so broadband is quickly becoming a huge need for many districts. This might be a good time to use this one-time funding to beef up your networks.”
Owen believes investing in faster networking technology is a logical spend for another reason: It’s basically a one-time purchase that adds to a school’s capabilities, which she considers a critical consideration when the funding opportunity is not open-ended, as in the case of ARRA, which has a two-year window.
“People should keep a couple of things in mind about this money,” Owen says. “First, it’s meant to supplement , not supplant , existing systems, so this isn’t the time to think ‘rip and replace.’ You’re better off spending the money on a one-time purchase, not something that will need to be renewed every year, or that involves ongoing costs of any significance.”
The Department of Education has also advised against investments resulting in “unsustainable commitments” that continue after the ARRA funding expires—leading districts off what it calls a “funding cliff.”
Along with bandwidth, Owen says to consider a wireless upgrade. It’s another one-time investment with a long-term payoff that Irving has moved forward on. “We have a pretty good network in our district, but our wireless access points were actually becoming a network bottleneck,” she says. “We had a 400-Mbps capacity, but the access points would throttle that down to 11, because we were sharing them among 2,500 kids in our 1-to-1 laptop program.”
If you’re already sporting fat network pipes, Lamson suggests seizing on this opportunity to expand some proven classroom technologies. Westerly, for example, is using its share of ARRA funds to extend its use of a digital whiteboard-and-software combo from its secondary schools into its elementary schools. The RM Educational Software product includes a whiteboard and content package comprising educational software for math, English language arts, science, and geography.
“One thing I wouldn’t spend this money on is something like a 1-to-1 program,” Owen adds. “Things like laptops would be last on my list. That’s a recurring cost of hardware. Once the money goes away, how are you going to continue to pay for that? Also, watch out for software subscriptions, because you have to pay for them yourself after two years.”
Owen will get an argument from Shawn Nutting, director of technology for Trussville City Schools in Jefferson County, AL. Nutting contends that fast networks without widely accessible endpoints—laptops in student and teacher hands—are no more useful than slow ones.
“Until every kid has a computer in front of him or her every day, the 21st century paradigm doesn’t work.”
“I admit that it’s a chicken-and-egg kind of argument,” he says. “In a way, it’s impractical to consider these technologies separately. Hardware, software, networks—they’re all interconnected, and in so many ways interdependent.” And if he had the purchasing power? “If I have to pick one, I’m going with the chicken.”
Nutting says his district has done a pretty good job of getting teachers into a 21stcentury mindset. “Over the past five years, we’ve created what I would call a genuine paradigm shift,” he says. “But now we’ve hit a wall because we don’t have enough computers. Teachers don’t want to create a lesson based around software and web resources when their students can only get into the computer lab every four or five days.”
With netbook prices falling, Nutting says, Trussville is considering a program that would allow students to bring their own laptops to school, with financial support provided for those who can’t afford them.
US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan advised in the June 2009 issue of T.H.E. Journal against using stimulus funds on purchases that would necessitate future payouts for maintenance or renewal. “There are a number of one-time technology investments that make tremendous sense,” he said then, noting the need for data systems to track student progress and help teachers realize when instruction is working and when it is not.
“Until every kid has a computer in front of him or her every day, the 21st century paradigm doesn’t work,” he says. “I think people should keep that in mind when they’re planning their ARRA projects.”
The decision-makers at Center Grove Community School Corporation in Greenwood, IN, share that thinking. They have plans to use their ARRA money to fund the acquisition of a number of boxes—a netbook for each student in the middle school’s English classroom, a set of handheld response systems for the math and science classes, and student-teacher interactive tablets for the multimedia classrooms.
If the district’s director of technology, Julie Bohnenkamp, had her way, she would split the funds between the hardware and the infrastructure, saying there’s no separating the two in a well-functioning environment: You need more machines, and you need more broadband to allow them to operate freely.
“When you add all those boxes, and people are on board to use them but you have network bottlenecks, you’re going to lose the buy-in,” she says. “People will stop using what you purchased because it’s essentially not functioning. It becomes more of a problem for them than a solution.
“Knowing that the stimulus money was coming, we analyzed our wireless, increasing our backbone infrastructure from 1 GB to 10 GB. Then we launched VMware virtual desktop, deploying it and scaling it out so that we could increase our access without buying brand-new hardware.
“My advice—especially if you’re adding a lot of netbooks and a lot of additional hardware—is that you think about refurbishing your existing wireless technologies and getting all that in place first,” Bohnenkamp adds. “It’s absolutely true that it’s all interconnected. You can’t just think about the access on the student level without considering the back end and ensuring that you have that ready to go. You don’t want to plan a 1-to-1 project without having that in place first. It’s just counterproductive. ”
Kathy Schrock, administrator for technology at Nauset Public Schools in Orleans, MA, and founder of the Lighthouse Learning Island in the virtual world Second Life, isn’t sure yet how the ARRA monies will be spent in her district, but believes mobile student devices merit primary consideration—with a caveat about the “huge” associated investment in repair and maintenance.
“I like the netbooks or the iPod Touch as the tools of choice for students right now,” she says. “Our students need access to technology 24/7. An iPod Touch in a wireless environment and with useful apps—in other words, Google Docs, a web browser, an RSS reader, IM, Twitter—can serve as the basic collaboration, information, assessment, and creation tool for students. Can it create the final product? Probably not, so blinged-out production stations with fast processors, good video cards, MIDI keyboards, digital cameras, portable video cameras, good microphones, scanners, and the software to support them need to be available in pods so students can create whatever final product or project they are interested in.”
Like Bohnenkamp, Schrock says that computers’ dependence on adequate bandwidth means the first candidate for any influx of tech money has to be “the pipe.”
“Without an infrastructure that can meet the needs of online applications and easily scale for future growth, it becomes frustrating for teachers and students,” she says. “Technology should never get in the way of what one is trying to do.”
Schrock also advises against locking your school or district into a multiyear contract, which could keep you from taking advantage of the newer, cheaper, and better technologies that are bound to come along later.
Grant Strobel teaches technology education at Lake Geneva Middle School in Lake Geneva, WI. One of the biggest K-12 technology gaps he sees isn’t caused by slow networking technologies, a shortage of end-user devices, or outdated software.
“What’s missing right now in this picture are the people who understand and know how to use the technology,” he says. “If you’re really going for this 21st-century-classroom idea, the best investment you could make is in training teachers and administrators to understand things like wikis and blogs and social media so that they can educate kids on how to use all the new technologies they’re hit with every day.”
“I’m convinced that if teachers had the proper training, it would change the face of education.”
Geneva blocks social networking sites, such as YouTube and Facebook, for security reasons. But Strobel argues that the policy is really the consequence of a lack of understanding.
“All these things that could be so useful in an educational setting are not available in this school because our teachers aren’t trained to use them the right way,” he says. “Instead of thinking of those things as evil, we should be educating teachers to use them for positive things, and, maybe more importantly, to show our kids how to use them properly.
“I used to be cutting-edge because I taught fourth-graders how to use PowerPoint. If I did that today, I’d be laughed at. The technologies change so quickly now, it’s the people who need the upgrades.”
An investment in tech-savvy educators and administrators also has the potential to save K-12 school districts a lot of money, Strobel argues. “So many really good tools are available today for free on the web,” he says. “Open source educational applications, Google Apps, Moodle. Well-trained, tech-savvy people will open all kinds of doors that could lead to some real cost savings.”
Esther Wojcicki, who teaches journalism and English at Palo Alto High School in Palo Alto, CA, would also make teacher training the primary target for funding.
“Without it you can forget all the other stuff,” Wojcicki says. “We saw what happened back in the 1990s when they just gave computers to the schools. It was a complete waste of money. The computers just sat there.”
Wojcicki agrees with Strobel that the training should start at the top, but she would focus on training principals to use the internet effectively so that they don’t view the web as hostile territory.
“Principals rule the school,” she says, “and they’re afraid of bad PR. They’re afraid to go against the school board. The school boards are afraid too. There’s just a lot of fear out there among people who simply don’t know how to use the internet. But when you invest in training, all that fear just goes away.”
Palo Alto High, which is located in the heart of Silicon Valley, views the internet as a contributor, not an obstacle, to its students’ education. The school doesn’t block YouTube, Facebook, or Google. “We’re lucky here,” Wojcicki says. “We have a highly educated school board and a principal who’s open to all this stuff. All we block is pornography.”
Wojcicki, who also serves as chair of the board of Creative Commons, a nonprofit organization that facilitates the free sharing of creative and scientific content, is currently writing a grant proposal to develop what she calls a “web news literacy program” for ninth-grade English classes. “The idea is to train students and teachers to learn how to use the web as a tool,” she says.
Wojcicki views the reluctance of some K-12 districts to train students in the proper use of the internet as a serious failure. “People worry about online predators and they forget that students are already putting everything about themselves on Facebook,” she says. “Their fears are preventing us from teaching students the appropriate use of technology in the schools. They grow to be adults and they get ripped off left and right, because they can’t distinguish between an advertising website and an information website. They can’t distinguish between fact and fiction. These schools are abdicating their responsibility for teaching kids how to deal with the web.
“I’m convinced that if teachers had the proper training, it would change the face of education.”
Susan Gendron, Maine’s commissioner of education, says that teacher training is “absolutely critical and essential” and an appropriate destination for ed tech money. But so are high-speed internet technologies, she adds. And updated end-user devices.
“If I had to choose, I would put teacher training and support at the top of my list,” she says, “but I would also have to argue that you can’t do one of these without the other. It’s a three-legged stool.”
This article originally appeared in the February 2010 issue of THE Journal.