IT Trends

What's on the K-12 IT Agenda?

With so much technology being thrown at it, the K-12 set has some choices to make this year. Budgets are tight; IT is evolving quickly; and administrators, teachers, and students alike are embracing new tools and software like never before. Balancing these three factors can be a challenge for the most tech-savvy school districts, all of which are being pulled into the technology age at an unprecedented rate.

Automating Administrative Tasks
So what's on those K-12 agendas right now, you ask? At Visalia Unified School District in Visalia, CA, Al Foytek, director for business information systems, oversees the business, human resources, and work order systems technology for the 34-school district. In that position, Foytek said his top priority this year is using automation to reduce both costs and time involved with certain functions.

"We want to be able to improve staff efficiency, and even [eliminate] jobs where possible," said Foytek. Recently, for example, the district combined Microsoft Excel and Visual Basic to create an automated data entry system for student absence log entries.

Right now the district is implementing PerfectForms, a program that allows users to design, develop, and use browser-based applications without having to learn computer code. "This is an ambitious project for us," said Foytek, "but we really want to be able to automate our forms." The district's administrative forms are already automated, he added, and soon teachers will also be able to take advantage of the system. "When we relieve teachers of the paper burden, they'll be able to spend more time with their students."

The move will also save money for the district, whose central duplicating department processes 10,000 to 15,000 forms (including accident forms, W-4 tax forms, and so forth) annually at a cost of $0.80 per piece. "Just getting rid of a few forms can give a staff member extra time to do his or her job and to be more efficient," said Foytek, who pointed out that many of the district's IT projects for 2010 fall under the broader category of "workflow automation."

In keeping with that larger goal, Visalia Unified School District is getting set up with an online portal that will allow it to purchase goods and services through a centralized, Internet-based utility. Using the system, the district can access catalogs from resellers, create a requisition, and then have its general ledger adjusted and the funds encumbered on the spot. "This service fits well with our automated forms processing," said Foytek.

Web-Based Learning Resources
Classroom technology is also on the K-12 agenda this year. Robert Miller, a fifth grade teacher at Port Orange Elementary in DeLand, FL, said the instructors at the 380-student school have embraced the Web as a source of effective, affordable IT tools. Teachers recently started using IT tools like Safari Montage (for media management and distribution) and BrainPOP (an animated educational site for students) in their classrooms, he said, and are looking to implement more online tools this year.

"We pretty much just reach outside of the classroom and use the IT resources that are out there," said Miller, who began using Edmodo, an application that connects teachers with free online educational tools, a few months ago. Using the system, he said students can keep up in real-time with assignments while out of school, "rather than waiting to get back to class to get their makeup work." Taking that concept a step further, this year Miller wants to replace his 4-year-old "static" classroom Web site with a more dynamic online presence that will serve as an "anchor for class collaboration."

Because many of Miller's IT projects are either free or affordable and involve no heavy installation or training, he said, putting them into use has been fairly simple, despite the budgetary constraints that all districts are facing right now. "A lot of companies are offering free services or educator pricing that makes the IT much more attainable," said Miller.

Putting Classroom Tools to Use
Day Rosenberg, director of upper school at Far Hills Country Day School in Far Hills, NJ, also wants to add to his school's IT toolbox this year. With 125 students in grades 6 through 8, the school has a number of technology projects in the works for 2010 and several more on the agenda. He said the institution is making the transition from being a "gatherer of IT equipment" to actually using the tools in the classroom.

"Now that we have the gear, we have to make sure the teachers know how to use it in the classroom," said Rosenberg. That means ensuring that those Smart boards, laptops, and projectors that the school bought last year are put into action this year, and not left to gather dust in the corner of the classroom as educators go about teaching in their traditional ways.

Realizing the power and allure of the Internet for students, Far Hills Country Day School is beginning to use student blogs this year. In the history class that Rosenberg teaches, for example, students just started using those blogs to develop paragraph structures, conduct research, and upload maps and charts that support their theses. "We're using blogs to do all of that right now," said Rosenberg. "The kids love it."

Looking ahead, Rosenberg said he'd like to see more screen technology (like Web-based cameras) and Internet communications (like Skype) being used in the classroom. Ultimately, he said, it's up to the individual teacher to actually use the tools, and to integrate them into the classroom. "When it comes to IT, professional development is essential," said Rosenberg. "You have to make sure your teachers are experts in technology the same way they are experts in the subject matter that they're teaching."

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