K-12 Technology Trends | Feature

What's on Your IT Agenda?

Three K-12 technology leaders discuss key projects that are on their plates for 2011, which include beefing up student data systems, expanding online learning, and coming to some decisions about electronic textbooks.

With 2011 just around the corner, Scott Gutowski is already lining up new IT projects for Pittsburgh Public Schools, where he serves as director of IT initiatives. Using $40 million in funds awarded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the district will implement a Web-based student information system in 2011. Using that system, Gutowski said the district hopes to further empower its teachers, who will have access to a central repository of technical tools, collaborative technology, and student information.

"Our teachers are already using a single sign-on system to record and access the information, but the portal is going to make things a lot easier for them," said Gutowski. "They'll be able to access the technical tools through the new portal--and from anywhere--without having to log on to multiple sites." Gutowski said the district is just starting to work on the project, and plans to roll it out in 2011.

Also on the IT agenda for 2011 are more classroom technologies, including digital whiteboards and online curriculum. "We want to make sure that there is a [digital] curriculum for every grade level, and at every school-based site," said Gutowski, who pointed out that teachers aren't required to develop that online curriculum. His own wish list includes more whiteboards, and a "more robust strategy for addressing some of the technical challenges that the district faces."

Take the skills gap, for example. Gutowski said that while some educators are "strong IT users," others remain fearful of the learning curve associated with classroom technologies. In 2011, he said, his IT team will work to address those fears and other issues, all in the name of creating a more streamlined, efficient technology backbone across all schools.

At Seattle Academy in Washington, Doug Ambach, assistant CFO and director of operations, said several technological changes are in store for 2011. The private school's 600-plus students have been using classroom laptops on a 1:1 ratio since the late-1990s. The school also uses Smart boards, Google Apps, Moodle for content management, and "myriad other technologies that we've tested and implemented over the years," said Ambach.

In 2011, Ambach said, Seattle Academy plans to step up its use of online learning, but not necessarily to replace the traditional classroom environment. "When [students] come to us and want to add an online class, we have to be able to deal with that request," said Ambach. The school is currently assessing the various classes and delivery methods available online, and looking closely at whether those courses meet the school's educational standards.

The school is also examining the "whole e-textbook issue," according to Ambach, and talking to traditional textbook providers to determine the best way to transition over to the digital format. Because Seattle Academy is a private school, its students purchase their own books outright, making the school somewhat of a textbook reseller, said Ambach, who will continue investigating the e-textbook trend in 2011. "This is something we're examining closely, but it's not necessarily going to be put into action next year."

Ambach doesn't see budgetary issues derailing any of his team's IT plans for the coming year, but he did say that the school is being more conservative in terms of new project funding. "Enrollment has stayed high," said Ambach, "so we've been pretty consistent in our capital improvements for technology and with our operating budget."

With 19 schools and 17,000 students to manage at Rio Rancho Public Schools in New Mexico, CIO Paul Romero keeps a close eye on the budget, focusing only on those technology investments that provide value for the district. "Every time we deploy new technology, we look at ROI," said Romero. "I never go into a school board meeting without a detailed plan of how the investment will positively impact the schools and students."

For 2011, Romero said, the district's technology master plan will be overhauled to reflect all of the whiteboards, streaming media equipment, sound enhancement systems, and classroom PCs that were installed over the last few years. Up next, he said, is a more streamlined plan that incorporates new innovations with the existing equipment.

"We're talking to [users] for feedback on what's been done, how we're doing as an [IT team], and what more needs to be done," said Romero. "There's a lot of new technology out there, and we want to make sure that we're making good choices for the students."

A few of the projects on Romero's 2011 agenda include the introduction of tablet PC technology for students, an increase in mobile technology capabilities and a transition over to e-books. Romero also expects to sign more leases (versus outright purchases) for that new technology, and in the name of reducing the district's upfront costs. "We're trying to be as innovative as we can in stretching the dollar," said Romero, "because we're just not getting those dollars like we used to."

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