HARVARD — A top-to-bottom, soup-to-nuts, school-district wide technology committee unveiled its initial recommendations to an information-hungry Harvard School Committee Monday night. The hope is to lasso all the computer hardware, software, networking, wireless, telephonic, and technology-based curriculum needs in the public school system.
The report — bound, tabled and documented — was presented to the committee that is working through a draft copy of its fiscal 2013 budget, which will be voted on at Annual Town Meeting on April 28.
The projected price tag — whether the technology plan’s recommendations are rolled out over a one-, two-, or three-year time frame — was pegged at $362,257.
“That’s a large sum of money,” said School Superintendent Joseph Connelly. “That covers it all” as a one-time expense.
School Committee Chairman Keith Cheveralls deferred to a stream of fellow technology committee members who dissected their report in greater detail. Cheveralls lauded the report produced by the 10-member technology committee and consultant as “truly, truly impressive.” The committee worked in concert with education and technology specialist Bob Tucker at the Massachusetts Elementary School Principals’ Association (MESPA).
Historically, the committee has been peppered with technology purchase requests. It came to a crescendo last year when there was a $50,000 computer request for the Bromfield School. In the end, $25,000 was approved but the line was drawn that further technology investment needed to be part of a broader, comprehensive school district technology plan versus piece-meal fixes.
Gretchen Henry, assistant principal at the Hildreth Elementary School, said the state requires a three-year technology be posted to the district’s website. But beyond the requirements, the committee inventoried the networks, surveyed students, parents and teachers, and tracked the state and federal technology standards. Going further, the committee looked to reflect the technology “expectations” with regard to education in the system.
“A”-type computers are “high-end” multimedia devices with 1GB of RAM or better. The Central Office has 5, The Bromfield School has 160 and Hildreth Elementary has 71.
“B”-type computers are average devices with 256MB to 1GB of RAM. Central Office has three, Bromfield and the elementary school each have 66.
“C”-type computers are low end computers, of which the district count includes seven at Bromfield and 14 at the elementary school.
School Committee member Piali De did not like the report’s statement that students’ involvement with online courses through “Virtual High School” qualified in any way as technology instruction.
“I think that’s setting a very low bar,” De said.
Tucker said “670 voices” responded to online surveys.
“That’s huge,” he said. “Those numbers are fantastic.” Respondents included 86 percent of teachers, 40 percent of parents and 38 percent of students. Most were not aware of the district technology plan or goals. There was also a “high rate of access” reported at home, but not at school, to technology.
Tucker said the results showed “students have broader knowledge of social media then their teachers,” who mainly use computers to “email, Google, for Power Point presentations and word processing.” The goal needs to be increased use of Wiki, Blogster and podcast interfaces, along with Web 2.0 technologies for sharing information “online at low or no cost.”
Curriculum, too, needs to migrate into electronic formats. Parents aren’t aware of how, or if, children use technology, though parents support its use.
The goals include equitable access for all. As such, there’s a call for the purchase of 12 computers for Hildreth Elementary along with digital cameras and video for project-based learning. At Bromfield, the need identified is for 24 computers for research, projects and more.
There was also a recommendation that each teacher be given a laptop for school use.
“Teachers are ready to embrace opportunities,” said Tucker. Professional development would be needed, but also peer-to-peer learning opportunities would arise organically. Parents are “more than ready to embrace expanded communication between school and home beyond email” for grades, attendance, and record retrieval.
Gabriele Richard-Harrington is the integration specialist, providing one day per week of professional development support for teachers. She also served on the technology committee.
Middle-school students take a lot of technology courses, but they’re not mandatory. Meanwhile at the high school, such skills are necessary. In the fifth grade, students load flash drives but have no ability to use them in the computer lab in the library. It’s an eight-step process to save a file when younger children have different computing skills to master.
Richard-Harrington talked of the “mapping” of computer skills for grades 1-12 as divided into four equal grade quadrants. State standards were reviewed and the classes reviewed as to whether they’d, in general, “Mastered” a skill, or whether the skill was yet “introduced,” is “developing,” or in need of “extension.”
Richard-Harrington also defended the inclusion of online courses as a piece of the technology curriculum. She said they were increasingly part of “hybrid” learning environments in conjunction with a professor. “It’s giving them an incredible leg up.”
Townwide IT Manager Mark LaVirtue channeled Scotty on Star Trek when the USS Enterprise is being sucked into a black hole. “I’m giving her all she’s got, Captain!” said LaVirtue. The audience laughed.
But LaVirtue said the list of needs is “pretty straightforward” and have been prioritized into three buckets. The first two outstrip the third need — a new system-wide telephony system. That was considered lowest priority due to its lowest impact on direct learning.
Priority one was increasing the data throughput for Hildreth Elementary and Bromfield. The older cable network in place now was set up for video feeds, which was ‘great 10-15 years ago.”
“Will it work now? Yes. Will it support where we want to go? No,” said LaVirtue.
The second priority is pumping up the wireless infrastructure, especially as “these technology commodities become cheaper and more affordable.” Students and staff increasingly sport laptops, touch pads and smart phones that can ride the airwaves, and data is increasingly “cloud” (internet) based. The issue becomes bandwidth. “They want to connect to the Internet. They need to do that wirelessly. We’ve outgrown our current wireless infrastructure.”
The meeting was running long. Cheveralls asked his peers to launch one round of questions as the technology report was receiving its first public airing and would be back for follow up at future meetings. “Then we’ll see where that takes us.”
But committee member Piali De was insistent. “What’s our objective today?” She noted that the plan needed to be deliberated before the committee could decide how much, or whether, to include any information technology spending in the budget. “If we’re going to punt this, then I don’t care. But if we’re going to factor this into our budget, then there’s a lot of questions to be asked.”
Connelly said there are other funding sources available like the Devens contract. “You as a committee may decide it should come from those sources. We have enough challenges with the fiscal ’13 budget.”
Table it, special meeting, field questions — Cheveralls threw it open. “With the wonderful group you’ve gathered here today, I’d just like to ask questions,” said De.
First De asked LaVirtue to clarify the costs for the high-priority recommendations.
A wireless WAN is $10,000 for each school or $20,000 total, and $25,000 more for fiber-optics between the schools and a phone cost pending.
De wasn’t moved by the need for phones.
“My priority is direct impact on instruction,” De said.
But De’s tougher question was the linkage between the purchases and the curriculum.
“I am in no mood to fund all of these computers until I see how they will be used in the classroom,” De said, adding that in three years the technology is likely to be outdated. “I’m caught in this chicken and egg…”
The chicken and egg conundrum
What comes first — purchasing technology or having a plan to effectively integrate the technology?
“It is chicken and egg,” admitted Richard-Harrington. “With better equipment, we can get professional development to that point. Without it? No.”
Same with SmartBoards, she said. The technology grew in popularity because it was uncrated and put to use for on-the-job-training. “We can’t get there if we don’t have the tools to get us there.”
“IPads? This is a wonderful wish list. I wish I had a Christmas like this.”
Bromfield art teacher Martha Brooks helped design the district website. She said while the elementary school needs an updated laptop cart to wheel from class to class, “Bromfield never had one… We are back in the Dark Ages. At this point, I’m to the point where I cannot teach anymore. The software is five years out. Same with the hardware… We use technology every day in my classes.”
She said a peer shared her concerns over lunch, stating, “I have NT as an operating system.’ This is bad. Just give us the basics so we can teach our courses.”
Committee member SusanMary Redinger said “missing for me is figuring out the professional development piece. If we were to fund these things, there’s an enormous amount — especially at the Bromfield level — where students know more than the teachers. A lot of hours and perhaps money and resources is needed to get this to work and I don’t see any of that laid out or thought through.”
School Committee member Kirsten Wright said she has a student in the middle school and has noticed the “disconnect” between technology electives but also courses that demand technology skills.
“I hope you’re hearing a different set of voices here,” said Henry to the committee. “We want to move forward and keep moving the bar forward. We can’t do it with second-class, outdated hardware and software.”
The request needs to be funded, said Cheveralls. The spending isn’t included in the draft budget, nor is it before the Capital Planning and Investment Committee. “I’m going to need to some help to determine where to go with this.”
Connelly offered that the committee could provide linkage guidance on the professional development piece, though Richards-Harrington said that, as with most purchases, “I guarantee you don’t leave it in the box and read the manual. As you need it, you read the part of the manual you need to move forward.”
The group agreed that a direct curriculum tie-in was not necessary. The matter comes back before the School Committee for further review on Jan. 9.