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Are Schools Getting Enough Bang For Their Technology Buck?

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Public school students using laptops in the classroom.

A new report give a substantial portion of U.S. public schools a failing grade for their inability to plan, integrate, and leverage new technologies.

Credit: edudemic

Despite the best of intentions, the nation’s K-12 schools still have many lessons to learn about how to utilize computer technologies most effectively in order to train students beyond basic skills and achieve optimal returns on their technology investment.

A new report titled "Are Schools Getting a Big Enough Bang for Their Technology Buck," released by the Center for American Progress (CAP), a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit "independent nonpartisan educational institute dedicated to improving the lives of Americans through progressive ideas and action," claims that a substantial portion of the nation’s schools should receive a failing grade for their inability to carefully plan, integrate, and leverage new technologies like the Apple iPad, PCs and laptops.

The report’s author, Ulrich Boser, a Senior Fellow at CAP, noted that students often confine their computer usage to practicing basic skills like drills and practice, instead of taking full advantage of advanced features and applications to assist in learning more complex subjects and functions, such as data analysis, spreadsheets, and graphics.

Compounding the problem, Boser said, is that state departments of education, with rare exceptions, don’t track the value – i.e., the Return on Investment (ROI) – that tablets and laptop computers deliver to schools. "The majority of schools and school districts have no idea of what value they’re getting for their investment," Boser said. "States collect data only on the presence of technology, such as the number of schools with high-speed Internet access."

The Digital Divide is still an issue as well. The CAP report revealed that students from high poverty backgrounds are less likely to have "rigorous training" opportunities for the use of tablets and laptops in STEM subjects. Students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds often don’t have such devices at home; consequently, they play catch-up in the classroom.

Keeping Pace with Technology

Boser acknowledged the issue is not black and white. "There are myriad external issues that impact the adoption of new technologies, and they vary from state to state and even by schools within the same district," Boser said. These include budget constraints; the state of schools’ technology infrastructures (including bandwidth and Wi-Fi capabilities); the extent of computing deployment and planning initiatives, and the technology proficiency of individual teachers.

Schools and educators are further challenged by rapid technology advances, which leave them scrambling to keep pace.

Successful examples of technology integration and usage in education typically involve the "three Cs:" communication, collaboration, and cooperation. Principals, teachers, and designated technology professionals regularly meet to discuss their needs and map out a deployment timetable and usage plans.

"You have to have a plan and execute against it," observed Neme Alperstein, a teacher at Public School 174Q William Sidney Mount in Rego Park, N.Y.

Alperstein said that while "schools love the tablets," getting the infrastructure to handle the infusion of equipment is problematic. "Who’s in charge of the WAN infrastructure? It’s never individual schools; the upgrades have to be done on a district level. As we add iPads, bandwidth demand increases exponentially," she said.

Sara Maultsby, a special education teacher at the Denton Elementary School in Denton, N.C., with 500 students in a low-income area, struggles with budgetary constraints. "We have to share iPads – it’s typically three to five students for every iPad or MacBook Mini," Maultsby said. Her school district has not yet conducted any ROI studies or assessed the impact of technology usage. "The head of the Davidson County School District sends letters asking us what we need with respect to technology. I requested an iTunes account to be able to download full versions of educational applications," Maultsby said.

Individual Initiatives

New York City’s Department of Education serves 1.1 million students across five boroughs in which resources and budgets vary widely. It’s often left to individual teachers like Ollie Fields-Thacker, an instructional specialist in technology, social studies, and special education, to promote technology initiatives at their schools. Fields-Thacker, who is also president/chairperson of the Association of Teachers of Social Studies of the United Federation of Teachers, had no prior background in technology, but took the initiative to integrate and deploy laptops, tablets and STEM-specific coursework into her classes, and pushed to adopt formalized technology coursework.

Both Alperstein and Fields-Thacker also applied for outside grants and demonstrated positive ROI. Alperstein said that meant "submitting projects that showed the iPad or computer enhanced learning and that technology was invaluable to the project’s completion." Her efforts paid off: P.S. 174Q had nine finalists in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s OPTIMUS PRIME spinoff competition.  James Pignataro, principal at Grafton High School in Grafton, MA, and Marcia Pereira, the school’s technology coordinator, likewise took the initiative to become technology adopters. Grafton started an iPad pilot program in 2011 for its 29 teachers and 230 of its 800 students. The school made a conscious decision to eliminate "drill and practice" sessions on the iPads (except for Special Education students).

Pignataro and Pereira also recognized the need to demonstrate the ROI derived from iPad usage. "We track ROI. In the first iPad pilot program, we found that students had an increase of 1-12% in their (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) MCAS scores compared to the general student population. We were able to use those statistics to get approval to alter our budget to get iPads for all students," Pereira said.

Beginning with the 2012 fall semester, Grafton HS has issued a 16MB iPad2 tablet to every student.

Despite ongoing challenges, educators agree that the addition of tablets and laptop computers has had a positive impact on students. "Technology is a game changer. It has changed the landscape of what students and teacher can accomplish," Alperstein said.

CAP’s Boser concurs but cautions, "In a world filled with technology, we need to continually ask ourselves: what’s the goal? Is the technology working for us, or are we working for our technologies?"

Laura DiDio is principal at ITIC, an information technology consultancy near Boston.


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