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September 1, 2014

As technology spreads, schools wonder how to pay for it

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Posted: Thursday, June 5, 2014 5:32 pm | Updated: 10:12 pm, Mon Jun 9, 2014.

JACKSONVILLE — When Kathan Spears began using iPads to teach her second-graders this year, she didn’t plan to trick them into learning. But that’s what happened with a new math program they used.

“They thought they were playing,” said Spears, who teaches at Jacksonville’s Kitty Stone Elementary School. “They were really learning.”

Spears was one of 320 teachers from 18 Alabama and Georgia school systems who attended the CORE Academy at Jacksonville State University this week. At the conference, now in its second year, teachers learned strategies to use mobile devices like Spears’ iPads to improve education.

Jacksonville is one of several school systems that have started technology plans through which they issue mobile technology like laptop or tablet computers to students, much as schools issue textbooks. But not all teachers or students will return to school with the same amount of technology in the fall. Just how some public school systems will pay to provide technology to students is still an open question.

No money is built into the state education budget to buy devices for students or to pay for the costly infrastructure it takes to operate them, state schools Superintendent Tommy Bice said Wednesday in an interview at JSU before the conference. Those systems which have found ways to launch technology projects have done so with local money and grants, resources that many school systems don’t have enough of, he added.

“What that creates is inequity between those who have local funding and those who do not,” said state Superintendent Tommy Bice.

Spreading the tech

The JSU technology conference developed from a partnership with Piedmont City Schools, which began issuing laptops to students about four years ago. The conference is designed, in part, to help bring all systems up to the same level, said Piedmont Superintendent Matt Akin. At the conference, now in its second year, teachers from across northeast Alabama meet for a two-and-a-half day workshop, attending classes taught both by peers and representatives of tech companies.

“CORE will help them get there,” Akin said. “We can work together to truly transform the whole region of a state instead of just individual communities.”

To make sure students are all getting the same opportunity in the classroom, some educators, including Akin, would like lawmakers to start allocating money to schools specifically for technology. A bill that would have set aside $100 million for that purpose, the Alabama Ahead Act, sparked debate in the Legislature during the last session.

The bill, backed by Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville, has twice failed to pass. Dial said if re-elected this fall, he will push the legislation to make sure all Alabama students have the chance to learn the same skills. He won his primary election on Tuesday.

“It’s just amazing what a dynamic change it has on those systems that have adopted it,” Dial said of mobile computing technology. “It’s where everybody is going. We’re eventually going to get there, it’s just that I’d like to get there quicker rather than later.”

Dial’s bill would provide funding for what educators have identified as the three key components for a technology plan: infrastructure, hardware and teacher training.

“It will basically be a carrot out there to those systems who don’t have that much to start with,” Dial said.

Bruce Ellard works for Cullman County Schools and is the executive vice president for the Alabama Educational Technology Association. He said Dial’s bill, if passed, would provide enough funding to kick-start technology plans across the state.

He also said the Legislature should set aside technology money on a per-student basis to provide a sustainable source of funding for technology in the future.

“We know what it can do, but we’re just struggling to find the money to do it,” Ellard said.

In Calhoun County, the city school systems in Jacksonville, Oxford and Piedmont, have issued take-home laptop computers or mobile devices to students. Piedmont reports higher test scores, fewer behavioral problems and improved attendance since officials started the plan.

Jacksonville and Oxford began their technology plans last fall.

Managing the cost

Calhoun County Schools has been slowly introducing a plan that allows students to bring their own mobile devices to class. That plan was fully expanded to all of the system’s 17 schools this year. The system this year also is completing an $850,000 infrastructure upgrade to provide more bandwidth at each school, to make it easier for more students and teachers to use the schools’ networks simultaneously. The money came from the system’s general fund.

To pay for all students to have the same kind of take-home device, the school system would have to spend at least $399 for each of its 9,300 students, according to Jenel Travis, Calhoun County Schools’ technology director. That would total $3.7 million.

Ellard said programs that give every student in a school identical devices can be better, but are expensive.

Such plans are easier for teachers because they don’t have to learn how programs work on multiple devices, an Apple iPad versus an Android smartphone, for instance. Allowing students to bring their own devices results in teachers having to modify their plans to work for multiple devices, they said.

It’s harder, Ellard said, for county school systems, which typically have many students, to afford the plans in which every student gets the same technology.

“It’s pretty much standard across the state that, on average, your city districts are going to have a higher income base than the county,” Ellard said.

Denise Berkhalter, public relations director for the Alabama Association of School Boards, said Alabama school systems of all sizes are taking various approaches to technology.

Schools in Baldwin County and Huntsville, for instance, are handing out the same device to each student, while Tuscaloosa County Schoolshas planned to outfit students at an underperforming school with technology, according to Berkhalter. Morgan County, Mobile County and the Alabama School of Fine Arts allow students to bring their own devices under “strict rules to aid their learning,” Berkhalter wrote in an email.

Berkhalter wrote that more important than the size of the school district is the fact that administrators are doing their homework to see what kind of technology will work for their school systems and their students as well as whether they can afford it.

Bice said more than one type of plan can help students. He said the important thing is that students learn to use technology in a way that prepares them for college or the workforce.

“The bottom line is that you at least have something,” he said. “You’re expected to be able to function in a digital environment.”

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