High cost of high-tech
While Oregon school officials have spent months hammering out plans for another referendum, talk has mostly centered on upgrading old buildings or securing school entrances.
But another big-ticket item is gaining attention. The number of computing devices in the Oregon School District – from iPads or other tablets to PCs, laptops or smart phones – is skyrocketing.
Most officials see that as a good thing. Teachers are learning to use those devices to let kids work at their own pace, catch up on old lectures or – in some pilot programs – upend altogether the traditional classroom model of teachers lecturing to a captive audience of 25 kids. Today’s teachers need modern tools, the thinking goes.
But maintaining those devices, and beefing up the Internet connection they rely on, is no small matter.
Last month, district technology director Jon Tanner presented a report outlining the district’s technology needs over the next decade. It said the district needs more bandwidth and more wireless “access points” to keep up with the times.
Meanwhile, the district is continuing a push to customize education for each student, an educational trend that’s likely to put even more tablets and laptops in students’ hands.
Add in the training that teachers would need to effectively use the new gadgets for instruction, and Tanner’s report suggests OSD could need to spend an extra $1.4 million by 2015.
“The district’s technology program has strategically poised us to take the next step toward personalization of learning for all students,” the report concluded. “Taking advantage of this opportunity requires significant investment.”
Tanner noted that his cost estimates are “extremely rough.” That’s understandable considering how rapidly prices for the latest technology changes.
That being said, more than half of the estimated $1.4 million comes from improving the district’s Internet access. Currently, the district’s broadband capacity is 100 megabits per second – about three times what residential cable users can get – but a widely cited study by the State Educational Technology Directors Association says districts should plan for Internet speeds of one gigabyte per second for every 1,000 students by 2017. For Oregon, that translates into four gigabytes, or 40 times current capacity, in just four years.
For now, Tanner says, the 100 mps rate is mostly sufficient. And it’s cheap. State subsidies allow school districts to get that much bandwidth from WiscNet, a non-profit cooperative that brings high-speed Internet to most schools and libraries across the state, for just $250 a month.
But after that, each additional 100 mbps of bandwidth is unsubsidized and could cost $850 a month, or about $10,000 annually. That extra expense would add up quickly if the district increases its bandwidth to recommended levels. Tanner notes, however, that the district is seeking proposals from private companies to increase bandwidth more cheaply.
More immediately pressing, Tanner says, is the need to add wireless access points throughout schools.
OSD first installed wireless about five years ago, and more than two years ago it added dozens of access points so just about every room in every school could get online. More points would ensure that Internet speeds don’t bog down when lots of people in one classroom go online.
So far, that hasn’t been a big problem, Tanner said.
It helps that the district is able to block access to websites like Pandora, Netflix and Facebook that can eat up bandwidth.
But managing which sites to block isn’t easy, as teachers’ and students’ use of the Internet to do research or conduct lessons grows.
And with more wireless devices entering schools every day, bandwidth needs are growing exponentially, Tanner’s report said.
New ways to learn
Three sixth-grade classrooms at Rome Corners Intermediate School may provide a glimpse of things to come. Since last fall, 75 students, grouped with a team of three teachers, spend an average of half of each day on iPads.
On a typical day, you might find kids lounging on beanbags, working alone or in small groups, going at their own pace as they watch online tutorials, tap in answers to assignments or read online feedback from their teachers.
The pilot amounts to a yearlong experiment in “personalized learning” that the Oregon School Board has championed for years now. A presentation about the program drew praise from the board earlier this winter.
“Keep pushing the envelope,” school board president Courtney Odorico told the RCI teachers. “Your colleagues are ready to join you.”
Similarly, Prairie View Elementary has experimented on a small scale with “one-to-one” classrooms, which provide every student in a class with a laptop.
Meanwhile, schools have begun encouraging kids to “bring your own device” from home, be it a tablet, PC or smartphone, particularly at the middle and high school level. That comes after 70 percent of parents in a district survey last October said they’d provide their teenager with a wireless computing device to bring to school.
Programs like those at RCI and the bring-your-own-device initiative will further tax the district’s Internet capabilities. Having students supply their own computers will likely save the district money, but Tanner’s estimates include hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy devices for kids who can’t do so.
Superintendent Brian Busler acknowledged the district might have to pony up big money for technology in the coming years. Some could come from annual budgets or hard-to-get grants. Or it could be folded into a larger referendum.
No decisions have been made yet, but addressing the needs outlined in Tanner’s report is “absolutely” a priority for OSD, Busler said.
“Personalized learning is, in many respects, dependent on being connected with technology,” he said. “We need to be able to support (teachers) with the infrastructure network that’s going to allow them to deliver curriculum and content.”