School technology struggles with digital learning push

The Lakota Local School District, Ohio’s seventh largest public school district, is about eight years behind when it comes to technology infrastructure, according to an independent consultant who recently evaluated the district’s technology.

“What I love about this report is that it hits it head-on that our infrastructure is incapable; we couldn’t call it modern,” said Lakota Superintendent Karen Mantia. “I apologize for that because we should be a modern educational system, educating students for their world. Yet we are seven or eight years behind the times, and what’s sad about it is we have no funds.”

Students today are growing up in a digital world driven by technology, and local schools are tasked with preparing them for it. But as many districts struggle financially and are forced to make spending cuts and difficult budget decisions, new technology can sometimes get placed on the back-burner.

Todd Wesley, Lakota’s executive director of technology, said the last substantial rollout of new instructional technology — including computers — began in 2005 and ended in 2008. He said current district computers range in age from five to eight years old.

Jeff Sun, director of Sun Associates — the consultant that reviewed Lakota — called that “a gigantic problem.”

“Lakota hasn’t bought any computers of note in six years,” Sun said. “These machines are just ancient right now.”

The computerized testing begins in the in the 2014-15 school year. The tests will include reading and math for grades three through eight, sciences in fifth and eighth grade, and possibly social studies in fourth and sixth grades.

High school students will take end of course exams on-line including: Math I, II, III, English 9, 10, 11, Biology, Physical Science, American History, and American Government.

Scores on these standardized tests factor in school district’s state report card rating.

State officials have said the tests could be administered via desktop computers, laptops or portable devices like iPads.

Fairfield City Schools has also had to contend with outdated technology. The district needs to update its wireless infrastructure, particularly in elementary buildings, said Dan Jeffers, the district’s technology director. Like Lakota, most of the student machines are 5 to 8 years old.

“Our high school has the most up-to-date system, while our buildings that house grades five to nine need improvement. The structure there cannot handle the influx of personal devices that is the future of technology in schools. Our elementary buildings do not have building-wide wireless access at this time,” he said.

Fairfield schools projects spending $407,918 on technology this year, according to district treasurer Nancy Lane. That’s more than double the amount spend last year, which was $202,439.

Fairfield is readying a comprehensive replacement plan that would also include new hardware purchases.

To address the testing issues, “We are currently referring to the hardware requirements shared by the test developer,” Jeffers said.

“This will ensure that our current hardware is up to standard and that any new purchases will be capable of the testing as well. We have a large population of students who will be taking these tests online,” he said. “We are in the process, as part of the comprehensive plan, of putting together the numbers to determine our hardware needs for the testing. There are several factors yet to be determined, such as the length of the testing window and the length of time allotted to take the test.”

Hamilton City Schools has been working with the Technology Readiness Tool, which measures a district’s current technology and how it compares with the minimum specifications needed to run the new standardized tests. According to the latest tests by that tool, 100 percent of Hamilton’s computers are ready now to handle the new tests, said Keith Millard, Hamilton’s director of secondary programs.

“The wild card is, do we have enough devices currently deployed to test the students in the windows legislated by the state?” Millard said.

The tests themselves are still in flux, so it is unknown as yet if Hamilton will have enough computers to administer the tests, he added.

Although Hamilton’s devices are 1oo percent compliant, the district still has to be mindful that technology constantly evolves.

“We continue to make prudent decisions about future purchasing, based on the increasing tech requirements that escalate as the years go on,” Millard said. “What may be good in 2014-2015, may not be good in 2015-2016 …We’re trying to be forward-thinking and prudent in our use of district dollars to make the best purchasing decisions, given the available information.”

Middletown City Schools has not used the Technology Readiness Tool yet because “it seems premature considering the technology recommendations keep changing,” said Robin Surland, the district’s senior director of technology.

Middletown believes it is up to standard, although a number of its machines are aging as well, particularly in elementary schools. Regardless, Middletown’s technology budget has held relatively steady over the past three years, at slightly below $2 million for each of the last three years.

“As far as student-to-Internet-device ratio, I believe Middletown City Schools will be prepared,” Surland said. “We will also be able to provide Internet access to the devices through our wireless network, though we will have to add additional access points at some schools as use increases.”

Middletown breaks down its computer ages in terms of quality. High-quality computers are those from 2010-12. Average quality are from 2008-2009, and low-quality computers are from 2006 to 2008. Middletown High School has the most high-quality computers, with 124, while Middletown Middle School has 68 low-quality computers.

The elementary schools have a preponderance of low-quality computers. Highview has 38, Miller Ridge 29, Rosa Parks 25 and Wildwood 37.

Surland said Middletown will likely purchase Chrome Books, which would cost $249 per student and $7,740 per classroom.

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Staff Writer Eric Robinette contributed to this report.