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Use of Microcomputers Changing Schools' Management Systems

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The boom in desktop computers is significantly changing the way schools handle management tasks. Smaller districts now have access to the new technology for the first time, and larger districts are moving toward more flexible use of their current systems.

Since the first microcomputers were marketed in 1975, districts have used them increasingly to set up and keep track of class schedules, transportation routes, a variety of student records, budgets, accounting, maintenance systems, and libraries.

Many larger districts are connecting their "mainframe" computers, which have many times the computing power of the microcomputers, to the desktop machines so that administrators at all levels can have instant access to the information they need.

The capabilities of the microcomputer can save administrators "hundreds of hours," according to Stanley Pogrow, associate professor of educational administration at the University of Arizona.

Administrative Use

The use of computers for administrative tasks has expanded rapidly in recent years, according to Mr. Pogrow and others.

An Educational Research Service survey during the 1981-82 school year found that 91.5 percent of school districts used computers at least part of the time for administrative tasks--either with their own in-house machines or by buying services from firms with computers. Fifty-nine percent of the districts reported owning or leasing the equipment.

Of those that used their own computers, 65.4 percent owned microcomputers, 40.3 percent had access to a mainframe computer, and 24.6 percent used a minicomputer for some functions.

The key reason for the growth in management uses is cost. The prices of microcomputers and supplementary equipment are declining by an average of 25 percent per year, experts note. "I just bought a 5-million-character hard-disk for $1,500 that cost $5,000 two years ago," said Terry A. Countermine, the director of the microcomputer laboratory at Auburn University.

The main advantages for them in using the computer, the districts reported, were saving time on routine tasks (66 percent), easier planning (54.7 percent), and new functions possible (54 percent). The problems most often rated "major" included training (24.1 percent), misunderstandings about the uses of computers (20.5 percent), and inadequate software (20.2 percent).

The Council of Great City Schools, an organization of some of the nation's largest systems, is conducting a survey of computer uses that will include administration. The study will be completed this spring, an official said.

Microcomputer Advantages

"Scheduling classes has traditionally been a job that's been the biggest headache for principals," said Mr. Countermine.

With an inexpensive microcomputer program, he said, the task requires only the time that it takes to enter the titles of available courses and the requests of the students.

Administrators also frequently use the so-called "spreadsheet" programs, which allow almost instant analyses of how independent changes affect the budget, scheduling, and compliance with regulatory requirements.

Larger districts that have been using mainframe computers to handle those tasks on a more complicated level are also shifting their plans because of the microcomputer.

Houston public-school officials this year are converting many administrative programs, such as student academic and health records, from a large mainframe computer to microcomputers.

"The microcomputers that are coming out today are as sophisticated as the mainframes of 10 years ago," said Patricia Sturdivant, the district's associate superintendent for technology. "We have to decide what we're going to put on the smaller computers."

Eventually, Ms. Sturdivant said, all of the major administrators in the system will have access to the mainframe computer--and the system will have the power of the mainframe computer and the convenient access of the microcomputer.

Mr. Pogrow, who is a consultant for many school districts, said districts with mainframe systems often do as much as half of their bookkeeping chores by hand. Because data-processing departments work in "batches," he said, they do not handle day-to-day work.

"There's no way for a big computer to keep up," Mr. Pogrow said. "So not only do [principals and their assistants] have to maintain their own records," but they also have to take the time to prepare forms for data-processing personnel to use in the mainframe.

Before the advent of the desktop computer, he said, that meant that systems with sophisticated computers still did all but their most elaborate work by hand with the traditional record books.

Plans for adapting mainframe systems to microcomputers are also being developed in Chicago, Dallas, and Portland, Me., among other cities. Educators involved in such efforts said, however, that no system had yet completed a mixed mainframe-microcomputer system.

One measure of the increased use of microcomputers, educators said, is the growth in the amount of commercial software available.

"It's only in the last year that companies have started to write software specifically for schools," Mr. Pogrow said. "There is so much [more demand] in the commercial market, so it's been easier to get good software."

Added Mr. Countermine: "The big publishers, like McGraw-Hill, are just now getting involved, though I'm not convinced that the bulk of [the programs] are that good. It's a bigger market now."

Administrative Applications

Educators also differ on the proper applications of the computer in administration.

The eventual goal of the Chicago system is tighter control of the bureaucracy by its higher levels--"managing things that people are doing," in the words of Glenn H. Tecker, the district's consultant. But others hold that computers should simply reduce time spent on bookkeeping tasks, and that personnel management should be conducted in traditional ways.

The Chicago schools already had a mainframe system for routine administrative tasks when Superintendent Ruth B. Love hired a consultant in 1981 to set up an "early-warning" program.

Eventually, said Khazan Agrawal, coordinator for business services, the school system will be completely "wired" with a microcomputer in every office linked to the "management-by-objective" program and a vast database on a mainframe computer.

The Mobile, Ala., public schools have a similar system, which not only tracks student performance, but also tracks what teachers and other school officials do.

But some experts warned that districts that install computers to monitor the performance of staff members could be creating new problems.

"If you don't have good management procedures in the first place, it's going to be even more of a mess," said Mr. Pogrow. "You have to do the hard and dirty work in the first place. If the principal has to be reminded, reminding doesn't help."

Mr. Pogrow said he would advise the officials of one district he is consulting with that they not implement computer-based management.

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