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Digital Data: More Managers Tapping Computer Power But Usage Limited by Costs, Fear of Change

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Simply by pressing a few buttons on the computer terminal at his desk, Donald Helms now has instant access to the school-planning information he once waited days or weeks to receive.

Frustrated by the turn-around time involved in data processing, the California superintendent decided 18 months ago to upgrade the Corona-Norco Unified School District's computer system.

He invested in new software that enabled the central mainframe computer to store everything from purchase orders and payroll records to student grades and attendance.

Then, he made sure school officials had easy access to the information by linking up a number of "dumb" terminals to the mainframe.

"What used to be a three-week delay while we processed the paperwork is no longer there," Mr. Helms says proudly. "We're up and doing what a lot of people aren't even considering yet."

In fact, the suburban San Bernadino district is one of a growing number nationwide that have grasped the vast administrative potential of the computer.

But several stubborn problem areas--from the cost of updating equipment made obsolete by new technology, to a lingering resistance to change--are thwarting the development of more sophisticated management applications, experts say.

Nick Gangwish, executive director of management-information systems for the Jefferson County, Colo., school system, has surveyed the nation's 50 largest districts on the amount of money they spend on computer services. He found that most are "five to 10 years behind" the business world in the development of administrative applications.

"The majority of the private companies will spend 2 to 3 percent of their budget on computers," he says. "The majority of the districts will spend 0.5 percent to 1.5 percent."

But to many involved in the streamlining of school management through computerization, a more vexing problem than how much money can be spent is how that money should be invested.

Some, like Corona-Norco's Mr. Helms, have maintained a commitment to the large central "mainframes" installed by many districts in the 1960's and 70's. Their modernization efforts have basically involved software and electronic access, with no attempt to provide interaction with the central computer.

Others, however, are moving toward microcomputers that enable users to add to and take from the database stored on the central mainframe.

In Polk County, Fla., for example, school officials decided five years ago that the time it took to generate reports from student records and other data on the central machine was too costly in terms of efficiency.

Their solution was to equip the district's 102 schools with microcomputers connected to the central computer through telephone lines. Now, each school maintains its own records in a standardized format on the personal computers and can draw on the larger database stored in the central machine.

"People are much happier because they're controlling their destinies out there," reports Bill Davies, assistant superintendent for management information.

As an example of the change, he notes that evaluations by school psychologists used to take as many as three days to process on the mainframe; now they can be edited and sent back to schools within 36 hours.

But Art Laguna, systems manager for the smaller Corona-Norco district in California, says microcomputer use there has been kept to a minimum to ensure access to the main database and prevent employees from building their own, redundant, databases.

"There's a place for the micro; I understand that," he says. "But you always have that access and storage problem."

For a few districts, however, the question of how best to employ the current mainframe is moot. The machinery's age has made a more radical rethinking necessary.

A recent report from Anne Arundel County, Md., for example, observes that in that school system, which enrolls more than 60,000 students, ''purchase orders totalling approximately $100 million are manually sorted in washtubs," which are being used for file storage and retrieval because the central computer is so antiquated.

According to the 206-page study prepared in anticipation of a system4wide upgrading of data-processing capabilities, "some of the critical software governing the operation of the databases was acquired over 17 years ago."

The county has devised a three- to five-year plan for correcting its deficiencies. But the pricetag for buying new software, equipping the district's more than 100 schools for a communications network, and providing the training needed for implementation comes to approximately $5 million.

And while the county government has approved $500,000 to hire a project director for the retooling, it has not yet earmarked any funds for those changes or for a proposed simultaneous improvement of the district's educational computing system. The latter project would cost an estimated $20 million over the next five years.

"I'd hate to see that $500,000 go to waste," says John J. Matarella, the district's deputy director of management-information services, ''but we're dealing with the political process."

But while districts like Anne Arundel are struggling to reconstruct a "basic" system, other, mostly smaller, districts are undertaking radical experiments in administrative computing that may point the way to the future.

One of these is taking place in Illinois's Indian Springs School District No. 109, which has become one of the country's few "totally automated" school systems, according to its leaders.

The 2,300-student, blue-collar district near Chicago has used grants and equipment donations from the U.S. Education Department, the Illinois Board of Education, and the International Business Machines Corporation to build a computer network that links each classroom in the district to the central administrative office.

Stephen M. Raucher, director of management-information and computer services for the 90,000-student Montgomery County, Md., school system, which operates one of the largest mainframes in the country, speaks for many when he assesses the current state of administrative computer use: "The answer to where things are," he says, "is that they're all over the lot."

The nation's largest school systems pioneered the application of computers to such management tasks as accounting and record-keeping in the late 1960's and early 1970's.

By 1982, when the Educational Research Service surveyed some 1,500 school districts, almost 90 percent were using some form of computer technology for administrative purposes.

Much of this use has been in the financial end of school management, which continues to be a strong component of administrative computing, according to the Association of School Business Officials.

In a survey of more than 4,000 of its 5,369 members last year, the group found that although the majority of respondents were from districts with enrollments of fewer than 10,000 students, "95 percent use a computer for administrative tasks."

Word-processing and financial applications such as accounts payable and budget preparation were among the most popular uses cited by the smallest school districts, those with enrollments of under 500.

Large districts were more likely to add sophisticated uses, such as those involving greater user interaction, but the basic uses remained the same, according to Judy Touchton, author of the business-officers' report, "Administrative Uses of Computers."

"What is interesting is that the basic applications do not vary from small districts to larger districts," Ms. Touchton wrote, "only the number of applications in use increases as enrollment increases."

The asbo study also found that, while Apple computers lead in the instructional end of educational computing, ibm computers hold a commanding lead in sales for administrative purposes. Ibm machines were used by 95 percent of the survey's respondents.

Yet many note that the use of microcomputers for such functions as "electronic mail" is far less common in school administrative offices than in business concerns.

Chief among the reasons experts give for this lag are the cost and political difficulty of constantly upgrading aging machines. But there are other factors, they add, that involve attitudes and working relationships.

In some districts where large, mainframe computers were installed in the late 1970's and early 1980's, they note, a substratum of data-processing experts has grown up that is now reluctant to yield control of the information flow to building-level administrators wielding microcomputers.

"Traditionally, the data-processing shop could say who got what put on the computer," explains Chase Crawford, a specialist in the use of microcomputers with the Florida Department of Education and the author of "Microcomputers for Educational Administrators' Needs."

"When microcomputers came out and we discovered we could do some of the same tasks with them that we did on the mainframe," he says, "we started to discover we didn't have to take 'no' from the data-processing department."

On the other hand, superintendents and other administrators are often distrustful of technology. And many--because they may feel it is not appropriate to be seen, as one expert puts it, "pecking away at a keyboard"--fail to investigate what new technologies can do for them.

Judy Edwards Allen, a professor of education at Portland State University who has conducted classes in microcomputer use for the Beaverton, Ore., school district, says that postgraduate students in school administration often are reluctant to enroll in computer courses.

"They don't seem to see the need for such a course," she says. "They seem to think, 'My people can take care of that."'

Still others lose out on new computer applications because they are either satisfied with existing conditions or unaware of the possibilities.

The storage and retrieval capacity afforded by mainframes and mini-computers has satisfied many districts' basic need to process large amounts of data and update the information frequently, according to Philip Piele, management director of the Educational Resources Information Center clearinghouse on educational management at the University of Oregon.

"As long as it worked, there wasn't any great pressure to change," he says.

In addition, administrators in many small districts have considered computing systems too costly to justify possible savings in time and effort.

But with the development of sophisticated software for increasingly powerful desktop computers, Mr. Crawford says, "these small districts can now do with a microcomputer what, 10 and 20 years ago, they could only do with a large computer."

Nevertheless, the use of microcomputers in the administrative office, except as word-processors, "has lagged behind the instructional use of micros by five years," according to Mr. Piele.

"But I think it is picking up steam," he adds. "The trend is toward more and more school offices going to their own computer solutions.''

That microcomputer trend appears to be confirmed by the results of a survey of 5,000 principals conducted in October 1987 by Link Resources Corporation, of New York City. They indicate that schools spent $415 million for personal-computer hardware in 1986-87.

Though it is not clear how much of that money was spent for instructional computers, "the presence of personal computers in school offices continues to grow," according to the sixth annual edition of "The K-12 Market for Technology and Electronic Media."

The survey found that 8 percent of all microcomputers in public schools were housed in administrative offices, compared with 36 percent in individual classrooms and 43 percent in computer laboratories.

But "roughly 75 percent of all schools now report some type of administrative computer use," according to the study.

Henry Jay Becker, the author of two studies of microcomputer use for the Johns Hopkins University's Cen4ter for the Social Organization of Schools, has also found a pattern toward microcomputer applications for administrative functions.

In a 1985 study, Mr. Becker found that accounting was the most popular application, with 35 percent of the 1,500 principals surveyed saying they employed a computerized accounting system. In addition, 35 percent said they used a microcomputer in their work.

Office word processing was reported by 29 percent of those surveyed. And 91 percent of those reporting word-processing applications said they worked on a microcomputer.

Report-card processing and class scheduling also were mentioned frequently as administrative tasks handled by computer, though they were not as frequently performed on microcomputers, Mr. Becker reports.

But, according to some, the real revolution in administrative computing will involve instructional management.

James A. Mecklenberger, director of the National School Boards Association's Institute for the Transfer Of Technology to Education, says this "revolution" will arrive when classroom systems allow teachers to use technology to keep track of students' progress, compile test questions, and inform students of their attainments.

Such a system is now being tested by researchers at Texas A&M University in College Station.

An instructional-management program called "Headmaster" will allow teachers to use a central "database" of test questions to tailor-make examinations that reflect a school's curriculum and to compile student profiles.

"We've had all this data, but teachers haven't had the tools to make the data dance," says Lynn Stevenson, a researcher helping to develop the Headmaster system.

Teaching, Ms. Stevenson says, is "one of the most information-intensive occupations that exists, but we haven't used that information to our best advantage."

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