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Published in Print: March 1, 2000, as Reporter's Notebook

Reporter's Notebook

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With Greater Reliance on Computers Comes Bigger Questions

Technical gurus who keep district computer networks ticking took stock of their profession here last week, at a time when technology is assuming greater importance than ever in schools.

"We need to be able to answer the question of what is the effectiveness of technology in instruction," Jim Hirsch, the executive director of technology for the Plano, Texas, schools, said during the fifth annual conference of the Washington-based Consortium for School Networking. So far, he added, "the answer is elusive."

Several speakers at the conference, held Feb. 22-24, did offer such an answer. For example, West Virginia schools Superintendent Henry Marockie described a year-old study in the state's elementary schools that found that computer labs are a cost-effective way to teach basic skills.

But other speakers, while optimistic about the educational value of technology, were more cautious in their assessments.

Christopher J. Dede, a professor of education and information technology at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., described for a luncheon audience how some schools are using software modeling tools, hand-held computers, and distance learning to let students explore scientific questions.

But when it comes to proving technology's effectiveness, he noted, "we have to act on the basis of incomplete information."

Gary Chapman, the director of the 21st Century Project at the University of Texas at Austin, added a skeptical response to Mr. Dede's comments. "I believe computers and the Internet are important elements of education programs in K-12, but will not make a significant difference in educational outcomes," he said.

The reason, he said, is that any benefits enjoyed by some schools will be swamped by "gross deficits" in the education system overall—mostly stemming from economic inequities in society. In short, the well-to-do will always benefit more than the disadvantaged, he argued.

Some attendees who run district networks said their status in the school bureaucracy is higher than it was a few years ago—and some now sport the elevated title of "chief information officer."

But they still say they have trouble persuading their districts to maintain and upgrade their networks and support them with the latest software.

Jim Hadley, the chief information officer of the Chippewa Falls, Wis., district, said his board suffered from sticker shock when he presented a budget for maintenance and support of the upgraded network, which serves 4,500 students.

"They said, 'Why didn't you tell us this before you put this in?' " Mr. Hadley recalled, even though he showed them evidence that improvements to the network had saved each classroom teacher an average of 20 minutes a day on administrative tasks.

In April, Mr. Hadley said, Chippewa Falls will hold a vote on a school bond to pay for, in part, a four-year technology-support budget that involves replacing one-quarter of the district's hardware every year at a cost of $100 per student per year.

"If we don't pass it, we'll be able to afford $18 per kid" annually, he said.

Keith R. Kreuger, the executive director of CoSN, said some districts have looked at network-support costs from the perspective of Scarlett O'Hara, saying " 'We'll worry about it tomorrow.' "

The group is trying to change that mentality by developing a process to help districts calculate the "total cost of ownership," or TCO, of technology, so they can more accurately gauge—and budget for—the number of technical-staff employees they need.

Sara Fitzgerald, who directs the consortium's TCO initiative, noted that a common formula used by corporations to budget for technical support is inadequate for school districts' needs.

"It doesn't account for educational outcomes," she said.

The TCO initiative will be advanced at a series of workshops hosted by the group beginning next fall, Mr. Kreuger said.

While districts can work on supporting their networks better, and at lower cost, they have limited power to overcome another problem—a looming "bandwidth shortage," according to Mr. Hirsch of Plano, who is a new member of CoSN's board of directors.

He said districts' use of technology will increasingly be hampered by their lack of access to high-capacity connections to the Internet.

"We need Internet II," he said, referring to a high-capacity version of the Internet now under development by a consortium of universities.

Among the capabilities that Internet II is expected to provide is two-way transmission of video and sound between multiple points on the network.

School districts need to be included in the development process, Mr. Hirsch said. None has yet been invited to join, although they are eligible if sponsored by a participating university.

—Andrew Trotter

Vol. 19, Issue 25, Page 14

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