Ed-Tech Policy

Planning for Technology: Few Matching Dollars With Foresight

By Peter West & Peter West — September 13, 1989 10 min read

Daytona Beach, Fla.--Michael A. Osborne envisions a day when Mainland Senior High School’s reputation as a showcase for educational technology may rival this coastal resort’s fame as a site for auto racing and collegiate revelry.

But the Volusia County, Fla., principal knows that the task of converting his more than 30-year-old school into a technological marvel will not be easy.

Already, he and his staff have spent sev6eral years on a hard-edged analysis of needs and resources.

This fall, they will set in motion a detailed, five-year plan to replace the school’s conventional teaching and management structure with what they describe as a “student centered” electronic learning environment.

As one of five Florida schools designated as “Model Technology Sites,” Mainland is lucky. It has a five-year, $1.5 million grant from the state to help it complete the transformation.

In contrast, other schools around the country, experts say, are often operating in the dark when it comes to planning for the technological revolution.

“There is no model,” says D. Thomas King, director of the Saturn School of Tomorrow, a special technology-oriented school that opened this month in St. Paul, Minn. “We were going back to square one,” he says of the school’s planning effort.

Simply updating an average school for the inclusion of microcomputers and other electronic aids, others say, may require far more forethought than is currently standard.

“Schools will spend thousands of dollars to acquire sophisticated software and equipment, but they don’t seem to have a plan for how to use it effectively,” observes John Schlotfeldt, a former secondary-school principal who is now president of Washington State’s Olympia Computing Company.

At Mainland, planning will be comprehensive--from training personnel to checking for adequate lighting and electrical outlets.

As one of Florida’s five model sites, the school must make the information it gleans “portable,” or readily adaptable to other schools.

“We’ve got to be able to answer questions like, ‘How do you deal with the number of wall sockets?’ and ‘How do you pay for this?”’ says Eric J. Smith, director of management and planning for the Volusia County school system.

“We’re writing the book on how to do this,” he adds. “And everything’s a new chapter.”

‘Disappointing Pattern’

Mainland’s new vision of itself began long before the installation of hardware and software. It was prefaced by years of planning activities that brought together technology experts, teachers, parents, local businesses, and other members of the community.

“We wanted to create a dream,” Principal Osborne recalls, adding: ''I’d hate to think of how many hours we spent with the steering committee.”

But the experience at Mainland runs counter to what one national study calls the “diverse and frankly disappointing pattern of planning efforts” among some of the nation’s larger school districts.

Findings from the survey of 773 districts enrolling 10,000 or more students show that “technology planning is clearly a weak area of endeavor,” the study says.

That report, “Thinking About Technology in Schools: A 1988 Snapshot,” was published in March by the National School Boards Association’s Institute for the Transfer of Technology to Education and the Control Data Corporation.

Although 607 of the superintendents polled said their district had a written plan for the inclusion of technology and would be willing to share it, only 213 actually submitted documents for review.

Plans ranged in size from “a page or two to a book or two in length,” the report says, but “most ... did not have a comprehensive flavor.”

“District-wide planning for technology, of the style of planning in large businesses, occurs only in some districts,” the report concludes.

Computer Plans Favored

In discussing the report’s findings, James A. Mecklenburger, director of the NSBA institute, says plans tended to be drafted in reaction to outside pressures to automate instruction, not out of a genuine desire to apply technology to educational challenges.

Few of the plans, he says, weighed the relative benefits of the various instructional technologies beyond the computer, such as cable television, videodiscs, satellite- and other distance-learning technologies.

“When you ask people for technology plans, they tend to have been put together ad hoc. They tend to be limited in scope,” he says. “We asked for technology plans; we tended to get computer documents.”

And few, if any, of the plans, Mr. Mecklenburger indicated, met the standards of comprehensiveness and long-term flexibility that should be their hallmarks.

Seldom were the documents, in Mr. Mecklenburger’s words, “a statement of the kinds of ways in which a school district was going to take advantage of the technology to satisfy the educational goals it set for itself.”

Some Efforts Better

In some parts of the country, however, school officials are developing, with the help of private consultants, technology firms, and groups of teachers and parents, long-range proposals for technology use.

For example:

The Washington State education department, in conjunction with Apple Computer Inc., held an education-technology institute last month to address the development of technology plans.

Forty school districts applied to participate, but the field of participants eventually was narrowed to 20, based on a number of criteria, including their “degree of readiness” to enter the planning process.

The 65,000-student Anne Arundel County, Md., school system contracted with the International Business Machines Corporation when it decided to upgrade its aging administrative computer system and integrate technology more broadly into its instructional program.

With IBM’s help, the district completed a lengthy and in-depth survey of administrators, teachers, principals, secretaries, and other employees to determine what functions a new system should be able to perform.

The plan that eventually resulted covered two volumes and touched on such issues as telecommunications and distance learning.

The Virginia Board of Education has adopted a six-year technology plan that encompasses planning for such technologies as video, microcomputers, and distance learning by satellite.

The plan, drafted by a 17-member committee of elementary, secondary, community-college and university educators, as well as business leaders, stressed the need to “prepare students for life in the 21st century.”

Expanding Capabilities

But lack of forethought--not only in purchasing, but in implementation--continues to be the norm, according to consultants in the field.

Often, they say, problems can arise when educators who are unfamiliar and untrained in the use of the equipment refuse to relinquish their established patterns of operations.

For example, says the Washington State consultant, a school today can put in place a computerized system for filing student records that gives guidance counselors access to those files and has passwords that allow them to change final grades.

But achieving the benefits of such access, he adds, would depend not only on a school system’s understanding of the capability and its safeguards, but also its employees’ willingness to accept and learn the technology.

A computerized system also multiplies the potential for abuse and error, Mr. Schlotfeldt warns. “That’s just one example of how people jump into high tech without the necessary planning,” he says.

Leap Now or Later?

But even districts that conscientiously look toward the future can get caught in the rush to buy the latest technologies, others warn.

“The cost keeps coming down as new products enter the marketplace, and there’s always the issue of whether or not we should leap in now or leap in the future,” explains Richard A. Pollak, president of Emerging Technology Consultants, a Minneapolis firm.

The bewildering array of similar products also can confuse first-time and even experienced buyers, he adds.

“It’s something new, and there’s always something else new in the area,” says Mr. Pollak, adding that “the industry and its non-standardization” adds to the confusion.

In-house rivalries between local “computer experts” and those wanting to improve system capabilities require the kind of third-party arbitration firms like his provide, the consultant maintains.

“There’s a lot of expertise in the schools themselves and that causes conflict,” he says.

Fighting ‘Technophobia’

But the pressure to come up with technological solutions to educational problems is mounting, experts say, and with it the need for comprehensive planning grows.

This summer, for example, a report by the National Education Association’s special committee on educational technology urged school districts to set as a goal placing microcomputers and appropriate software on the desk of every teacher by 1991.

That report echoes a sentiment shared by many technologically oriented educators, who say that because teachers are the staff members most directly affected by technological change, they must be consulted--and often consoled--as plans are developed.

“There is still a great deal of anxiety expressed by educators about the integration of technology in the school environment,” the NEA report says. “Technophobia is a real and flourishing malady.”

Many existing plans do take the changing role of the teacher into account.

In the development of St. Paul’s Saturn School, for instance, the local teachers’ union was among the first groups consulted on the project. Says Mr. King: “We were asking for new behaviors from teachers, so, first and foremost, we felt that the teacher had to have input.”

At Mainland Senior High School here, Mr. Osborne says, teachers have been constantly involved in the planning process. One of the plan’s chief feature will be the provision of a personal microcomputer for each teacher, he reports. “It’s not new to them to ask questions,” the principal says.

‘Retrofitting’ Older Schools

But remodeling older schools such as Mainland so they can accommodate the new technologies presents a separate set of problems, experts point out.

Older school buildings were not designed for such electronic necessities as computer cooling systems and advanced wiring, they say. And, according to some studies, more than half of the schools in use today were built in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

Gary L. Carnow, director of the Alhambra (Calif.) Unified School District, says that “the whole issue of ‘retrofitting’ a school for the 1990’s involves looking at where your technology is in your school, how it may or may not all hook together.”

In the Alhambra district, such a “retrofitting” has been undertaken at the Emory Park Elementary School, a structure built in the 1930’s.

As part of the project, which was paid for by the California Model Technology Program, computer stations were established in the hallways, a networked computer lab was assembled, a basement technology center was built, and other modifications were made.

Each step of the program required some modification of the school and, in some cases, asbestos was disturbed during the remodeling.

“In classrooms of the 1930’s, you’re lucky if you have one electrical outlet in a room,” Mr. Carnow observes. “One of the problems we faced at Emory Park was just getting the blueprints for the school.”

Physical barriers to implementation are not confined to older schools, however. According to Mr. King, the planning committee for the Saturn School of Tomorrow had to contend with such mundane matters as whether there was appropriate lighting in the rooms where computer screens would be in use.

‘An Ongoing Process’

The goal of the Volusia County, Fla., project is to devise solutions adaptable to other schools for many of these structural, personnel, and instructional questions that arise when technological capacities are upgraded.

But according to Eric Smith, the director of management and planning, the process of answering those questions has turned planning itself ''into an ongoing process” at Mainland High.

And, though he still sees bridging the physical barriers presented by his older building as a primary concern, Mr. Smith can agree with the director of Minnesota’s new Saturn School that planning in every area is a challenge with few existing guideposts.

“It’s very much a ‘seat of the pants,’ barnstorming kind of thing,” Saturn’s Mr. King says.


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