Special Report
IT Management

School Districts Under Pressure to Modernize

By Kevin Bushweller — March 11, 2013 3 min read
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The chief executive officer of EducationSuperHighway, a nonprofit group that advocates upgraded Internet access for schools, articulates what many educational technology leaders like to remind educators, policymakers, parents, and students: “Schools don’t have the expertise they need to effectively design and implement a network,” says Evan C. Marwell. “Creating a network and buying broadband is a lot more complicated than buying pencils.”

Superintendents, chief technology officers, and other district leaders are working through those complexities as they put measures in place to transform their school districts into learning environments featuring more powerful digital tools.

Making that happen is challenging and requires investments in broadband capacity, smarter and more flexible use of federal E-rate dollars, cost-effective approaches to building 1-to-1 computing, stronger home-school online connections, and a greater emphasis on professional development focused on the needs of students, not just how to use certain devices or software applications.

Technology Counts 2013: Building the Digital District takes a major step in outlining the barriers educators and policymakers are facing, and how they are moving beyond them, in building schools that maximize the use of digital tools to improve student achievement.

Juggling Priorities

But the reality of the challenges can be daunting. Schools are under pressure to integrate more multimedia into classroom learning, build data systems that can track student performance in ways that can help teachers make instructional adjustments in real time, and offer students regular access to content on the Web through laptops, tablets, and other digital devices.

At the same time, schools in all but a handful of states face immense pressure to upgrade their technological infrastructure to prepare for the Common Core State Standards and the accompanying online assessments.

And they are trying to meet those goals despite tight budgets and other concerns.

To be sure, many districts have made significant progress over the past five years in integrating technology tools into classroom learning and the management of schools. The use of tablet computing in education is growing rapidly, and many schools have found ways to incorporate the digital devices students already own through “bring your own device” policies.

Beyond those developments, districts are also using more online professional-development programs in which teachers can learn at their own pace and receive follow-up mentoring or other help.

Still, educators have a sense that they are far behind the digital advances taking place outside schools.

A 2010 survey of schools by the Federal Communications Commission, for instance, found that most schools had access to some form of broadband service, but that 80 percent of respondents didn’t have connections adequate to their needs.

In the day-to-day life of schools, inadequate connections translate into instructional problems: Lessons stall when videos freeze up as teachers use them to illustrate concepts. Even worse, some districts have had to deny teachers Internet access on certain days, such as when online testing is happening.Consider the experience of Kara Heichelbech, a 7th grade digital-communications teacher at North Carolina’s Clark-Pleasant Middle School.

Last school year, she says, before her district finished a broadband upgrade, she spent three days without Internet access in her class, which relies heavily on the use of digital tools on the Web. At other times, she recounts, her Internet connection was slow or would cut off in the middle of a lesson, especially during state testing time.

Ed-tech leaders say such scenarios are simply unacceptable in most businesses and other organizations in the United States. Yet they are all too common in schools.

The good news is schools are making progress in addressing the problems. But the reality is they have a long way to go in a short amount of time.

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