Technology team makes proposal to school board

The New Prague Area School Board heard an hourlong presentation from the district’s Education Technology Action Team (ETAT) during its workshop meeting Tuesday, Nov. 12.

Shawn Brandt technology coordinator, and Brian Grensteiner, middle school teacher and administrative intern, used an interactive presentation on Google Chromebook laptops for board members to show their findings.

The team started its work about a year ago. “We used a variety of sources, including collaborative research, survey data from more than 1,000 students, teachers, administrators and parents, event presentations, site visits, consultations with Apple, Google and Microsoft… personal experiences of teachers and professional discussions to weigh the pros and cons of a variety of topics,” Brandt said.

He said the discussion wasn’t so much about what device they would provide students, but what changes would need to be made to create a digital learning enviornment.

“Digital learning provides opportunities for collaboration, timely feedback, differentiation, narrowing the digital divide and engaging all students in high levels of learning, he said.

Brandt said that a digital learning environment in the schools would: • Increase student learning and achievement • Impove student college and career readiness • Increase 21st Century skills of communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking.

The team is proposing integration of technology with a 1-to-1 use of Chromebooks at the high school (grades 9-12) and the middle school (grades 6-8). Chromebooks are an inexpensive cloud-based laptop device. Students would check out a device at the beginning of the year and have that device available to them 24/7.

At the elementary levels, there would be 1-to-1 classroom sets of Chromebooks for grades 4 and 5, which students could check out as needed. The goal would be to have the Chromebooks available 24/7 by midway through the fifth grade, in order to help with the transition to middle school. Grades 2 and 3 would have a classroom set of Chromebooks in each room, while kindergarten and grade 1 would have a shared set of “Computers on Wheels,” with one set for each grade level in the building. Pre-K students would also have a set of devices available for in-class use. Brandt was recommending iPads for students in grades Pre-K through 1. He said they compared five different devices for possible integration: Netbooks, Chromebooks, iPads, MacBooks and Surface tablets. Of those, Chromebooks by far had the highest score.

“Management is so much easier with the Chromebooks,” Superintendent Tim Dittberner said. “IPads present a big problem with kids adding apps to them. With Chromebooks, you have some control over what students can and cannot do with them.”

Brandt said that the Chromebooks also have an advantage in that kids are familiar with Google and have been using Google technology. “They know how to navigate, know how to use Google docs... iPads have more of a learning curve.”

He recommended the Chromebooks be leased on a three-year basis. Doing so would allow the district to maintain current levels of tech support staffing, and there would be a shorter turnaround for the devices. In addition, there was an element of sustainability, in that that the district would have no outdated equipment.

Cost per unit would come to about $100 a year. He advised implementing the Chromebooks over a three-year cycle, starting with the high school in 2014-15.

One other key to going with the system would be the necessity to upgrade the district’s bandwidth. He recommended expanding it from 100 megabytes per second (mbps) to 400 mbps to accomodate the added devices onto the network.

Implementation would start during the current school year, with high school staff getting the devices, learning how they can be used and preparing for content design and other tasks to aid in rolling out the program for students in the fall of 2014.

Brandt said there would likley be unforseen problems along the way. “Every school district we’ve talked to said there will be mistakes made. You’re not going to get it right right away, but you need to get started and make modifications as you go along.”

Business Services Director Sandy Linn has some figures on cost of implementing the program. She said the cost for the current year would be about $25,000, and the cost for the 2014-15 school year would be $151,000, going up to $300,000 in 2015-16. Total cost over six years would be $1.3 million. That does not include the cost of the added bandwidth, which she said she didn’t expect to be a large cost.

She said they have looked at where the money would come from, and determined that a lot of the cost would come from redirecting funds that are currently spent elsewhere. The program would eliminate the need for the current computer replacement cycle, which is budgeted at $250,000 a year. There would also be less cost for textbooks, which could be available online. Other savings would come in reduced costs for copier leases, printers, paper, software licensing fees and instruction supplies. Staff development funds could also be used to pay for part of the cost.

She did not have a complete breakdown, but will have that information at the November 25 meeting. “After this is approved, we would have to get serious on budgeting,” she added. Dittberner noted that most of the costs would come from other sources, that he didn’t expect there to be a need to increase taxes for the program.