More school districts looking to go electronic

Following the lead of Spring Cove schools and Bishop Guilfoyle Catholic, more Blair County districts are positioning themselves to adopt environments where each student will have an Internet-accessible computer tablet.

The Altoona Area school board’s 2014 capital reserve plan includes $1.26 million for the future purchase of iPad tablets for all high school students.

The money is saved up, but using it to realize plans for tablet-toting students won’t be in the immediate future, Superintendent Thomas Otto said.

“Looking to the future, what’s education going to look like? We are not looking for this to happen next year, but it’s money we have set aside if that’s a lane we want to go down in the future,” Otto said.

Before each student can walk around campus with Internet access at every turn, the district needs to gut its 15-year-old digital infrastructure and rebuild it.

Another $787,000 has been stored away for that first step.

“We have to look seriously at what it takes to manage 2,000 devices hammering our system every day, every period,” district Director of Technology Bryce Cossitor said. “We’ll have huge numbers of kids who need to access the system at the same time.”

Adding iPads would be a natural progression in education. Teachers are already using media-rich, Internet-based sites in classrooms that require bandwidth.

The district’s bandwidth needs have quadrupled in the past three years. Cossitor said it’s not frivolous; it’s the future.

“I don’t see that plateauing. It just keeps growing,” he said.

Licenses for online curriculum are expected at some point to replace textbooks.

“We are dealing with a whole new generation of kids – a technogeneration of kids,” said Luke Lansberry, Altoona Area Curriculum Instruction and Assessment director.

His daughters prefer to learn with a tablet instead of a workbook.

“I say, ‘What did you do at school?’ They said, ‘Oh, we worked in a workbook.’ That’s not how they want to learn. They want to learn with 21st century tools,” he said. “[Through tablets], kids are turned on to learning in ways that they need to be and not bored out of their minds with the way things used to be.”

Aside from motivating students to learn, Lansberry anticipates a decreased need for textbook purchases to offset the cost of online resources.

“When you talk about all the tools that kids are using – that we are still purchasing like we did 40 years ago and spending lots of money to buy those things, there will come a point where we don’t need to anymore,” he said. “We will be looking at site licenses, buying online tools rather than a whole slew of textbooks that two years from now are outdated.”

To the west, in Allegheny County, Quaker Valley School District is renown for providing individual computing devices to students since 2001.

While students don’t have to lug every book home anymore, textbook expenses have not decreased, said Community Relations Director Tina Vojtko.

“I don’t know that society is ready to get rid of textbooks just yet,” she said.

Providing students individual computers, commonly known as a “one-to-one initiative,” has changed in the last 13 years at Quaker Valley.

Technology has become half as costly as it was more than a decade ago, and its capabilities are more advanced.

Each student may have an individual tablet or laptop. Those are instruments for collaboration; students can access group projects their class partners are working on in real time.

The impact of the one-to-one initiative at Quaker Valley has proven to be beneficial to students.

Quaker Valley conducted a research study with Penn State University several years ago comparing its students to others across the commonwealth, Vojtko said.

“While it would be difficult to directly correlate the one-to-one initiative with standardized test scores, the results of the study showed that Quaker Valley students were more creative and innovative with their responses to open-ended tasks,” she said.

Hollidaysburg Area, Williamsburg Community and Claysburg-Kimmel school district superintendents said their districts are considering updates to their wireless infrastructure to support either a one-to-one initiative or a “bring your own device” (BYOD) system.

“It is a multi-year process and will depend on funding to reach completion,” Claysburg-Kimmel Superintendent Royce Boyd said.

A BYOD policy capitalizes on the consumerism of students’ families, making people’s desire to own things a means to an end – motivation to learn. And it’s more affordable for taxpayers of smaller rural schools.

Bellwood-Antis School District IT specialists are currently studying the BYOD method for a potential rollout districtwide.

“Devices provided through district funds, we don’t see as affordable or sustainable,” Bellwood-Antis Technology Coordinator Michael Lingenfelter said.

But how to level the playing field for students whose families can’t afford tablets or Internet access is a drawback of the BYOD method. Those students likely would be provided with a school laptop during the school day. At Penn-Trafford School District, if teachers required a computer, the district was prepared to put one in the hands of those who couldn’t afford it, former Superintendent Tom Butler, said.

Currently the Appalachia Intermediate Unit 8 Executive Director, Butler provides technology consulting for schools in Blair County. In his opinion, one-to-one or BYOD programs could be helpful but are not yet necessary.

He’s seen positive results from the open BYOD policy that began last year at Penn-Trafford. Teachers encouraged students to bring their own devices for class if they had them.

“It was absolutely positive,” he said.

Principals reported a lot fewer discipline problems, he said, because smartphones and iPads have become permissible during class.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education does not have hard data on how many schools have one-to-one initiatives, department spokesman Tim Eller stated in an email; however, he stated a recent survey indicates that 109 of 2,720 schools in the state have a one-to-one program.

Mirror Staff Writer Russ O’Reilly is at 946-7435.