Hi-tech growth strains schools
Digital projectors, interactive whiteboards and video cameras — today’s teachers are embracing an expanding array of pricey electronic gizmos aimed at enhancing the learning process.
The problem is, funds for nontraditional classroom fare are limited.
Oak Grove School Foundation, administered from an office in South China, is attempting to meet teachers’ needs, including those involving electronics, with a series of mini-grants.
But an increased number of requests for electronic instruction devices has staggered the Foundation as its administrators seek for ways to pay for it all, according to Foundation Grants Committee Chairman Bernard Huebner.
Huebner said he sees the value of the technology, but is at a loss to know how the Foundation, the state government and other entities can keep up with the trend.
“Do we want to invest this much into a medium where the medium itself has a built-in obsolescence to it?” he asked. “But I don’t know that there’s a good alternative. I don’t come to you with answers.”
The program serves 35 high schools with a range that includes Greenville, Richmond, Jackman and Livermore Falls.
In 2007, over half of the requests the Foundation received were for digital equipment, up from 36 percent in 2006, which in turn was a large increase over the previous year.
This year, requests included a dozen digital projectors ($500 each on Amazon.com), four interactive whiteboards ($2,000), six video cameras ($100-$500), and various other gadgets. Up until the past couple of years, requests for more standard classroom fare, such as art supplies or books, had dominated, Huebner said.
“Clearly, teachers feel they need this stuff, partly because they can use it to teach, partly because kids live in a digital world,” he said.
Oak Grove each year normally sets aside $45,000 to disburse in mini-grants of up to $1,000 each. In 2006, the program’s total requests hit a record value, more than $60,000. But in 2007 Huebner saw this figure increase to $94,000.
Perspectives among educators and state officials were mixed.
Kenneth Coville, principal of Carrabec High School, which had applied, and won, several mini-grants for digital technology for its classrooms, said Oak Grove helps fill a vital role in upgrading the state’s classrooms.
“I think that there has been a big uptick in the investment in digital technologies,” Coville said. “However, I think the perspective of Oak Grove is at the edge of budgeting — the leading edge of new technology or new techniques that wouldn’t be proven enough to be included in the budget.”
Coville said that the Foundation and other similar programs are bearing the brunt of the results of what he characterizes as the “very narrow approach” of the state in administering its laptop program. Pushed by former Gov. Angus S. King, the laptop program in 2001 began as a $37.2 million project that brought national and international exposure to Maine.
The program, which costs roughly $10 million a year, according to Department of Education Coordinator of Educational Technology Jeff Mao, fell short of expectations that it might grow beyond seventh- and eighth-graders to include all high school students as well.
But Coville’s criticism of the program centered on the fact that it does not provide funding for other forms of digital technology that certain students might find more useful.
Another advocate of infusing the classrooms with more digital technology is Don Siviski, the superintendent of the Hall-Dale School District, which serves Hallowell and Farmingdale.
Siviski, who also serves as the chairman of the technology committee of the Maine School Superintendents Association, said that digital technology is a necessary investment if educators are to prepare students to compete in a global market.
“The jobs that these kids are going to fill haven’t been invented yet, and they’re all going to be tied to technology,” Siviski said, adding that the United States is ranked somewhere in the middle of global rankings for the quality of its education. “I don’t think the premise is related to the cost of education. I think it’s related to the cost of not doing something.”
Although Maine has been losing students at the rate of 3,000 to 4,000 per year, the state has boosted its education funding from $730 million in 2004-05 to $977 million in 2007-08 — an increase of 34 percent, according to Department of Education spokesperson David Connerty-Marin. The proposed education budget for 2008-2009 stands at over $1.02 billion, though it is likely to be cut.
Digital technology may be expensive, and it may be seeing increased popularity, but it is not the driving force behind the massive budget increases, Connerty-Marin said.
“The law (Legislative Document 1, passed in January, 2005) requires the state to provide up to 55 percent of the cost of education,” he said. “And that has driven the increases.”
Connerty-Marin said once the state reaches that percentage, education funding will level off to a 2 percent to 3 percent annual increase.
Mao agreed with his assessment.
“I don’t think I would say that the increased demand for technology is necessarily an increased demand for funding,” he said. “But I do think that there’s an increased demand in general.”
Mao listed several initiatives — other than the laptop program — that provide funding for technology, including a distance learning program that allows educators to teach to students in remote classrooms via video conferencing.
“Technology has really changed dramatically just in the past 10-12 years,” he said. “The consumer world and the corporate world are faster to accept and embrace new things (but) education is always a little slower, probably because the dollars are limited.”
Author: Joel Elliott, Morning Sentinel Staff, 18th February 2008