Lobbying your school for computers

By David Strom

Getting computers in our children's classrooms seems to be a popular idea these days: AT&T last November announced a new $150 million initiative to fund such a project on a nationwide level and last fall President Clinton also made his own commitment to computerize every school in California.

But to really make it happen will require more grass-roots efforts on the part of both teachers and parents, which is what I found out when I started working with our local public school district in Port Washington, New York in April 1995 as chairman of a citizen's task force on technology. Lobbying your school to purchase and implement technology will take time, careful planning, and considerable energy to pull off. Here are some lessons learned from our experience.

First, if your district doesn't have a task force of teachers and parents, get one created now. Make sure your committee has clear goals and deliverables as well. Your school board should solicit members in the local newspapers, and choose no more than 8-10 people for the committee. The task force should be composed of people who understand and use the technology and who have access to computer trade magazines for further research. In our case, we had two separate committees: one composed of parents, one of teachers. This was awkward although we ended up working together on many occasions.

Second, get the ear of your district's superintendent and take his or her temperature on technology. Our committee was created by one superintendent but ended up doing most of the work with his successor. Luckily, the new guy was pro-technology and willing to work with our committee and take an activist position. You'll need to find out what will motivate your own superintendent and who in the administration is actually the decision-maker in terms of setting and implementing technology policy. In our case, we had little technology leadership and no "technology czar" in charge. This meant that many of the policy and implementation issues fell on the shoulders of the sole person in our district who did the day-to-day technology support -- not the most ideal situation.

Next, you should assess your current situation with regard to equipment, data networks, telephone connections, electrical power, and applications. In our case, we were still using Apple IIe's at the elementary grades -- a machine that is no longer being sold with no current applications. Many of our school buildings had inadequate electrical power, and none of our classrooms had any wiring for data networks. We basically were starting from scratch, which made the committee's job easier.

Part of your assessment should focus on the capabilities of your own teachers: how much technology training do they have? Are most of your teachers fresh out of college and thus might have more exposure to computers? Do any of them use computers in their classrooms now? How will they get trained once you begin implementing your plan? Having teacher representatives on your technology committee can be very useful in addressing these issues.

Next, marshal your arguments on the Mac versus Wintel issue. Some points to think about: which grades will use the computer (earlier grades typically have more Mac applications)? What kind of support staff does your district have? What are the teachers comfortable using? What capabilities come built-in to the basic hardware you'll be buying? While this issue can spark some heated debate, in reality there isn't much difference in the end between machines running Windows95 and Macs in terms of overall education value and learning experience. We decided on Macs for the K-8 grades mainly because of the availability of applications and because all Macs come with built-in networking hardware and software.

Along with the choice of the type of computer platform comes the choice of computer location: either labs or in the classrooms themselves. Poll your own teachers and do some research on this point. We decided on computers in the classrooms for K-8, and labs for the higher grades. Part of that decision is how our district's classrooms are configured: the elementary classes make more use of multiple "learning centers" where smaller groups of students work together on projects. These are ideal for in-classroom use of computers.

One way to gather data is to visit nearby school districts that are ahead of yours in implementing technology: learn from their experience and mistakes! A good way to locate them is using the World-Wide Web and a service called Web66, located at http://web66.coled.umn.edu/.

Your next set of issues should focus on calculating costs. Here are some tips: first, you should decide on a particular computer price point rather than any particular model. Given that purchasing cycles tend to be longer than the actual models your school district will end up buying, it is best to recommend a price point goal. This means that as time goes on, your schools will be getting more computer for their money, since newer models often have more features, memory or power for the same price. Our committee decided on $2000 for computer and monitor, which also happens to be the most popular price bracket for most home computers.

Second, you should decide on an overall data networking plan. In our case, we came out strongly for a district-wide infrastructure that would eventually connect every single classroom to each other and to the Internet. Our design called for an Ethernet local area network in each school building, with a wide-area network connecting each building to the high school, and a single connection from our high school to an Internet service provider. Your own topology may be different. You'll need to calculate the costs of these networking pieces both from the capital purchase as well as the labor to install them and monthly communications charges.

Thirdly, don't forget about software and budget carefully for the applications that you'll need. Speaking of budgets, your committee should also prepare a budget for the board of education that lists all the various costs of your plan. We found that about half the costs were infrastructure-related (networking and electrical improvements), with the other half going for purchase of actual computer hardware and software. You'll then need to make some recommendation as to whether to fund your project with a bond issue or out of current year tax revenues. There are pros and cons of each one, and you'll need to work closely with your school administrators to make the best recommendation: while a bond funds the entire project in one decision, it may be more difficult to pass by the voters than incremental additions to each current year's budget. Our district decided against a bond and had a half million dollar technology budget the first year.

Finally, keep at it: this is a long process with lots of bumps along the way.