AISD Gets Wired

When Anne Verburg, a second grade teacher at Hill Elementary, got the chance last year to be one of 125 teacher-members of the Austin Independent School District's (AISD) District Technology Leadership Team, there was just one small hitch. AISD doesn't have a computer network in place, nor a districtwide Internet connection. So, like so many other AISD teachers who've been experimenting with technology in their lessons, Verburg reached into her own pocket, and culled some help from her spouse and a friend one weekend to get her laptop and four desktop computers networked and online. It was worth it, though, says Verburg, because her class got so much out of it. "That's where the wave of the future of education lies, with the Internet," she says. But if all goes as planned, teachers' personal financial sacrifices for technology will soon end. By the close of the 2001-02 school year, AISD will have deployed a $50.3 million-plus technology initiative that includes voice, data, and video capabilities. The district's 5,000-plus classrooms will each be equipped with a telephone and linked to a new public address and intercom system, and each room's five computers will be wired into a local-area and a wide-area network. Schools will be able to send and receive digitized video and satellite transmissions, to be used in classroom lessons, distance learning, and even for professional development of AISD staff. AISD will have connections to the Internet, for sure, but the district will also develop an intranet. District officials plan to put all curriculum online, so that teachers can keep their classes on track, ensuring that all children in all schools are being taught pretty much the same thing, in alignment with district goals and benchmarks. When they find themselves stymied, teachers will even be able to click onto a video "model" of best practices throughout the district, in all subjects and disciplines.

That's the idea, anyway. AISD officials hasten to add that technology isn't going to teach the kids, teachers are still going to teach the kids. Mastery of the technology itself is not the aim, they stress. Technology is only a tool for learning -- albeit a powerful one. But in light of the rapid-fire changes in technology taking place all the time, some question whether this powerful tool isn't in fact more than AISD can afford -- especially when the final tab for the plan remains unknown.

Telephones for Teachers At Last

It's been said that teachers are among the last college-degreed professionals who don't have their own phones. That's going to change by the time the district is through. But the district didn't budget for it correctly when it originally set aside $36 million in a 1996 bond program, said Stephanie Hamilton, AISD's director of technology services. Using interest earned on bonds already issued, and other savings on the bond program, the district is boosting the infrastructure budget to $42.8 million. In June, the AISD Board of Trustees signed a letter of intent with IBM to provide wiring services and systems integration of telephone, intercom, electrical, data, and video lines. (The district will enter into a formal contract with IBM pending the company's pronouncement on whether it can accomplish the task for that sum.) The plan for infrastructure also includes improved public address and intercom systems, a safety and security measure that not all schools have right now. "That's a level of complexity that people don't see," said Hamilton.

What people do see when they think about school technology are computers, all wired to the Internet. And that leads some to worry that AISD is merely running after another education trend, without thinking about that trend's implications. "There's always a belief that technology is a `silver bullet,'" said Peter Lewis, formerly a science and technology reporter for The New York Times. "My experience is that only a small percentage of schools that have computers are using them effectively."

AISD officials say they're aware of the pitfalls, however, and are deploying technology not for its own sake, but to transform the curriculum and instruction. "What we see is an opportunity to do more than just put a box on the table, connect kids to the Internet, and see what they find," said Darlene Westbrook, AISD associate superintendent of Instructional Support Services. She believes that by putting the district's curriculum online, and producing video vignettes of experienced, successful instructors who know how to teach the curriculum, AISD teachers will be able to connect to each other more, and the proverbial isolation that so many teachers suffer from will be reduced. Technology will also advance the curriculum and keep it up-to-date, said Westbrook. Internet access will ensure that kids are no longer limited to their textbooks (which tend to be outdated the day they arrive in schools, as most people know). But technology won't be worth anything if it isn't used consistently throughout the district, and if it isn't in the hands of a strong teacher, she cautions. "It's only a tool," says Westbrook. "Not the tool."

Yikes, the Price!

Phones, public address and intercoms, Internet access, video, an online system for keeping your teaching on track -- for teachers, it could be like living and working in a radically more cheerful version of Blade Runner. But could the cost -- $50 million and counting -- really be worth it? Isn't there a cheaper way to get the same thing done? Or maybe skip some of the fancy stuff, like the video portion?

Critics say that the district may be reaching for more than it can comfortably handle all at once. "It's not that I'm against video, multimedia, satellite, and cable," said Charlie Jackson, director of the New Schools Project, which provides instructional technology services. "They just tend to be passive learning systems, so their use is limited." Jackson also believes that AISD's networking costs -- $42.8 million -- are too high. "I think they will get a good network out of it," he said. "It's just a lot more expensive than it should have been."

Indeed, some in the industry found the way AISD auditioned companies for the networking job to be odd. School districts typically go for low bids on a project, but in this case the amount of money available for network infrastructure was already known. "I don't recall ever being told, `Here, we have this much money, can you build us a network?'" said Phil Simmons, head of sales and marketing for data network solutions for Siemens Business Communication Systems. Simmons agrees, however, that what AISD plans to do with its network is pretty innovative.

But in a field like education, where plans for innovation tend to wither and die as fast as they are made, the present is whipping by faster than anyone can keep track of, and the future is largely unknown. A frequent critic of AISD's technology plan, retired Lockheed engineer Nelson Logan, believes that there should have been more public discussion of what the district intends to buy with its millions. What's more, he points out, the $50.3 million already slated for the project doesn't include future maintenance of the network and teacher training in technology.

Nelson has also criticized the district for not taking advantage of volunteer efforts to wire the schools and provide computers. Technology director Hamilton said that would provide a short-term solution to Internet access alone, but would not contribute to the district's long-term goals to have an integrated technology system. Moreover, maintenance of a patchwork system is difficult, she said. Second grade teacher Verburg agrees. "I'd rather see it done right. If you get people excited about it and then it doesn't work, then people say, `See, this technology stuff is no good,'" Verburg said. "And that's the excuse people are looking for."

Others have charged that AISD is building itself too much capacity in its network that it won't even use right away, leaving open the possibility that developments in technology will outpace the expensive project AISD is planning right now. But Simmons says that future networking technologies (such as fiber and wireless) "still have a pretty long way to go." Most schools' networks will last anywhere from 10 to 20 years, he said; it's the box on the end of the wire that is likely to keep changing.

Technology writer Lewis concurs. "I'd never fault anyone for planning for the future," he says. Since it's true that "the box" is the thing that's going to change, installing the greatest network bandwidth possible will allow schools to keep pace with the rapidly developing technology that is sure to come, he says.

Although AISD is in a position to do something with its technology that's just a little bit ahead of the other guys, the district is also making its own way as it goes along. And there's no assurance that AISD can pull its project off without some problems. That's because there are still few models for truly efficient and innovative use for education technology, says Gary Chapman, co-ordinator of the 21st Century Project at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. "It's going to be a long time before we figure out how to do it well," he says. "There's a lot of trial and error -- and some of the errors are going to be expensive."

So it appears that money and mistakes are the only sure bets with the future of AISD's technology plans. Let's hope the district keeps both at a minimum.

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