Educational tech

2010-04-27T00:00:00Z Educational techby SEPP JANNOTTA - Staff Reporter Ravalli Republic
April 27, 2010 12:00 am  • 

When a server tripped at Hamilton High School earlier this spring, life in Tom Schmit's biology lab seemingly flashed back to 1980s.

Use of the smartboard technology, which links Schmit's computer to a projector, was limited. Video and multimedia presentations that stream onto the projector were also off limits.

"You see the benefits of technology when you have all these tools at your disposal and you become dependent on them," Schmit said. "Then you see what it's like to try to teach without them when that technology fails."

The fragile nature of technology can impact the administrative side as well.

When the school's phone system went down recently, Keven Conwell's building was plunged into 19th century.

"Our phone system has been really precarious of late," Conwell said. "It went down and then we have 500 students here and parents who want to be in contact with those kids.... It's a serious breakdown."

From phones to computers to the high-tech equipment in the machine shop, the impact of technology on nearly all phases of education is as ubiquitous as it is expensive to maintain.

Currently, the Hamilton School District pays for everything tech related - from computers and software to its phone systems to scientific equipment - out of its general fund. It is the only district in Ravalli County that does not collect a technology levy to keep its technology, including the licensing of computer software, updated.

So the school board is again asking the taxpayers to help it with a technology levy. Previous requests were voted down.

The maintenance of up-to-date computers loaded with the requisite software, networks that can provide an intra-building information system, and teachers and students with a user-friendly portal to the Internet is now paid for out of the general fund.

Each school - even Daly and Grantsdale schools provide computer instruction - pays for its technology expenses out its individual budget.

While grants have helped tremendously, when discussing the need for an annual $235,000 levy for a technology fund to update equipment, software licensing and technology infrastructure, Hamilton Superintendent Duby Santee says relying on grants is not a good long-range plan for such a key component of modern education. In the high school alone, the district has 375 computers to maintain and supply with licensed software.

The high school server room, which itself requires attention to both the equipment and infrastructure side, contains five servers.

In addition to keeping and providing e-mail and applications for classroom and administrative use, the servers house teachers' lessons, students' homework and files of all kinds.

On Monday morning, the temperature in the little room across the hall from the school office hovered above 80 degrees. In the summer it can climb well over 100, forcing school officials to leave the door open and place a fan there to try and cool it off.

"We're looking into getting some air conditioning in here because it's just too hot for the servers," said Sue de Ridder, information technology director for Hamilton School District.

Over at Hamilton Middle School, librarian Mona McCarty said she has also seen temperatures rise, and though these spikes can come any time of the year they are most common in the afternoon, when the school's T1 Internet line bogs down and patience wears thin.

"There are times that it's so bad that it just comes to a standstill," McCarty said. "There are four or five Web-based applications that the students use and it literally comes to a stop.... So we're frustrated over here."

McCarty explained that Web-based programs like Voyager Math, Accelerated Reader, World Book Online, the card catalogue, and the My Access writing program have all become integrated into the middle school curriculum.

When, in the afternoon, the school's three computer labs are all occupied and running these Web-based instructional programs, other classrooms that want to take advantage of Internet-based instructional opportunities like videos are simply out of luck.

"We just simply can't do it," she said. "There's a lot of great stuff out there that we don't have access to because we're basically at dial up speed. You've got 25 kids sitting there waiting, it just doesn't work."

Even in those classes that are focusing solely on computers or Web-based teaching tools the lack of bandwidth means the students' ability to work is seriously affected.

Jane Mason, librarian at Hamilton High School, said the same complaints come from students using the two computer labs and 12 free computing stations located in the library.

"We hear complaints about the speed and an inability to log onto the network," Mason said. "It's pretty common."

In the school's tutorial room, Martha Lord said she is down to one computer and the students who come to see her for tutoring don't even bother with it.

"It usually takes them 45 minutes to log in," Lord said.

Laptops such as those supplied for the tutorial room are typically hand-me-downs that have been in the district for years, de Ridder said.

"We hold them together with duct tape," de Ridder added.

Despite the pitfalls and costs of keeping all the computers up to date, de Ridder and computing teacher Sharon Mattix both said they realize that the district is headed in the right direction as far as technology goes.

There are great opportunities for students to learn the critical skills that will set them in the right direction as they choose their post-secondary paths, Mattix said.

But the problem arises in maintaining that level of technology, Mattix said, and if the replacement of equipment or updating software falls behind, then the students' chance to compete after high school is likewise diminished.

"Every student should graduate with some key skills," Mattix said. "They have to be confident with computers because computers are going to be around for the rest of their lives."

In Hamilton High School's shop, where Brent Holmes teaches a host of skills that translate into real-world jobs, most of the students are doing work that begins with computer-aided-design or computer-aided-machining software.

And Holmes said when his students set foot in the courses at the next level, whether for two- or four-year degrees, they will be ready to perform at the top their class.

Holmes said if Hamilton's software agreements lag and his students are forced to use software that is a step or two behind the professional grade, most colleges won't accept the advanced placement credits and his students would get stuck in remedial computing classes.

Holmes added that the benefit of having a high-tech shop shows in the number of his students that stick with it and go on to pursue degrees in engineering or related fields.

"I think we're getting a lot more of those students who wouldn't have gone on to school," Holmes said. "They have that confidence that comes when they are able to figure out what they want to do."

In the biology lab, Schmit said traveling in time back to when technology consisted of a chalkboard leaves both the students and the teachers scratching their heads.

"When things fail and we have to go without the technology, then I realized how inefficient it is to go back to the white board," Schmit said. "It's paralyzing."

Reporter Sepp Jannotta can be reached at



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