Schools focus on coordinating computer technology

July 23, 1995|By Tanya Jonesand Brenda J. Buote | Tanya Jonesand Brenda J. Buote,Sun Staff Writers

Computers cannot be tools for learning unless teachers and administrators can use them to communicate with their students and each other. That's the lesson officials in many of the state's school systems have learned -- several counties, most recently Baltimore and Harford, have hired administrators to coordinate technology in their schools.

"There are too many dollars at risk here for technology to operate without a consolidated and focused approach," said Ronald R. Eaton, president of the Harford County school board. "We're just too inefficient here."

Some of the problems coordinators must face include:

* Giving each school in each county a fair share of the equipment.

* Training teachers and administrators.

* Dealing with a patchwork of well-intentioned parent-teacher groups that buy computers with little input beyond the school level.

* Tight budgets.

Harford County hired Phyllis VanWinkle to draw up a technology plan before the Harford school system spends almost $750,000 on new computers and accessories during the coming school year. Dr. VanWinkle began working full time Thursday.

In Baltimore County, Thomas Hensley started as the assistant superintendent for technology July 3. "He was hired to bring together all the forces that involve technology in the school system, instead of having a fragmented system of offices and departments," said Robert Cox, manager of instructional support services in Baltimore County. Three separate departments were charged with overseeing technology in the county schools.

State administrators, too, are seeing the need for coordination and planning to bring technology into the schools. Maryland School Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick appointed a director of instruction technology in May to determine how involved the ++ state should be in setting guidelines or standards for local school systems.

In Harford, managing computer technology so far has been "a collaborative type of situation," with no set procedure, according to John F. Mayhorne, supervisor of business education and instructional technology education.

Teachers and administrators sometimes consult him when they want to buy equipment, or he may refer them to a commercial vendor for information.

"To make sure that the plans get done, sometimes those activities have to be centralized," according to Barbara Reeves, the new director of instructional technology for the state department of education.

Any plan for technology must deal with the wide range in the level of computers, from old Apple IIe computers in schools that were among the first to get computer labs, to the latest MS-DOS-based machines in newer schools.

"We have equipment within the same school building that may be 10 to 12 years old to 10 to 12 weeks old," Mr. Mayhorne said. But such a variation in technology is not necessarily a problem. "As long as we're making maximum use of it, that becomes the important thing."

Harford County does have standards for how many computers each school should have, and its educational goal is that all students be "computer literate" by the time they graduate, according to Mr. Mayhorne.

Offices in each county school are connected to school system headquarters by a computer message system. When the central offices' telephone switchboard was knocked out for several days by an electrical storm last month, administrators communicated by computer message.

For the most part, student computers are not connected between schools.

In about 20 of the 158 schools in Baltimore County, administrators can send information to each other through an in-school message system, but teachers and students cannot communicate through computer, according to Robert Cox, manager of instructional support services.

"We're involved in an ambitious plan to network all of our schools and offices for more effective and efficient use of technology within the school system," Mr. Cox said. He hopes 10 schools will be connected in local-area networks this year. A local-area network is one that connects all the computers in a single building to one another.

Carroll County schools are installing local-area and wide-area networks, according to Tom Hayes, the county's systems analyst. A wide-area system links computers in one building to those in another. It will take at least three years to complete installation in all of the county's 31 schools, Mr. Hayes said.

Of the school system's 350 computers, most are IBM-compatible Hewlett Packards, with a few Apple Macintoshes, according to Mr. Hayes. "We'd love to have computers on every desk, but that's not possible" because of lack of funding, Mr. Hayes said.

Insufficient funding has kept Baltimore City schools from setting up a system to connect its schools to each other by computer. City officials purchased modems for some of its 182 schools, but did not buy the software needed to use them.

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