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Utah considers all-out attack on schools’ digital divide

First Published      Last Updated Feb 26 2014 02:15 pm

Fourth-graders with a range of disabilities, each toting an iPad, vie for teacher Ana Park's attention at Newman Elementary in northwest Salt Lake City.

"What do I do next?" "Can I show mine?" they clamor on their second day with the iPads, which are being distributed in every classroom at the 480-student school this winter.

Newman is one of 10 schools chosen to join Utah's Smart School Technology Project; three of them are in the second year of having an iPad for every student.

The project, funded with $5.4 million set aside during the past two legislative sessions, is a big deal in these 10 schools, but it looks downright puny against the massive digital infusion envisioned by House Speaker Becky Lockhart.

The Provo Republican is proposing that Utah spend $200 million to $300 million to buy digital devices for Utah's 612,500 students, to train educators and to build the infrastructure in schools.

The Utah Board of Education is asking for a more modest $50 million, which before Lockhart announced her idea on Jan. 30, appeared pie-in-the-sky.

Both proposals, coming at time when Utah is more flush with cash than in recent years, reflect a national push to better prepare students for a digital world.

Only one state so far, Maine, has one-device-per-student statewide, which is Lockhart's goal. (Idaho voters rejected a statewide one-to-one plan after the state Legislature approved $180 million in funding).

In the rush to adopt technology, many states, districts and schools have made missteps, believing devices alone — without teacher buy-in or preparation — can make a difference.

"It's a mixed bag," says Howard Pitler, program director for McREL, a Denver-based research and development nonprofit, and co-author of a book for teachers on how to use technology.

There are no good data that look across a spectrum of schools to see if, overall, technology in the classroom is worth the cost.

"I can point to shining examples of transformative learning," says Pitler. "And I can point to other examples where nothing has happened other than spending a lot of money."

'The million-dollar question' • At Newman Elementary, Principal John Erlacher is eager to finish distributing the iPads, funded with $373,550 from the state and a matching amount from the Salt Lake City School District.

"If technology will help kids learn quicker and in a deeper sense," says Erlacher, "I'm all for it."

In Park's resource class, fourth-graders use Educreations software to draw out multiplication problems on their iPads. They record how they arrive at their answers, and share the recordings with classmates on a projector.

"The more they can visualize it," says Park, "the more cemented it becomes."

Teachers at Newman spent two Saturdays in the fall learning to use the iPads in school, and, for the first year, they'll have both an IT person and a "coach" to help them in their classrooms.

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Who has the tech?

Ten schools have received Smart School Technology Project grants, which the Utah Legislature funded during the past two years for a total of $5.4 million.

iSchool Campus, a Park City-based business, was given the contract to run the project. Southern Utah University’s College of Education and Human Development is evaluating it.

Three schools were funded beginning in the 2012-2013 school year, receiving 100 percent of the money it took to give every student an iPad and teachers both iPads and laptops for three years. Those are:

Gunnison Valley Elementary (Gunnison), 450 students, $813,600.

Dixon Middle School (Provo), 900 students, $1.6 million.

North Sevier High School (Salina), 243 students, $439,344.

Seven more schools were chosen last year, and awarded grants that the schools have to match over three years. Those are:

Utah Career Path High School (Kaysville), 175 students, $130,393.

Myton Elementary (Myton), 164 students, $122,196.

Freedom Preparatory Academy (Provo), 285 students, $212,354.

Beehive Academy (Sandy), 316 students, $235,452.

Pinnacle Canyon Academy (Price), 326 students, $242,903.

North Davis Junior High (Clearfield), 1,033 students, $769,688.

Newman Elementary (Salt Lake City), 500 students, $372,550.

Source: SmartSchool Technology Program Report 2013