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Utah considers all-out attack on schools’ digital divide
Tech » As Utah lawmakers weigh a $200 million to $300 million investment in devices, results from the state’s first digital experiments are mixed.

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‘Not a cheap proposition’ » Rick Gaisford, the educational-technology specialist at the Utah Office of Education, says the state’s schools last fall had one device — a desktop computer, or a laptop, tablet, iPod, etc. — for every three students. About a quarter of Utah schools have one device per student.

Some districts have worked to acquire one device for every student, at least in the middle-to-upper grades, including Park City, Wasatch, North Summit, South Summit, Piute and Wayne.

At a glance

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

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But even so, says Gaisford, it would take some 600,000 new devices to reach one-to-one statewide because the devices don’t last long and many of the existing ones — such as 67 percent of desktops (think computer labs and teachers’ desks) — are at least three years old.

He estimates it would cost $50 million per year to keep even a low-cost device such as a Chromebook, estimating a three-year life cycle, in every Utah public school student’s hands.

"It’s not a cheap proposition," says Gaisford.

And the devices are only part of it.

While the Utah Education Network’s pipeline of broadband, delivered to every school, is the envy of states everywhere, 80 percent of Utah schools say they need infrastructure upgrades. "It’s that last mile inside the building," Gaisford says.

It takes a lot of bandwidth for 400 or 1,000 or 1,500 students to download videos or do simulations at the same time. That infrastructure, Gaisford estimates, would cost $43 million.

A plan the Utah Board of Education developed in 2012 spells out three key pieces to putting technology in schools: the gadgets and the wireless system they run on; teacher preparation; and technical support to keep all of it running.

"It’s not like we don’t have a road map," he said.

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Engaged, but with what? » Utah schools, like others nationally, have had mixed results.

Kearns High School put an iPod Touch into the pockets of 1,700 students for three school years, the first two years funded with a $1 million federal stimulus grant.

The biggest gains came in the first year, 2010-11, but they were incremental. And they weren’t there in the second year.

The school had 3 percent fewer dropouts and a 3 percent improvement in the first end-of-year tests in language arts (English). Math scores showed no improvement — and continue to lag, which was a big reason the school got an "F" grade from the state last fall.

Jenny Peirce, the library’s media and technology specialist, says the positives for the school far outweighed the negatives.

Seniors Jacob Metcalf and Tanner Westenskow agree.

Westenskow says he liked looking things up when questions popped up, such as in history class when he wondered about earlier times. Tanner says he often used flash card apps for history and English.

Even so, teachers voted to not pursue more funding to continue with the iPods, and the remaining devices were put in classrooms where some teachers continue to use them with students, says Principal Maile Loo.

Even with filters, it became a management nightmare for some teachers to ensure their students were using the iPods for academics.

"The kids would be engaged," says Loo, "but the teacher didn’t know what they were engaged with."

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