The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

March 12, 2014

Board weighs benefits, costs of technology/media center

By Joe Wiercinski
Herald Staff Writer

SHARPSVILLE — Sharpsville Area school directors are eyeing options for -- and the cost of – boosting the use of Internet technology in classroom instruction and the development of a media center.

The district has been working for a couple of years to make more use of technology by both teachers and students from elementary school through high school.

Kirk Scurpa, Sharpsville’s technology integrator and data specialist, made a 90-minute presentation at Monday’s board work session, outlining a proposal he and a technology team of teachers put together to serve students in all grades.

Some elements of the upgrade such as installation of wireless Internet access have been approved by the school board, while others would be phased in over the next seven years. The proposal also addressed the district’s need for a new phone system to replace its aging and increasingly unreliable system.

Scurpa estimated the annual amount needed for equipment, training and monitoring at about $109,000 in each of the first four years and slightly less than that in the last three years.

The district already owns some iPads, netbooks and laptop computers that students use for Internet access. They would be augmented by latest-generation Chromebooks which boot up faster and are ready to use in a few seconds instead of the 10 minutes or longer often required by older appliances.

“We want a system that enables students to make greater use of technology in the classroom every day instead of one that mostly has teachers using technology to instruct students,” Scurpa said.

The system would enable students working individually or in teams, for example, to design websites of their own and to participate in class work and other projects on websites that teachers would design for every academic subject in every grade.

Students would be able to incorporate their own video and audio in research projects. They could get an advance look at upcoming lessons and would have access to tutoring they might need in math, science, language arts or any subject, Scurpa said.

“Technology offers lots of opportunities for students to use higher order thinking skills,” he said. “It can also create more time for teachers to meet with students because text materials can be covered in far more efficient ways.”

Heather Butchy, a language arts teacher who is a member of the technology team, said middle school students trying out some parts of the proposal have been logging onto a secure social network that allows them to communicate online by posting messages only classmates and the teacher can see.

“I’ve been watching them work together on word problems and it’s been amazing to see how fast the number of posts has been climbing,”   Butchy said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen them this excited.”

All the students’ and teachers’ websites would have passwords limiting access only to students and staff.

The system could offer Advanced Placement courses such as engineering. Online technology would enable students to take any of a half-dozen courses such as digital electronics, civil engineering and architecture, aerospace and biotechnical engineering that until now have not been offered in high school.

Teacher participation is crucial to the success of the proposal, Scurpa said, adding that most of the district’s teachers have said they would be  willing to attend workshops during the summer to learn to put technology to work in their classrooms.

Installation of equipment is nearly complete to provide wireless access to the Internet in every room in the district’s schools.

An additional benefit is that it can be used to manage a network of security cameras capable of monitoring every square foot of school property.

Scurpa urged directors to consider reconfiguring the high school library as a media center.

Estimating development costs at $150,000, Scurpa said it would be equipped with audio and video rooms for students to work on creative projects as well as class assignments.

It would have televisions and cafe furniture as well as whiteboards that are the modern successor of blackboards for conducting lessons and displaying students’ work.

Additionally, it could serve as the board’s meeting room when the lease at Seventh Street School, the current meeting place, runs out in 2016.

“We don’t have that centerpiece that really wows visitors when they come to the district,” Scurpa said. “The media center could do that.”

Several directors said they are generally in favor of taking fuller advantage of resources available through technology but the cost has to be justified.

“We have to budget for this and I’d like to know if this is going to reduce our costs for textbooks,” Vice President David DeForest said. “This is very impressive but it’s really just a delivery system. Instead of delivering information in the pages of a textbook, you’re delivering information on a computer screen and you still have to pay for text material.”

Superintendent Dr. Brad Ferko said a closer look may show that text material can cost less than it does now.

“There are Common Core resources online that meet all state educational requirements and many of them are completely free,” he said. “Using technology this way is a change in the paradigm in how kids learn and how teachers teach.”