Computers, not excuses [Editorial]

The Aegis

Ryan Burbey, head of the union that represents Harford County’s 3,000 public school teachers, has spoken eloquently on a variety of issues that don’t just affect the school community, but Harford County as a whole. We often agree with what he says.

We’re going to part company with Burbey, however, on the question of whether every one of the 37,500 plus kids in the Harford school system should be provided with a school-issued personal computer.

As reported by The Aegis Wednesday, Burbey, president of the Harford County Education Association, recently told members of the Harford County Board of Education that “the One to One initiative deserves a lot more thinking.”

The devices would be used only at school — they would not go home with students, so students who don’t have access to technology at home now, still won’t have it, he said.

He also said teachers are concerned that they have not had the necessary development to implement One to One and that students won’t know how to use the programming, while also pointing out that students won’t be using them every minute they are in school. The devices would thus be sitting idle at least 20 percent of the school day, he said.

“I believe the money would be better spent on less than One-to-One,” Burbey said at the Oct. 9 school board meeting, urging the board to reconsider. “Look at various strategies on how to best maximize usage and best efficacy of that significant an investment in technology.”

The One to One initiative began in earnest last spring, as HCPS leaders finally owned up to the fact that their rubber band solution to bridge what they freely admit has been a deplorable technology hardware and software gap, wasn’t going to work.

To refresh everyone’s memory, HCPS Superintendent Barbara Canavan a couple of years ago initiated the Bring Your Own Technology program that encouraged students to bring their own tablet or laptop computers or smart phones to class to make up for not being provided with suitable technology by their schools.

Well-intentioned as Canavan’s idea was – and some parents have weighed in that the program had been working – even she has acknowledged it wasn’t going to ensure every student had an equally functional device needed to do work required in the contemporary world of bits and bytes and ones and zeroes.

But equipping each of those 37,500-plus kids with his or her own computer to use is something not accomplished in a single year, financially and logistically, so the One to One is being phased in over time, grade by grade.

The school system is spending $3.2 million in this fiscal year to supply students in fifth and eighth grades with computers. It has requested $7.6 million in the capital budget for fiscal year 2018-2019 to buy computers for students in fourth, sixth, ninth and 12th grades, as well as for those in 11th grade. The computers were supposed to be distributed this year but there was not enough funding, according to Jillian Lader, spokesperson for Harford County Public Schools.

Although a majority of the 10-member school board supports the program, not everyone has agreed. Like Burbey, board member Robert Frisch said the plan should be revisited because of “many unresolved issues.”

Laura Runyeon, the board vice president, admitted there are concerns about aspects such as cost, but said the alternative of going along without a decisive plan is not negotiable at this point, and we agree with her.

“To fail to prepare [students] for using technology… in a work environment or college environment — we would not be doing them justice,” Runyeon said.

Not having a computer in each student’s hand in this day and age would be akin to asking them to use a calculator, slide rule or slate board and chalk to do math and science problems, or to put pencil to paper for writing assignments. This might have been fine for previous generations that weren’t as technologically developed, but not for the one coming through Harford County Public Schools now and in the immediate future.

Could the money for the computer purchases be better spent for something like increasing teacher salaries? Perhaps. We suspect Ryan Burbey and some of those he represents might feel it could.

Think of the issue in these terms, it you had a choice of purchasing five textbooks per student or one computer, what would be the most cost effective from a fiscal and a learning standpoint?

With technology, there’s going to eventual obsolescence, and it’s unfortunate HCPS is playing catch-up to something that should have been started years ago. But while time doesn’t stand still, neither does learning.

Not having a One-to-One ratio of computer-to-student in 2017 is not just unfair, it’s unconscionable. There should be no more excuses.

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