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.
"Only 25 to 35 schools have the infrastructure in place to enable administrators to talk to one another over the computer, but the software isn't there," said Michael Pitroff, director of the office of instructional, technical, media and library services.
"There's always been talk of getting a system up and running, but there's never been any funding for it.
Some of the computers in the schools are state of the art and some of them are out of date. You'll find anything from Texas Instruments and Radio Shack computers to top-of-the-line IBMs and Macintoshes."
Efforts to develop wide-area networks in Howard and Anne Arundel counties have also been delayed by financial setbacks. In Howard, a wide-area network is now being installed, after four years of delays; in Anne Arundel, a plan is now being developed and will be presented to the school board in December.
"How quickly we can hook up our schools to a wide-area network really depends on money," said Joan Henning, director of technology and information services in Anne Arundel. "With lots of money, we could move real fast."
Once county officials determine which computer networks will be installed, they will have to develop training programs for teachers and administrators so the new technology is used as an effective tool for learning in the classroom.
Such training will be a priority in Harford County, Dr. VanWinkle said.
In the past, computers were relegated to one room in each school -- the computer lab -- which students would visit a few times each week to learn basic programming.
"We began with using technology in the sense where it was more of a drill and practice," Dr. VanWinkle said. "There is so much more that we can do."
The current amount of in-service workshops and other training available for teachers is "not nearly the amount that is needed to accomplish the task that we have," Harford's Deputy Superintendent Albert F. Seymour said.
When Meadowvale Elementary School's media center started to computerize in 1991, Kathleen Wheeler and the other media workers there had to become their own computer experts.
"When it came to the nitty-gritty of the daily operation of the system, we had to rely on one another," Ms. Wheeler said.
Even the county's visiting computer specialist was "learning by doing, too" to computerize the card catalog and other advances they were trying to establish.
Ms. Wheeler and other media specialists in the county's schools have helped write a "user-friendly" manual for their peers who are trying to wade through 4-inch thick computer manuals to set up computerized card catalogs and circulation systems.
While the school system allocates money every year for computers, parent-teacher groups, especially those in the county's older schools, supplement the budget with contributions from fund-raisers and from grocery-store receipt programs.
The Harford County Council of PTAs is organizing a committee that could coordinate these purchases, according to the group's president, Andre Fournier.
"Some PTAs are going out and some business folks are going and they're putting things in schools that are somewhat unique [but] that are not programmatic [coordinated], and then the school system is asked to pick up the maintenance bill," Mr. Eaton said.
Dr. VanWinkle said she would find out what kind of equipment is available through receipt programs and advise schools and parent groups what would work well in their schools.