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District logs complaints with computer network
Thursday, February 3, 2000
By Kathleen Longcore The Grand Rapids Press
ROCKFORD -- There have been bumps on the road to groundbreaking technology in Rockford Public Schools.
The highly touted converged computer network, the first of its kind in any school district, is supposed to deliver voice (telephone), video and data over one computer in every classroom. And it does, some of the time.
But teachers at Meadow Ridge Elementary, where the system is being piloted, are frustrated with on-screen windows that regularly announce, "You have performed an illegal operation." And the "soft phones" that are hooked into their teacher work stations aren't reliable.
The company that designed the converged system, 3-Com Corp., is working to solve problems, and two of the district's five technology specialists are at the school full time to work out the bugs.
But until it runs smoothly there, it won't be introduced into other buildings, school officials say. In fact, the timeline originally set -- getting teacher workstations into all elementaries this spring -- has been delayed. Some schools will be hooked up by November, and others may not see the new system until January 2001. "I think the converged network has a lot of promise. But this has been a huge learning curve for our technicians and our staff," said Maggie Thelen, the district's director of technology.
"Before we put this in 10 more schools and 13 more computer labs, we want to give Meadow Ridge teachers more time to actually use it," Thelen said. "And we're hoping a lot of these (problems) will be worked out so we won't need this much technical support per building."
This week, Thelen accompanied Superintendent Mike Shibler and two assistant superintendents, Mike Micele and Ron Nyenhuis, to Oklahoma to observe a slightly different converged system in a smaller school district.
"They wanted to see how that district handled challenges, particularly with the phone system and the video," said Rockford school board Vice President Carl Dufendach.
The problems are worrisome because the district earmarked $8.6 million of the $66.5 million voters approved several years ago for technology. Exposing students to the latest in video, telecommunications and computer technology has been a high priority for the district and the community.
Not everyone is pleased with the emphasis on technology, said Mike McIntosh, a Rockford father of three and an information systems project manager at Amway Corp. McIntosh, a former teacher of math, history and computer science, worked as a parent representative o n the Rockford district's "tech ed" committee in 1998-99. He said he has a lot of respect for the district's administration and staff, but he disagrees with the decision to spend so much on the converged system and the support it requires.
"Our school leaders have not told us what our students give up to get technology. But there is always a trade," he said. "I'd rather have our students learn Spanish than Java (a computer language), see a raccoon at Blandford Nature Center than a puma on a Web site. I'd rather Rockford be known for its great teachers than for its technology.
"Unfortunately, we cannot use technology dollars to increase teacher salaries and decrease class size." McIntosh said legislators give schools incentives to get wired, and school leaders compete for the latest systems. Even parents believe that technology, which depreciates faster than a new car, is essential for their children's education. But McIntosh believes most students could learn everything they need to know about computers in one semester of high school.
State education officials do not agree.
"If you're talking about logging onto the Internet, one semester might be enough. But technology is a lot more than that," said James Levande, a technology education consultant in the state's department of career development.
In fact, technology literacy is one of the strands of Michigan's model core curriculum, which school districts are expected to emulate, Levande said. And state standards for technology literacy, including suggestions for technical support, will be released April 1.
At Meadow Ridge, teachers are logging their successes and failures with the new system. A sampling of complaints the Board of Education heard last week:
-- Computers are not working consistently. Teachers are tied up trying to get equipment running instead of teaching the day's lesson. Teachers want someone in the lab who knows the system. Failing that, teachers need trouble-shooting tips.
-- Carl Jenkins (Somewherepress@aol.com), February 03, 2000