Monday, July 18, 2011
How Should Schools Pay for Technology?
Fast forward a few years, and the price of computers has come down quite a bit. At the same time, our reliance on them has increased concomitantly. Twenty years ago, if a computer went down in an office, it was annoying. It might have been used for billing and it was probably a standalone computer. Now, if a computer network goes down in an office, it is a crisis. It affects scheduling, billing, electronic records, databases, email, word processing...
Most of the workplaces I know--whether nonprofit or for-profit--no longer think of computers as special capital expenses, unless they are extremely specialized pieces. Instead of thinking of them as capital expenses, they are treated as operating expenses, as a part of doing business. Depending on the business, they might be replaced every three, four, or five years, but ultimately they are items that need regular replacement.
And that explains why I was a little bit surprised to see that Ann Arbor's school board is considering a .5 mill technology millage for November.
First of all, they are proposing to use bond money (a long-term fund) to pay for a short-term expense. At this point, I think school districts everywhere need to think of technology expenses as items with a relatively short shelf-life; items that need regular replacement and need to be budgeted for within operating expenditures. Most people finance their houses with long-term mortgages, but if they need to replace the dishwasher or the hot water heater, that money really should come out of operating (ongoing) funds, and not be paid for with long-term financing.
Second, even if I thought this were a good idea--and let's say that at this point I could perhaps be convinced--I think the board is going about this the wrong way. Why don't they ask some likely voters first whether this would be supported? And here's a hint: don't ask your most ardent school supporters (for example, PTO Chairs). Do some focus groups with a mix of taxpayers. If it won't be supported, don't waste precious political capital.
I know that many people think technology is really essential. I admit that it has changed my life in ways that I think are both good and bad.
But I was thinking the other day that if I had ever become an engineer (a career path I never considered), I definitely would have chosen civil engineering, because I'm fascinated by the civil infrastructure--water pipes, sewer pipes, water towers, transportation systems--that underlie our cities. And I'm sure that computers make the lives of civil engineers a whole lot easier.
It's worth remembering, however, that the Romans had an elaborate aqueduct system before anyone could print multiple copies of books. It's worth remembering that today's water system and subways in Manhattan were largely built over 100 years ago, by people who had no computers, and many of whom had no college degrees. [See maps of the NYC subway system here.]
In the last few years, I've seen many more high school courses offered that integrate technology. But it's worth remembering that those of us who learned to "keyline" text and "kern" typefaces in the days before computers still learned the principles of graphic design. It is eminently possible to teach most of what we need to know without computers. I don't believe that students would learn any less.
Is it a case that we "must" teach technology? Or is it the case that we "have" the technology so now we want to use it?
If we only use technology to do the same things that we could do without technology (for instance, use an interactive whiteboard to write the same things we would write on a chalkboard), then the technology is being wasted. If we can't afford all the technology that we have, then maybe we can identify areas where we can use less of it. (For instance--could we take all computers out of the K-2 curriculum?)
You may think that I'm wrong; that technology is essential to education today. And if you do, then I would ask you to argue that we need to treat technology as just another operating expense. And for the most part, that means--put technology expenses in the operating budget, and expect to upgrade that technology regularly.