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Technology and ‘bang for the buck’

Posted: July 12, 2013 10:12 a.m.
Updated: July 15, 2013 5:00 a.m.

While I was wandering around the Kershaw County Farmer’s Market on a recent Saturday, I struck up a conversation with a community member about technology in schools. Our conversation mostly had to do with whether or not our district is getting a “bang for the buck” for its investment in technology. We had a pretty interesting discussion, but I did walk away wondering why I’ve never had the same discussion with anyone about textbooks. The taxpayers of South Carolina spend about $4 million in Kershaw County for textbooks. It’s more than a little surprising to me that the “bang for the buck” from textbooks is rarely, if ever, questioned.

That being said, it’s always a good thing to talk about and analyze the return on any investment we make in education, including technology. I was working in schools back in the early 1980s when computers first started showing up in classrooms. The stand-alone Apple 2Cs and TRS-80s of the era don’t have much in common with what is available today. But then, as now, we were asking ourselves what technology actually brought to the table and how it would help us teach better and prepare students more effectively for the future. (Let me say here that how to educate students for a world where .001 seconds can be measured accurately is a question I struggle with daily.)

So where is the payback for technology in a school setting? What is the “bang for the buck?” I believe it comes in terms of three key areas. The first is access to information. In a society where information doubles every two years, there is no way that anyone can really keep up. What was accurate and up-to-date a year ago, or a month ago, or even an hour ago, may not be anymore. A textbook or an encyclopedia (remember them?) certainly can’t keep up. Digital textbooks that can be constantly updated and accessed through laptops or other devices can keep pace, as can fingertip access to Internet resources. Further, technology provides access to many more kinds of information, from text to video to primary source materials that have never before been widely available. When I was in high school back in the dark ages, I had to do a term paper on the New Deal. I went to the library and painstakingly found some books and journal articles, just like everybody did in 1969. Technology has made it a different world. I recently Googled the New Deal and found over 2.2 billion (yes, billion) possible sources of every imaginable type, accessible without my having to go anywhere.

The second concrete educational benefit I see from technology relates to workforce preparation and, by extension, economic development. Recently, my dad had some surgery. I was overwhelmed by the way in which technology permeates every aspect of health care, from the most complex tasks like surgery to more routine tasks like planning and monitoring patient menus. Almost every employee I encountered needed to have more than just a bare functional mastery of technology. We all see the same demand in many other jobs. Ask the mechanic who works on your car how technology has changed the landscape. I recently learned that production workers at the new Continental Tire facility in Sumter will use an iPad app for quality control. The bottom line is that prospective employers expect workers to already have the ability to utilize technology in practical and productivity situations. I believe the excellent technology readiness of Kershaw County graduates can and should be a great selling point for economic development in our community.

Finally, technology levels the academic playing field. Students who do not have meaningful access to technology at home must have meaningful access to it at school if they are to be able to take advantage of the opportunities available in a changing work environment. This is also an important economic development issue. An economically viable community makes sure that its entire potential workforce is being developed. The long-term economic success of Kershaw County is tremendously dependent on the quality of its entire workforce.

The difficulty of this discussion is that you can’t apply a simple metric that measures “bang for the buck.” It’s more complex than that; however, providing students and their teachers with more and richer sources of information, preparing students more effectively for the future work world, and leveling the academic playing field seem like very good and legitimate places to start.

I’m always pleased to talk with community members about our schools. My direct dial phone number is 425-8916 and my email is frank.morgan@kcsdschools.net. Citizens can also contact me through the “Ask the Super” link on the homepage of the district Website. I also invite folks to read my “blog” and listen to the podcast I record after each school board meeting with meeting highlights. Both of these, and a whole lot more, can be accessed at www.kershaw.k12.sc.us.

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