Jackson Heights BOE approves tech plan
Upgrading Jackson Heights’ Internet capacity for its students and faculty is likely to cost the district a little more, according to USD 335 Technology Director Vern Andrews, but it’s a necessary cost increase that could be mitigated by switching from Microsoft products to a free service.
During the Jackson Heights USD 335 Board of Education meeting on Monday, board members approved the district’s technology plan for the next few years, which Andrews also recommended to include expanding technology availability for second-grade students and placing a new emphasis on teaching typing skills.
Board members also were introduced to the high school’s new “interactive display board,” which allows students and others computerized access to senior composite pictures and yearbooks dating back to the school’s inception in the late 1960s. Andrews said a console is being built for the interactive display board, which he compared to “an oversized smartphone,” and it should be in place by April.
Andrews’ main immediate concern with the technology plan involves boosting Internet capacity for the district. Right now, the district is served by two 10-megabit DSL lines from CenturyLink that feed out through a wireless server — a system that he said gave the school “the absolute cheapest Internet of anyone in the state for many, many years.”
As well as that system as worked, Andrews noted, it is time for an upgrade.
“We are coming to a point where, with DSL, we can’t go any faster,” he said. “And we are needing to go faster.”
The upgrade plan as suggested by Andrews involves setting up a wireless fiberoptic link through Giant Communications of Holton that he said “will be more expensive, but it will be faster” than the older DSL technology currently serving the district. With the link in place, there will be “a dedicated line” between the district and a wireless transmitter that will pick up the signal.
Furthermore, Andrews told board members that with the fiberoptic technology in place, the possibility exists to increase the available speed and capacity far beyond what’s available to the district via the existing DSL connections.
“It costs more, but there’s no cap,” he said.
That increase in cost will be mitigated somewhat by the district’s participation in the E-Rate program, which utilizes the Universal Service Fund (USF) fee on telephone bills to bring down the cost of providing communications services to poorer and more rural districts. Andrews suggested that the wireless link would cost $1,000 per month, but with E-Rate funding in place, the monthly cost drops to about $350.
Another means of offsetting the increased cost of Internet services involves switching the district’s computers from Microsoft-based word-processing and database programs to Google Classroom, which provides educational applications to schools at no cost. Currently, Andrews said, the district is spending upwards $5,000 a year on licenses for Microsoft products, which will continue to be used through the 2015-16 school year.
Board members appeared favorable to switching to Google Classroom, although board member Melinda Wareham questioned whether Google’s applications would be “as easy to use” and as “user-friendly” as Microsoft’s applications. Andrews said that with some training, starting at the staff level, transitioning from Microsoft to Google should not be a problem.
Elsewhere in the technology plan report, Andrews recommended expanding the availability of technology in the district to cover second-grade students, whom he said “has technology the least.” He proposed the purchase of a small laptop computer for second-graders, a “hybrid” that can be used as a laptop or have its screen detached to use as a tablet, thus providing them with a learning product that can be used to transition from first-graders’ tablets to third-graders’ laptops.
The “hybrid” computers have about the same purchase price that the “netbook” laptop computers that high school students get as part of the school’s 1-to-1 laptop initative, but Andrews recommended that the new computers not be given to high school freshmen right away.
“It’s a new product,” he told the board. “There are some unknowns, especially on the repair side of it… And with freshmen, they tend to be the ones involved if something’s going to break. Very rarely does that happen at the elementary level, but then again, they’re not carrying it around from class to class to class.”
Students also need to be given a new focus on improving their typing skills, Andrews said.
“With a lot of iPhones and other things, the typing skills of our students are lacking,” he said. “In order to have them be proficient and do things fast enough, we’ll be looking at where we can add that in.”
The district’s technology plan is renewed “every three to four years,” Andrews told the board, adding that the plan was once a state requirement of schools. Even though the state has reduced it to “a recommended thing,” he added, the district continues to upgrade its plan on a regular basis.
The plan is different from the district’s annual list of technology requisitions, which Andrews said would be ready for the board’s April meeting, and it includes a survey of district students, staff and patrons on how they think the plan is going. The results of the most recent survey point largely in the direction of “keep doing the same thing we’ve been doing,” he said.
Note: More news from the school board meeting will appear in Monday’s edition.