School district’s technology access evolves

Nanaimo school district is about to go wireless.

Nanaimo school district is about to go wireless.

Steve Sproston, the district’s information systems manager, said staff are installing wireless Internet access in all secondary schools this year and plan to extend wireless access to elementary schools next year.

“Our hope is by September, all secondary schools will have wifi coverage,” he said. “This is a first step in a three- to five-year plan. On its own, it’s a vast improvement over what we had.”

A handful of schools already have wireless, but the move means teachers in all schools will soon be able to bring personal tablets and laptop computers into classrooms to incorporate web-based resources into lessons.

Along with the wifi access, network infrastructure upgrades will boost security and allow staff to monitor and maintain the network centrally, detect some faults before they become a bigger problem and even fix some problems remotely – right now if there is a problem, staff have to travel to the school and diagnose problems manually, Sproston said.

“Instead of having to react, we can be proactive,” he said.

Access to computers varies from school to school – some have computers in classrooms, others only in labs.

Sproston said the upgrades will enable teachers to bring their own laptops in to connect with a projector, but the long-term goal is to provide the technology.

“Our progress further is a function of the budget,” he said.

A review conducted by IBM K-12 consultants last year recommends the district buy data projectors for each teacher, two to four desktop computers per classroom and mobile computer labs for each school (one cart of 16 laptops per elementary school and two carts of 32 laptops per secondary school).

The estimated price tag is $3.6 million, or more than $700,000 per year spread over five years. A more expensive option would provide each teacher with data cameras, laptops and electronic chalkboards as well as the projectors.

The current infrastructure upgrades, which will cost about $60,000, are necessary to go forward with the rest of the report’s recommendations, said Sproston.

As the district updates its technology, it could redirect some of the more than $1 million it spends on paper and textbooks to technology, thus offsetting at least some of the costs of the IBM report’s recommendations, he said.

“E-textbooks are coming,” said Sproston. “Eventually personal devices will be something that most kids would have.”

Jamie Brennan, school board chairman, said wireless access gives students immediate contact with the wider world and seeing what others around the world are experiencing can be more engaging than reading about it in a textbook.

“We’ll have to apply some means of control to limit access so it is for educational purposes only,” he said.

Policy on student access to wireless is a discussion Sproston expects will happen with principals next year.

Brennan supports the IBM recommendations, but said it won’t be easy finding the money for it – the district’s secretary-treasurer is predicting a funding shortfall of more than $1 million for next year.

“There are hard choices to be made,” he said. “We can’t sort of park it. If we’re going to commit, we’ll have to commit now.”