URBANA – Teachers have a saying: When you don't understand something about your computer, ask your students.
So if you ask students what they think of the Urbana school district's technology – both its present and its potential – it's no surprise they have plenty to say.
Alexander Mouschovias, a junior taking a programming class, said he's seen many of the school computers in a state beyond their expiration date. With more money for technology, he'd like to see not only newer computers, but also more computer classes and modern sound equipment in the theater department.
With endless money, freshman Cody Breitenfeldt would give every student a tablet-style laptop.
"If everyone had a portable tablet, that would eliminate folders and papers being lost," he said.
They're not the only ones dreaming in bits and bytes at Urbana schools.
The district maintains hundreds of computers for as many uses, from teachers taking attendance online to classrooms of students videoconferencing with peers across the country.
"The possibilities are endless," said John Morrow, the district's director of instructional technology.
But most of the district's computers are more than 5 years old, and some are a decade old. In technology terms, that's antique.
Many of the district's computers won't accept program upgrades, Morrow said. Many teachers buy their own computers for school. Some lessons that could benefit from showing a video or doing a quick Google search aren't possible.
"We have a lot of computers which are purple iMacs that are 10 years old," Morrow said. "When they die, and they do ... we are not necessarily in a position to replace them."
It's a problem with future consequences. "If you can't use a computer," Mouschovias said, "you won't have a good career."
The state of the units
Carol Godoy, the technology instructor at Urbana High, worries about the situation.
"Personally, I think that the state of technology in this district is dire," she said.
Because teachers are required to have a computer for work, and not enough working computers are available, computers have been pulled from student use to give to teachers, though student computer labs are still in good shape, she said.
The high school also has such a slow network that many things technologically possible aren't practically possible – like watching video-based candidate debates in the computer lab.
"Our network can't run that," Godoy said. "It would crash."
The network is an area where she has high hopes, however: With money from a bond approved by the school board in 2007, the district is spending more than $200,000 in upgrades this year.
"We've identified the money and John (Morrow) has had that, and he now has a regular source for maintaining the network," school board Vice President John Dimit said. "That part of the puzzle has been resolved."
But in other areas, Morrow's technology budget is so small he can replace only a few computers a year and spends "a lot of time keeping Frankenstein-sorts of things together – it's an inefficient way of doing things," he said. "We have to think short-term because we need that tool right now."
Instead, he's hoping for a dedicated annual budget so he can plan a rotation of equipment replacement. According to the district's 2007-08 budget summary, about $140,000 was allotted to technology for instructional staff.
In the meantime, Morrow said, he's trying to make the most of the money available, like installing copiers that would cut ink costs or possibly using free open-source software.
Another potential cost-cutter: teaching teachers to use the technology more efficiently, as Prairie Elementary teacher Tanya Colman does in a class for Urbana teachers. She starts the course by showing how to discard old e-mail – the better to prevent system crashes.
"You've got to be the janitor on your own computer," she said. "We all as teachers have to learn to do some simple things."
Marcia Wickes, a special-education teacher at Wiley Elementary taking Colman's class, believes in the use of technology not only as an educational force, but as an equalizing force.
But without thorough computer training at school, kids without computers at home "are so being left behind," she said. For many of Wickes' students, technology like a keyboard can enable a child to type his thoughts or answers when pencils prove too difficult to handle.
Don Owen, the district's assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, said that although the district is "not where we want to be" in terms of technology, "we view it as having a lot of potential ý in terms of ideas, in terms of the skills of the teachers."
He said it's difficult to add new expenses without having to trim or cut other useful programs.
"We've been through some very, very serious budget-cutting," he said. "That's the challenge: How do we find new sources for funding?"
Owen said $150,000 "would be kind of a bare minimum" for annual technology funding.
"Instead of being four to 10 years behind, (we) would be two to three years behind," he said.
But that number is still far short of the educational possibilities.
"If we're really looking at bare minimums, we're not honoring what we owe to our students and our staff," he said. "When I dream big about technology, I see it not just as a research tool, (but one where) the students are actually the ones that are creating and inventing new things."
In the Danville school district, the staff has found a way to provide technology by using a combination of low-interest state loans and leasing computers with one provider, Hewlett Packard.
"When you do a lease program, you're able to budget in advance the cost," said Christel Powell, the district's manager of information systems. "When we look at the cost of disposing of equipment, (leasing) just made more sense."
The district buys business-quality computers which, though they cost more – about $1,700 each, according to district business director Shanae Hinkle – can be used to enable up to eight workstations to run from the same computer.
In Urbana, "leasing is something we've talked about as an option," Owen said.
He said Urbana is also looking at grants, including some where the district would match state or federal money. Owen also said money from private donors through organizations such as the Urbana Alumni Association has also helped purchase new technology.
Morrow said many staff members have written for grants, like one received to update the UHS business lab, or have carved money from other budgets for equipment.
Owen and other staff members will present information about the district's technology at the Feb. 5 school board meeting.
"I'm confident that we will be able to find funding sources," Owen said.
Dimit said the district needs to think about long-term technology needs.
"We're trying to come up with a revenue source ... where we can replace the computers on a five-year schedule," he said. "I don't want to be paying for computers more than the life of the computer.
"Also, it's important that we identify a source of revenue that Mr. Morrow and the district can count on annually. The problem that we've left John with is that in one year, there's maybe more money than ought to be available, and the next year there's no money, and it's from feast to famine and we ought to even that out."