County schools officials acknowledge that the initial estimated cost — $18 million — for providing 42,000 students an iPad over the next few years is a big number to swallow. Superintendent Rick Smith, who unveiled the proposal, said the number looks "scary."
True, but relative to what?
Relative to the cost of a half-dozen new schools to relieve overcrowding and residential shift at $20 million to nearly $40 million apiece?
Relative to the cost to stay in the game with a sharp generational technology shift that is now needed here to keep our students competitive with their peers elsewhere (Seattle? Shanghai? Salzburg?) for college, for jobs and for the higher-paying industries that this county, and country, hope to keep or entice?
Or is it "scary" relative to the equally scary cost of failure to keep up with rapidly rising standards for learning and technology -- a failure that essentially would doom too many of our students to backwater schools, and that would effectively lower the boom on our community's future economic prospects?
Indeed, Smith and other leaders in the county school system's technology, planning and curriculum sectors correctly see the need for Hamilton County's public schools to stay abreast with the global technology curve in interactive learning that is already driving competitive educational excellence in other locales, and that has prompted the Tennessee Department of Education to require online student assessments by the 2014-2015 school year.
Just two weeks ago, school officials discussed sinking $200 million in a revamped facilities plan for new schools, renovations and additions. Those new facilities would be financed by new long-term county bonds. It seems fair to suggest that capital upgrades in the school system's technology infrastructure is easily as compelling as upgrades in bricks-and-mortar buildings. Both crumble if left unattended, and there won't be enough private gifts to carry the technology load.
Certainly it would be as much a mistake to treat a systemic technology investment as a wholly operational cost like, say, new roofs for old buildings. We've seen and long documented the miserable result of this distinction. Sound old school buildings are frequently left to deteriorate under failing roofs because funding for the "operational costs" to repair leaky roofs is so widely disregarded. Yet school officials and county commissioners regularly roll out construction bonds for new schools, even though they resist rezoning or reroofing to usefully extend the life of older schools. They also resist the high cost of the textbook budget.
The latter suggests another link to the argument for treating the proposed technology upgrade, in tablets and Wi-Fi infrastructure, as a capital expense. An iPad-style infrastructure would lighten a typical middle-school load of 30-pounds of textbooks in a backpack, just as it would save enormously over time on the textbook budget.
Most importantly, however, development of a tablet infrastructure is the current and rapidly evolving technology venue for interactive learning and technology skills. It offers students infinitely superior storage capacity for books, lesson plans, homework assignments, schedules -- and also parental access.
Interactive aid and teamwork is a keystroke away. Students can learn math, composition and literacy skills with a virtual teacher always at the ready. Groups efforts and class assignments can take wing in a virtual world. Access to the most recent and reliable research is always at hand. The stimulus effect of all that on learning is immeasurable.
The mechanics of implementing appropriate grade and classroom levels for iPad use and personal possession remain to be developed, and so does the Wi-Fi infrastructure for a complete system build-out. The vision and funding for this fundamental shift, however, needs to be grasped quickly. County commissioners must be involved and receptive to funding it. If the county is to nurture students' capacity to exist in the digital world, leaders need to provide their support now.