Hamilton County Schools look beyond iPads for technology

Hamilton County Schools look beyond iPads for technology

February 16th, 2013 by Kevin Hardy in Local Regional News

Hamilton County Department of Education headquarters

Photo by John Rawlston/Times Free Press.

While recent discussions among Hamilton County Schools leaders centered on putting iPads in the hands of all students, officials are now considering cheaper alternatives.

With state tests moving to an online format next year, most Tennessee school districts will have to buy more computers or tablets and increase bandwidth capability.

County officials announced Friday in a Board of Education technology committee meeting that two schools would pilot a version of the $150 Web-based ePortal tablet. The device is created by Atlanta-based MXN Corp. and is being marketed for use in educational settings. Unlike an iPad or an Android-based device, the ePortal doesn't use apps. Its sole use is on the Web.

But apps are what make the iPad so desirable for classroom use, said Patty Kinsey, the county's director of information technology.

"The huge advantage with the iPad is the amount of k-12 applications available," she said. "Apple has jumped ahead of everybody quickly."

But at $150, the soon-to-be-released 10-inch ePortal comes in much cheaper than the iPad, which with its warranty program costs schools about $500. The ePortal will allow schools more control over what information students access. Kinsey said teachers will post links that students can access, so unapproved sites will not be visited.

These new devices will be used in classrooms at Ooltewah Elementary School and Calvin Donaldson Environmental Science Academy for six weeks.

Whether the school system goes with an iPad or another device, schools Superintendent Rick Smith said administrators need to start training teachers soon, so they'll be ready to teach with new technology by the fall.

"The thing we know we've got to do is get the devices in the hands of teachers," Smith said. "They've got to get it ahead of the students."

Information technology staff members hope to set up guest networks at each school so students can bring their own smartphones or tablets from home, creating a "BYOD," or bring your own device, culture. With a guest login, schools still can block certain sites and better control the spread of viruses.

But even if each student has his own device and schools are technologically prepared, Smith said students need a way to access the Internet at home, which helps extend learning beyond school dismissal.

"We need our kids to have a 24/7 opportunity in this community, regardless of socioeconomic status," he said.