School board reps lobby for tablet computers for all Alaska students, teachers

JUNEAU — Top officials from the Alaska Association of School Boards testified Monday afternoon in front of two senators on a subcommittee delegated by the Senate Finance Committee to work on the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development’s budget, describing the goals of a four-year initiative to provide all of Alaska’s students and teachers with tablet computers.

The “1 to 1 Initiative,” as the AASB has dubbed it, would see roughly $200 per student spent every year — with 40 percent of that cost coming from school districts and 60 percent being provided by the state — to have full participation by the fourth year of the program.

As AASB Executive Director Carl Rose and AASB Consortium for Digital Learning Director Bob Whicker described it, “cohorts” of roughly 32,250 users — each representing one-quarter of all K-12 public school students in the state — would be brought into the initiative each year.

“The issue here is engagement,” Rose said. “Kids today, they live in a different world. They multitask. They need their information rapidly. It’s difficult for them to sit in line, sit in a chair and take a lecture.”

Gov. Sean Parnell has already shown interest in the project, proposing $5.9 million for the digitization of education in his operating budget proposal for fiscal year 2014 that would include the approximately $3.9 million that AASB officials say will be needed from the state for the first year of the 1 to 1 Initiative. Parnell touted that prospective investment in the speech he made in December to the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce unveiling his proposed budget.

However, the House Finance subcommittee on the DEED budget proposed deep cuts to the amended budget Parnell submitted to the Alaska State Legislature, including more than halving the $5.9 million for digitized education — down to $2.61 million.

Sen. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, noted the House subcommittee’s reduction.

“Given the budget adjustments that were made in the House Education budget subcommittee and that might very well go through … do you see a way to start maybe at half the speed you anticipate, take eight years to reach, and how would that affect the per-student cost?” Gardner asked.

Rose sounded doubtful.

“This is a scalable initiative,” said Rose. “It’s been field-tested. And it is a doable thing. … Eight years is a long time to sustain a project. I’m trying to think of all the legislators who aren’t here who were here eight years ago, right, and the same in our schools. We have a lot of turnover, and I think the time to strike is now.”

Gardner asked if the equipment lease pricing offered by Apple Inc. and other prospective vendors was “dependent on ‘X’ number of units per year.

“And would that change significantly if we didn’t implement at that rate?” Gardner asked.

Rose reiterated his belief that the state should move quickly to implement the digital learning initiative.

“I can’t speak for the vendor, but I will tell you this,” said Rose. “I can see some probability in four years as an investor. I don’t know if I see the same probability and promise for eight years. What you’re talking about here is a four-year promise. I can deal with a four-year promise. As an investor, I don’t think I can deal with an eight-year promise.”

Rose added, “There is a sense of urgency here. If we’re going to change our classrooms, it can’t take eight years to do it.”

A large part of the 1 to 1 Initiative, as proposed, is “professional development” — training teachers how to effectively use tablet devices for educational purposes.

Rose and Whicker suggested schools that are interested in being early adopters will provide a model for the rest of the state.

“I can’t tell you how school districts will do it,” said Rose. “But the ones who want to start will show us the way, and the others will follow.”

“Personally, I’ve been neck-deep in this for a decade, and we’ve thought and thought and thought this through, and I really believe that we are ready to roll that out on the scale that we’re talking about,” Whicker said.

While Apple is involved in the project and other potential vendors like Dell Inc. have yet to sign on, school districts will not be required to use Apple products, according to Rose.

“When you look here, you’re going to see Apple all over this thing,” Rose told the senators. “And so the next question you should be asking is, you know, ‘Is this going to be a sole-source operation?’ And I guarantee you it’s not. … We believe in local control, and we want people to have the latitude to go and make whatever decisions they want to make.”

In response to a question from Sen. Mike Dunleavy, R-Wasilla, chairman of the subcommittee, about what opposition the initiative might face, Rose said the AASB has been hampered by not getting enough information out to the public. He also asked the senators not to embrace the idea of Apple being the initiative’s sole vendor, saying again he wants to allow “local control” over what products schools adopt.

A foreign university is among the other AASB Consortium for Digital Learning partners mentioned in Rose and Whicker’s presentation.

“We have gotten a lot of attention from people that have been paying attention,” said Whicker. “And that means internationally, also. The University of Auckland in New Zealand is very interested because of our aboriginal languages and the role that they play within it.”

Rose said the interest from the University of Auckland prompted the University of Alaska to get involved with the initiative as well.

The process of finalizing the FY14 operating budget is ongoing in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

The House Finance Committee adopted its subcommittees’ findings into a committee substitute for Parnell’s budget last week. It is expected to consider budget amendments this week.

Meanwhile, Senate Finance subcommittees are preparing to close out their sections of the budget and bring their recommendations back to the full Finance Committee for review.

• Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at 586-1821 or at mark.d.miller@juneauempire.com.

 

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