Pennsylvania governor calls for two ‘digital’ school districts

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge has proposed spending $5 million to create two school districts so technologically advanced they would serve as models for the world.

If the idea, which Ridge has dubbed the “Digital School District” program, is approved, the Pennsylvania Department of Education will hold a statewide competition to select two districts to participate. The winning districts would be given the resources necessary to perform all functions in every classroom, school, and office using the best technology available.

The project “has the potential to define the next generation of technology in education,” said Eugene Hickok, the department’s secretary.

Districts from across the state would be invited to submit proposals describing their visions for how technology could be used to transform education—from collecting milk money, keeping records, and mapping bus routes, to planning lessons, communicating with parents, matching curriculum to state and local standards, and coordinating staff training and professional development opportunities.

“We don’t want to end up with a new rendition of what we are already doing,” Hickok said. Applicants will need to anticipate what tomorrow’s technology might make possible, in the same way that technology corporations do, he said.

Though state officials want the proposals to be revolutionary, proposals should focus on actual applications that districts could use to make their visions become reality.

“This is an opportunity to stimulate creative thinking,” Hickok said. “Our goal is to encourage people to think differently, to think outside the box.”

John Bailey, director of educational technology for the Pennsylvania Department of Education, agreed. “The way we educate our students has not changed,” he said.

Digitizing schools across the country has happened so slowly that if George Washington were to come back from the dead and visit the nation’s schools, he would not notice many differences, Bailey said.

“Would learning improve if students could move around the classroom using wireless networking technology instead of being anchored to a desktop computer? What would happen to administration, teaching, and everything else if we infuse technology into each aspect?” he asked rhetorically.

High-tech ways of performing various school functions exist, but for the most part, they have not been used fully across entire districts, Bailey said.

“We want to take all the best practices that are out there and collapse them into two school districts,” he said.

The two winning districts would act as tangible models for other districts across the country to see how an entirely digital school system would operate.

“We want to provide some living, breathing models that educators can come and visit,” Bailey said.

Visitors would be able to study the technology in place at the model districts. They’d be able to ask the teachers and students how the integration of tomorrow’s technology affects the teaching and learning process.

“It’s one of those things where they need to see it to get it,” Bailey said.

If the state Legislature approves Ridge’s proposal, officials hope to begin reviewing applications later this year. A panel chaired by Hickok would select the two districts that will become the state’s “digital districts.”

Judy Yoho, technology director for Keystone Central School District, said she is excited about the idea of creating an entirely digital school district.

“We are growing digital kids and we need to give them a digital program,” said Yoho, who plans to submit a proposal if the project is carried out.

Keystone, which encompasses a large rural area of Pennsylvania, already uses technology to perform many functions. Several schools boast digitized cafeterias with debit card systems, and a $15 million Qualified Zone Academy Bond will allow the district to put all its CD-ROMs on a central library server.

In addition, the district conducts its professional development for teachers online, and officials are looking into the feasibility of getting Palm Pilots for the teachers and a security camera system that is connected to the internet so officials can monitor the schools online.

Yoho said the Digital School District proposal is so new that she hasn’t had a chance to think about what else Keystone could do if the district were chosen to participate.

Bailey said corporate sponsors would play a crucial part in decreasing the project’s costs by donating products and services. The companies could use these digital districts to demonstrate how their products work, he said.

Pennsylvania Department of Education

Keystone Central School District

eSchool News Staff

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