Keeping track of their schools’ technology resources in relation to the digital divide, staff development, and various technology goals is no small task for state or local education officials. Yet monitoring those resources is key to ensuring equity, gauging progress, and qualifying for some types of funding. Now, a new online program aims to make the task significantly more manageable by allowing education leaders to track, analyze, and evaluate technology changes as they occur in their schools.

OnTarget, developed by AWS Convergence Technologies Inc., a provider of weather monitoring technology, was introduced three years ago to help educators at the Maryland Department of Education track the progress and continuing deployment of technology at state and local levels.

Today, this same technology is being used in Mississippi, too, and is being offered as a product to all states, as educators search for ways to close technology gaps and position their schools for funding under newer, stricter federal guidelines set forth by the Bush administration.

Bob Marshall, chief executive officer of AWS and chairman of the State Technology Committee in Maryland, helped develop OnTarget after discovering there was no truly efficient way to track the use of technology in schools at any level.

“As committee chair, I can tell you that one of our primary tasks is to monitor how [Maryland] schools use technology. We didn’t know what they were doing,” Marshall said.

According to Marshall, it took 18 months for his committee to compile a paper-based report administrators could use to judge how technology was being used throughout the state’s schools.

OnTarget provides the same information compiled in the state’s paper-based report in a interactive database that can be updated to show changes in real time and customized to illustrate visually the progress each district has made toward individual and statewide technology goals.

Before the system, tracking technology from school to school and school system to school system was difficult, Marshall pointed out.

“One school could have a student-to-computer ratio of 5 to 1, and another one two blocks down the street could have a ratio of 200 to 1. It’s a tremendous tool to see how schools stack up next to other schools in the state,” Marshall said.

In Maryland, educators have found the program’s ability to highlight the digital divide especially helpful. For instance, schools in Prince George’s County were awarded $9 million in funding after educators there used OnTarget to help prove the county’s student to computer ratio was well above the state’s overall goal of 5 to 1.

“It really helps us focus in on improving technology. It shows a big gap from the state targets,” said Judy Finch, chief of technology for Prince George’s County.

OnTarget has also provided schools in Mississippi and Maryland with an opportunity to judge how well teachers understand and use the technology in the classroom. Each state’s findings consist of a section for teacher evaluation.

“We didn’t realize how many teachers weren’t using technology until we sat down to answer their questions. It helps us judge where teachers are, where they are lacking, and where they need to go,” said Zucchini Dean, information technology planner for Mississippi State Schools.

In Maryland, educators have found much of the same.

“It really points out to us that teachers need much more training. We have to remember a lot of the teachers today never had those types of courses,” Finch said.

Marshall said his company was able to use much of the same kinds of graphing and technological analyses in OnTarget that it has used for years to monitor weather. Most schools, he said, do not have the infrastructure in place to build such an interactive technology tracking program.

“It was a matter of leveraging the technology we already had,” Marshall said. “We have taken great strides to eliminate the digital divide.”

Educators in Maryland and Mississippi agree that OnTarget has helped to fill a void where schools alone have lacked the resources.

“The content is really customizable. We know what we want to ask, they provide all the data crunching,” said Barbara Reeves, director of instructional technology for the Maryland Department of Education.

“I’m not a mathematician or a data cruncher, so having data in a user-friendly way is very helpful to me. We were aware that there was probably a digital divide, but we weren’t aware of exactly how it existed,” she said.

Schools participating in the OnTarget program have agreed to make findings of the online report accessible to members of the public, including parents, students, and lawmakers. Those interested in following the progress of technology in Maryland and Mississippi schools can access the figures through the AWS web site.

Although Maryland and Mississippi are the only states currently using the product, Marshall said at least a dozen others have entered into talks with the company about acquiring OnTarget.

Maryland, the pilot state, did not pay for OnTarget’s services. Marshall said he believes the product could range anywhere from $25,000 to hundreds of thousands of dollars, depending on a given state’s size and needs.

Despite a potentially high price tag, interest in OnTarget continues to surge in light of President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” program, which requires schools to demonstrate progressive learning to receive certain monies.

“It’s more critical now than ever to make sure that district and state schools are lined up for federal funding. Without a system like OnTarget in place, it’s almost like you are flying blind,” Marshall said.

Links:

eSchool News Buyer’s Guide
http://www.eschoolnews.org/buyersguide
Company Search on “AWS”

OnTarget
http://aws.com/ontarget

Mississippi State Department of Education
http://www.mde.k12.ms.us

Maryland State Department of Education
http://www.msde.state.md.us

Prince George’s County, Md., Schools
http://www.co.pg.md.us/Education