LEE COUNTY — Lee County School Board members understand the need to expand digital learning opportunities for students. But they worry where funding for a state-mandated transition to electronic learning materials will come from, and about the implications for students without internet access at home.
Florida school districts are required to move from textbooks to electronic instructional materials by 2015. Exactly what that means is not yet known, but it is likely to cost millions of dollars to implement because it requires purchasing the electronic devices, providing training to teachers and building upon the district's IT infrastructure. Under the draft version of the Department of Education's proposed strategy, it would also require parents to chip in for the cost of the devices.
Board member Thomas Scott said he sees the need to build on the district's available technology, but is concerned about families who may not be able to afford the electronic devices. He also said the costs of the program will likely fall to the district, and require an increase in its revenue, whether through a millage increase or other means.
"This program needs to be very carefully thought through from beginning to end," he said Tuesday, speaking after the board received an update on the state's plan.
Another board member, Don Armstrong, said he has asked legislators how the program will be funded.
"They say, I don't know," he said. "Well if you don't know, how am I supposed to know? It's going to be very challenging."
Dwayne Alton, the district's director of information technology, said he expects the Department of Education's plan to change over time. The state's vision, he said, includes interactive and adaptive digital content, access to a personal internet device that can be used for school, digitally-assessed tests and access to an array of virtual courses.
For teachers, he said it will mean a move from primarily standing at the front of the classroom teaching to serving as more of a facilitator and following students' progress on a device.
"It's a very different world," Alton said.
He said the level of funding for the switch remains unclear, and the costs won't be known until officials have a better understanding of what the digital content will be. The choice of digital platforms has "exploded," Alton said, with the availability of multiple versions of laptops and tablets. To choose which device to use, administrators need to consider compatibility, battery life and cost, among other factors.
The education department's proposed device strategy calls for giving each student a Netbook paid by the state, districts and parents, he said. Alton said administrators are also concerned about the costs for parents and also about students who don't have access to the internet.
He said he expects the plan to shake out over the next year, with more changes possible in the spring.
Board members emphasized the need to plan ahead for the transition — a comment that was echoed by Superintendent Joseph Burke.
"We're going to have to take control of this ourselves," Burke said, "take a look at what we think we want and how we're going to package it — and fund it in a responsible way."
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The district is searching for a new director of communications, public relations, and marketing after Joe Donzelli decided to leave the post for a new position.