Oberlin Schools levy puts laptops on the line

By Laurie Hamame - lhamame@aimmediamidwest.com



Steve Nielsen knows you’ve got to spend money to make money, and he’s asking Oberlin taxpayers to trust in his vision.

As the technology expert for the Oberlin City Schools, he’s proposed putting a laptop in the hands of every student for testing and classroom use.

The board of education seems to like Nielsen’s plan. Officials want to use an existing 1.3-mill levy to finance it, but first voters will have to renew the property tax issue in November.

Ten years ago, the district tried to convince voters to support a similar issue where every child would get an iPad to use both at school and home. It was soundly defeated.

Teachers had issues regarding the program, Nielsen said. They were concerned with students forgetting the tablet at home, not having it charged, or wouldn’t have home WiFi access.

“We understand that the socioeconomic issues in our community are pretty significant,” he said, pointing to Oberlin’s free-and-reduced lunch program, which is used by more than half of students. “If even one student doesn’t have Internet access at home, you’re really creating more of a problem than what you’re solving in the first place.”

Oberlin isn’t alone in the push for increased technology adoption. Nielsen said many other districts are providing digital devices to students — it’s called a one-to-one program — mainly because of state testing that must be done online.

But for Oberlin, it’s beyond the mandate of testing. For teachers, “the more laptops, the better,” Nielsen said. They can be used to make online lesson plans or download them for free on the Web.

“A pop quiz on a chalkboard isn’t as engaging as a laptop with bright colors,” Nielsen said.

Every classroom has a large interactive touchscreen — they’ve replaced chalkboards — totaling about 80 throughout the whole district. Most are functional, but every time there is a power outage, lightening strike, or electrical surge, the circuit boards are at risk of frying. Oberlin’s models can’t be fixed because replacement parts are no longer produced for that brand.

“It becomes a glorified projector at that point,” Nielsen said. “Teachers have content and lessons created using this technology and all of a sudden it doesn’t work anymore and they have to figure out something on the fly.”

There are other costs related to these systems. Projector bulbs are $100 each and the pens are $60, mounting up to $1,500 per building.

Moving to a different brand of interactive whiteboards would eliminate the strain on the budget and also provide a lengthened lifespan, Nielsen said.

“With the new devices, we propose to roll out 50,000 years of rated life — 187 days of the school year and eight hours during the school day comes out to 33 to 34 years of life of the device,” he said.

There would also be a 50 percent power reduction.

The new equipment would use between 400 to 500 watts while the current projection-based systems consume between 800 to 1,100 watts, so there would be a substantial annual energy savings.

Network servers have about a five-year shelf life. Half of the school’s servers are within that active life window, but the others are between five to seven years of age, said Nielsen. The equipment is still functional, but doesn’t support the latest browsers and software. At that point, he said it’s obsolete.

His plan includes switching to virtualized technology. That means that instead of having seven servers, a single piece of hardware could handle the same workload.

The current seven servers take up an excessive amount of space that could be used for storage instead, Nielsen said. This will bring a 50 percent reduction in costs as well.

“You’re not having to buy hardware, three servers this year, two servers the next year. We’ll have a more manageable cycle and it will be easier to budget for things,” he said.

The school district is always trying to cut costs. Switching to Google Chrome devices instead of Apple products opened up $25,000 annually and increased the number of devices available to students.

Students have found easy ways to get around the school’s Internet security, but Google devices make it much harder.

While updating aged hardware and blown-out circuit boards is on the school’s list of priorities, getting a laptop for every student is at the top.

“If the levy were to fail, the district would really struggle to find the funding to provide the bare minimum amount of devices to do the testing,” Nielsen said. “If we fail to complete the online assessment, we risk losing state dollars. Those state dollars are going to have to be recouped somewhere, more than likely another tax levy.”

Assuming voters support the levy, the one-to-one initiative wouldn’t start until the 2018-2019 school year. This time around, the laptops would all stay at school and wouldn’t go home.

The majority of money will go to Prospect Elementary and Langston Middle School, followed by Eastwood Elementary and Oberlin High School.

Laurie Hamame can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @HamameNews on Twitter.


By Laurie Hamame