When Missoula County Public Schools first tried to put on a technological development day for teachers three years ago, people were asked to turn off their personal devices out of fear the network would go down.
Last week, during the annual MCPS Google Fest, Senior Information Systems Manager Russ Hendrickson said participants were told to power on all their devices and push the network to the limit.
In 2014, MCPS was about five to 10 years behind when it came to technology. Internet access varied by classroom, few of the school devices were categorized and the schools' computers were at risk for data breaches.
MCPS put a plan into action to fix its approach to technology. This included hiring Hendrickson and restructuring the school's information technology division. The task of connecting all 17 MCPS schools with the state's first fiber network owned by a district is almost complete. This work earned Hendrickson recognition as 2017's Outstanding Technology Leader from the Northwest Council for Computer Education.
On Tuesday, the district – which is about two years into its four-year technology plan – had another breakthrough, having negotiated a new internet services contract that's about $80,000 a year cheaper than what the district had paid in the past.
The school is now purchasing things like Chromebooks, which are about a fifth of the cost of desktop computers, Hendrickson said.
The schools still average about three devices per student, Hendrickson said.
The device-to-student ratio can affect classrooms when projects require data tracking, which is part of Hellgate science teacher Brian Connelly's IB curriculum.
Sometimes Connelly will allow students to use their phones as replacements for the school devices, but that can sometimes call attention to low-income students who don't have phones, Connelly said.
But, there's progress, Hendrickson said.
MCPS Executive Director of Business and Operations Patrick McHugh said an initial technology levy in 2013 helped the district to get new devices and upgrade software. However, MCPS was outpaced by the changing technology and lacked the funding needed to catch up.
More technology funding was approved in 2015 as part of the MCPS Smart Schools 2020 initiative.
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Much of technology is set up for obsolescence, though, McHugh said. Hendrickson recommends all devices be upgraded every five years.
There are a lot of areas where technology will help keep the cost of education down, McHugh said. But software prices continue to increase, a concern in coming years, as more statewide testing is being completed on computers.
"We aren't ordering pencils and test books anymore," McHugh said
Hendrickson has given the schools a lot of independence when it comes to deciding how to meet teachers and students needs.
Connelly, who teaches Earth and Space science as well as IB biology, sat on the Hellgate's technology committee last year.
Technology in the schools has improved in Connelly's time there. Having a hot spot in every classroom has made everything easier, he said. But, no matter what, Connelly said the schools are always going to be behind when it comes to technology.
While he was getting his master's degree about seven years ago, one of his professors said, "I'm not going to teach you about SMART Boards, because technology moves so fast, you won't be using them." But there are still SMART Boards in the classroom.
Connelly doesn't use the SMART Boards, which are mounted on whiteboards, taking away that tool.
Such outdated technology stymies students, he said.
These kids need to be exposed to technology and taught more about it, Connelly said. The prevailing myth is teenagers are tech savvy, he said. But for the most part, his students use apps and social media sites. When asking them to do a Google search, many struggle to understand how to formulate a proper keyword search, he said.
"If we want these kids to be ready for the new world, we need to expose them to the latest technology," Connelly said. "Otherwise they aren't going to be well-equipped."