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Technology in today's schools — Getting an early start is crucial, and costly

In Europe, 5-, 6- and 7-year-olds are learning computer coding. The idea among British, German and Estonian governments and school boards is that if students are familiar with the intricacies of computers at an early age, they will be better prepared for technology jobs later.

The programs teach preschool-age students how to code and do basic computer programming via simple algorithms. Students enjoy the fun, challenging programs as do the instructors, who feel the curriculum is flexible enough to let them teach students what is presently applicable.

This early introduction to computers isn’t just for the sake of the future technology industry. The British government believes that kids who get involved early on with computers have yet another format to express creativity. And regardless of actual career choice down the road, children will need to know how to work in a burgeoning digital era.

If other countries are starting this early, Utah’s students may want to consider ways to compete. The State Board of Education lists educational technology as one of its core standards, yet only a handful of schools enjoy one-to-one tech initiatives (meaning every student receives a personal computing device). While Utah children aren’t yet being incorporated into coding or programming courses, it’s helpful to consider a time when this might be the case.

Dixon Middle School in Provo is one of the few schools where each student has an iPad to use throughout the year. Principal Jarod Sites said test scores have gone up since using iPads because students are better able to focus with the interactive nature of the devices.

Despite Sites’ good report on the devices, adding iPads to more Utah schools is still little more than a speck on the horizon. Earlier this year, Utah House Speaker Becky Lockhart unleashed a heated debate when she proposed to put “an iPad in every backpack.” The plan became controversial because of its hefty $200 million price tag and because of her inability to garner political support.

The cost of technology likely always will be an issue. Utahns shouldn’t immediately dismiss the positive impact technology can have on schools. Solutions as how to implement technology more regularly into Utah schools include: finding ways for individual schools to reach the price tag, applying for grants or using smaller, cheaper versions of the tablets. For instance, North Davis Junior High in Davis County has worked out payment installment plans over several years with its tech vendor.

Another way to get technology into schools is more of a touchy subject — asking parents to chip in or pay the entire cost of the devices.

The Boston Globe asked parents what they thought about this idea. On one hand, parents responded in favor of buying a tablet, saying it’s like other school materials they’ve purchased in the past: pens, notebooks, folders. Tablets and laptops replace those traditional items.

On the other hand, when those parents took into consideration the lifespan of mobile devices, they found the initial price tag of around $400 to $600 starts to escalate. Devices need to be upgraded or replaced after just a few years. That makes for expensive replacements to pens and notebooks. In addition, low-income parents may particularly find this to be a burden.

But the Brookings Institute claims high-tech learning is essential in personalizing education to the needs of the individual. “We need to educate the next generation of scientists, inventors, engineers, and entrepreneurs. … The value of mobile devices is that they allow students to connect, communicate, collaborate and create using rich digital resources.”

Parents can help students embrace these rich resources by making the case for more technology to local school board members and school administration.