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School technology plan would begin with infrastructure and training, House Speaker Becky Lockhart says

House Speaker Becky Lockhart presented her plan to increase the number of learning devices in Utah schools to members of the Public Education Appropriations Committee on Tuesday.
House Speaker Becky Lockhart presented her plan to increase the number of learning devices in Utah schools to members of the Public Education Appropriations Committee on Tuesday.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — House Speaker Becky Lockhart on Tuesday described the direction and scope of her plan to flood Utah schools with learning technology. But the specifics of her modernization proposal — including its hefty price tag — remain undeveloped.

The unnumbered bill, which is being sponsored by Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, seeks to place a learning device — such as a tablet or other personal computing device — in the hands of every Utah public school student in the state. The initiative is estimated to cost anywhere between $200 million and $300 million.

Lockhart said the bill would begin by upgrading the state's educational infrastructure to support the devices, followed by an investment in teacher and administrator training to effectively implement the technology in classrooms. Only then, she said, would the use of the devices themselves lead to greater student achievement.

"You have to have the professional development for the teachers and for the administrations, and that has to come before the device," the speaker said. "We want to make sure we do this in the right way."

Speaking to the cost of the proposal, Lockhart said lawmakers have not yet received updated revenue projections, making it too early to accurately predict what level of appropriations will be available. She also suggested that it may take several years of work by the Legislature to fully modernize technology in schools.

But Lockhart said if education is truly the priority of the Legislature, all areas of state revenue and expense must be considered on the table for discussion.

"We can’t do it all in one year, but that doesn’t mean we can’t commit to having this be the goal," she said.

Lockhart did not offer any supporting data for her plan to show a need for technology in schools as a basis to increase student performance.

A February 2013 Pew Research Center study measuring teacher-student technology use at home and in the classroom revealed that "digital technologies have become central to their teaching and professionalization. At the same time, the Internet, mobile phones, and social media have brought new challenges to teachers and they report striking differences in access to the latest digital technologies between lower and higher income students and school districts."

Among the findings:

  • "Mobile technology has become central to the learning process, with 73 percent of advanced placement and National Writing Project teachers saying that they and/or their students use their cell phones in the classroom or to complete assignments.”
  • "More than four in 10 teachers report the use of e-readers (45%) and tablet computers (43%) in their classrooms or to complete assignments."

Rates drop significantly for teachers instructing low income students. In Utah, Gibson suggested that the initial infrastructure upgrade could cost roughly $50 million. He said school districts would be responsible for building any future schools to the higher technological standard.

Gibson referenced the estimated $300 million price tag and said "that number hasn't changed," but added that as the specifics of the bill come together, that price could dip down to $250 million for full implementation.

He compared education to transportation, in that the state has established decades-long plans for transportation in Utah without a similar vision for the improvement of public schools. Gibson described the modernization plan as a "bold vision" for the future that lawmakers can work toward.

"What is our 10- to 20-year education plan?" he asked. "Where will technology be in 20 years? And where will our classrooms be?"

Lockhart similarly spoke of the need for forward-thinking in regards to education. She said technology has become a part of daily living, and schools need to reflect that shift.

"We are all technology immigrants around this table. Our children are not," the speaker told the Public Education Appropriations Committee. "Our children are technology natives. This is how they learn, and we have to recognize that."

But Sen. Pat Jones, D-Holladay, questioned why a potentially $300 million proposal was being presented with so few specifics in the third week of the legislative session. She asked why Lockhart's plan had not been discussed during the monthly meetings of the Education Task Force, which was formed last year with the goal of establishing long-term goals for public schools.

"This does seem to be a little late in the game for a request," Jones said.

Lockhart responded that it is the nature of the Legislative process that bills, particularly those with large fiscal notes, require time to prepare.

"I would submit there's nothing abnormal about this," she said.

No action was taken on the proposal by lawmakers Tuesday, but they spoke positively about the proposal's focus on teacher training.

Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, who is known for his advocacy of digital learning, said that with proper implementation, the use of learning technology in schools would lead to gains in literacy and numeracy among students and help the state achieves its educational goals.

"Our entire school system will be totally revolutionized as a result of this," Stephenson said.

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