Connie Hilton has taught English and Spanish at Vinemont High School for seven years, and in that time she’s seen technology and its uses change in new and exciting ways. The only problem? It hasn’t evolved nearly as fast in most local classrooms.
Luckily, that’s about to change.
More than 200 Cullman County teachers assembled Thursday for the system’s first-ever technology conference. Guest presenters and tech-savvy teachers held sessions for much of the day, showing off everything from open source software tools to Microsoft Office tips that teachers can take with them back to the classroom.
“I usually go to the Alabama Education Technology Conference, but there was no money to send anyone this year, and it’s too expensive to go on your own,” Hilton said, before co-hosting a session about the free cloud storage service DropBox.com. “But, by having this here, we’re able to get all those benefits in a smaller setting, and grow by presenting to our peers. You’re getting more out of it by having so many here, than just sending a few to a conference. You don’t have a lot of opportunities to bring the whole system together like this, and this is a great one.”
Additional funding from a countywide half-cent sales tax passed earlier this year is now filtering into the overall budget, and officials say one of the first orders of business will be bringing local schools — and teachers — up-to-date with more modern technology.
“We have some savvy people in Fairview doing good things, or in Good Hope doing good things, and this is a chance to bring them all together and share what works,” systemwide technology specialist Derek Waddell explained.
With the state education budget slashed, it’s been nearly five years since any technology funds were provided for school systems. Without new resources, the system’s small technology department has been forced into a holding pattern with computers and components that grow more obsolete by the year.
“There has been a lot of hard work that has gone into this, with no real funding, but we felt it was something we needed to provide,” Cullman County schools superintendent Billy Coleman said. “Technology was a great way to kick it off, and I think we’ll make a tremendous step forward. We want to get our schools wireless, and implement devices that go along with that — but first you have to have the foundation. I think this stands as a great indicator for where we’re headed.”
Infrastructure is one area that has plagued the school system for years, as most campuses are still playing catch-up in regards to accessible high-speed Internet and updated classroom technology.
“The state has provided nothing for technology the last few years, and systems with no other resources to rely on have gotten behind,” Coleman said. “But, we’re using 60 percent of that half-cent sales tax for instruction, and some of that will come down to technology for that purpose.”
Budget cuts or not, Waddell said a lack of funding isn’t really the biggest problem — it’s a lack of training on available resources that have put the system even further behind.
“The funding isn’t what it used to be, but a lot of these web tools are free, and we can offer them,” he said. “There are a lot of resources out there, and some teachers may not know what we do have.”
Fairview librarian/media specialist June Chandler shared the benefits of podcasting with her peers, and said the topic in itself shows how much her position has changed in recent years.
“If you ask the average person what a librarian is, they’ll tell you the lady with books and a bun in her hair, but that’s not what it is anymore,” she said. “People always say kids are digital natives now, but just because they’re raised around cars, should we just give them the keys and let them go? No, you have to teach them, and technology works in the same way. But, the teachers have to know it.”
Though the system is making its first push into infrastructure upgrades in more than a decade, Coleman said he doesn’t want anyone to lose sight of the real resource: The teachers and personnel working with students on a day-to-day basis.
“Technology is only as good as the people who use it, and I have great faith in our teachers and administrators as we move forward in this initiative,” he said. “I have all the faith in the world our teachers will use it to help our kids, and to use this as a tool for learning.”
* Trent Moore can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com, or by telephone at 734-2131, ext. 220.