For years, college administrators and business leaders have complained that American students coming out of high school are not as well-prepared for the rigors of higher education and the workplace as many of their foreign-educated counterparts.
With some trepidation, but also with an attitude that it is a must-do move a decade into the 21st Century, the Wauwatosa School District is opening to middle and high school students the digital technology toolbox used by most professionals and academics.
The most cautionary item on a long list of tech initiatives is that all students from sixth grade up – with the exception of a handful whose parents opted them out – will have access to the full suite of Google online applications, including open e-mail accounts and file creation and sharing.
Up to now, the schools have used closed-loop, proprietary systems to allow students to access homework assignments, lessons posted by their teachers and a restricted number of approved research sites. To go further than that, kids had to use their computers at home and on their own.
"It got to the point where we had to loosen the restrictions on student access," said Jamie Price, the district technology coordinator (no relation to the writer). "We were dealing with the haves and the have-nots. Too many households still do not have up-to-date technology that kids can use, even to e-mail and Internet access."
The idea is to create "anywhere, anytime" information access to all students, the same as is enjoyed by most college students and professionals. That means inviting and encouraging them to participate in a network that goes far beyond their own classrooms – giving them, in fact, global access.
That has some people a little worried about protecting the children from themselves and others, as well as protecting the information in the system.
"How is the information protected?" School Board member Sharon Muehlfeld wanted to know.
Price explained that the school district had acquired a new web domain that will give control over user accounts, with the usual filters and safeguards any other business or institution would have. But he said that would not keep those account users – the kids – from reaching out to world of information and contacts.
"I can be limited," Price said, "but we didn't want to go that route.
"Our plan is to trust in the beginning and restrict only if we have to – if problems arise."
Price said one reason he believed that students could be trusted to use an open e-mail account wisely is that kids have already moved away from that technology as a social tool.
"Kids by and large don't use e-mail much anymore," Price said. "They use texting and Facebook. The hope is that they will see this for what it is: a way to access information for research and projects.
"A student studying German or World History might contact a counterpart in Germany for their perspective."
Supervisor of Student Learning Bill Anderson said that students without access to open network technology were being denied the methods that come most naturally to them.
"Our kids right now are digital natives," Anderson said. "They've grown up with this. Those of us who grew up in the 20th Century are digital immigrants. We've had to learn a whole new language in which they are already fluent."
Because of that, the greater worry is that teachers, especially older ones, will have more trouble embracing the technologies than will their students.
"We are educating teachers," Price said, "and we are undertaking this with vim and vigor. We have identified 18 teachers in particular who are savvy and excited, and they will be the trailblazers – our team leaders."
Engaging Google apps is only one element of a broader student technology upgrade that also includes the Mobility Initiative being built around the purchase earlier this year of 1,000 first-generation iPads.
"The iPads have been delivered and are under lock and key," Price said, adding that they would be deployed in May with the necessary accessories and basic applications in place.
One challenge, Price said, was to find cases that could "withstand the rigor of student use."
Price said the schools were also increasing the presence of Apple desktop computers, which will serve as syncing stations for the iPads. He said that was "much to the delight" of a faculty talent pool of "rogue agents" – teachers who prefer and have wanted Macs, and in some cases have acquired them on their own.
Price said that library digital services such as catalog sharing would also be integrated with PCs, Macs and iPads, and that with the help of a grant from the Education Foundation of Wauwatosa called "Bringing Multimedia to the Classroom," every elementary school would be outfitted with a mobile multimedia studio.