Despite tight budgets, many public schools are making it a priority to bring more cutting-edge technology into classrooms — from interactive, touch-screen whiteboards to laptops and iPads — in hopes of engaging students often more comfortable with keyboard and screen than pen and paper.
At Maunawili Elementary School, which has an annual "technology fundraiser," every classroom is now equipped with touch-screen SMART boards in place of standard whiteboards, and students have digital responders so teachers can ask questions of a class and get instant feedback on how many understood the lesson.
Waianae and Nanakuli high schools, thanks in large part to community grants, are moving this year to providing each student with a laptop computer as part of an initiative to turn around low-performing campuses. Other schools, including Kalani High School, already have one-to-one laptop programs.
And Aiea Intermediate School, enrollment 580, has more than one computer for each student on campus.
"Students are digital natives," said Terri Trevathan, who teaches math and language arts at Maunawili. With more technology in classrooms, "there’s more student engagement."
The Department of Education estimates there are about 72,000 computers scattered across Hawaii’s 286 public schools, up 63 percent from 2003, when there were 44,000 computers in schools. Meanwhile, nearly 100 percent of classrooms have Internet access, from 94 percent seven years ago.
And other technologies are making their way into classrooms, from the SMART boards to robotics and video production equipment.
Still, educators say there is a long way to go, including toward the department’s goal of having one computer for each of Hawaii’s 178,000 public school students.
And they point out the need for big upgrades to electrical and communications infrastructure at older schools before more large-scale technology improvements can be reached.
Many Hawaii students still find themselves in a "technology desert" at school, compared with what they have at home, said Randolph Scoville, principal of Ahuimanu Elementary School. He added that campuses are "all upgrading. We’re doing what we can with what we have."
Ahuimanu tries to start off the year by setting aside $5,000 for technology or tech repairs. Then by the end of the year, Scoville has a better idea how much more he is able to spend on equipment. That system makes it tough to plan for big purchases. "How can you plan to buy a new car if you don’t have the money?" he said.
Scoville said another challenge is the electrical and data transmission needs of high-tech equipment. He said the school has not had any major problems yet, but is trying to figure out whether having a computer for every child would mean "electrical overload."
The campus, with 400 students, has a 30-computer lab and five "roving labs" — carts with 20 laptops each.
The DOE sought $30 million from the 2010 Legislature to address a backlog of electrical upgrade jobs at schools and secured half of the money. Some of those upgrades will ensure schools can install more tech equipment without overtaxing their electrical systems.
Schools are largely responsible for incorporating technology purchases into their own budgets, and principals note that buying pricey tech products has been more difficult during the recession. But many schools view technology as a key tool to improve achievement and keep students engaged.
"It’s a very high priority," said David Wu, assistant superintendent for the DOE Office of Information Technology Services. "Schools have had to be very creative on how to get this technology."
In some cases they have put off other purchases. In others they have sought grants or turned to fundraisers.
Wu said it is hard to determine how Hawaii schools compare with those on the mainland on technology. But he did say the one-to-one computer goal is "fairly aggressive."
In addition to the one-to-one laptop goal, DOE anticipates every school will have wireless Internet access by 2013. It also wants all schools to have high-speed broadband Internet access, though that is a longer-term goal.
Darrel Galera, principal at Moanalua High School, said high-tech equipment has not replaced more traditional classroom materials, like textbooks. But items like SMART Boards, laptops and iPads have supplemented learning and improved teaching methods.
"School is not some museum," he said. Remaining technologically up to date is "essential if we’re going to prepare them for the real world."
The school of 2,100 students has a number of programs designed around high-tech equipment, including a media communications technology program in which students videoconference with students from around the world and create multimedia projects.
Maunawili Elementary’s 400 students learn in classrooms with SMART Boards, which are touch-screen, so a teacher or student can manipulate objects on the board (making them bigger or smaller and moving them around), can go through electronic lessons or use digital "markers" to write on the screen.
The school also has digital responders — hand-held devices students can use to input numerical, true/false, multiple-choice or short answers. The answers are instantly displayed on the board, allowing a teacher to see whether an entire class — not just the students with hands raised — are understanding a lesson.
"Technology is the key to educating the 21st-century learner," said Ryan Amine, principal of Maunawili, believed to be the only public school in Hawaii with SMART boards in every classroom.
Maunawili purchased the boards, which cost about $1,700 each, for each of its 15 classrooms, along with special-education rooms and the library, starting three years ago thanks to annual "technology fundraiser" the school has held for 17 years. They raise about $20,000 per year through the effort.
The school purchased its last batch of SMART boards in late 2009 and used tech fundraiser dollars this year to purchase new laptops for each teacher and to install a new computer lab.
"Students go home and they have their iPods. They have their smart phones," said Mark Rieben, technology coordinator at Maunawili for 23 years. "For them to be able to see the same technology (at school) or maybe technology they don’t have at home, it really excites them. It engages them, and they feel more a part of their learning."