“I’d like to see (us) significantly going tablet within five years,” said Randy Scamihorn, vice chairman of the board, of his personal timeline for switching out hard-bound books for screens.
Chris Ragsdale, Cobb’s interim superintendent, said the details of such a transition remain up for discussion, but the ultimate target of going completely digital is now in sight.
“Let me just frame it this way: What we are now discussing is the end goal,” Ragsdale said of the switch. “You can’t necessarily start a technology project without a goal in mind.”
The subject arose during a presentation, delivered by Chief Academic Officer Mary Elizabeth Davis, on impending changes to the way school media centers function. Board member David Morgan and Chairwoman Kathleen Angelucci were not present for the discussion.
Davis said the space that archives books in school — once called libraries, then combined with computer and laptop collections in what came to be known as media centers — will soon undergo a roughly five-year process of converting them to versatile “learning commons.”
The transition from media centers to the county’s vision for learning commons will focus mainly on changing the way teachers use the resources such spaces already have, Davis said. She emphasized the new importance the county aims to place on media specialists and their role in what students learn.
“The media specialist is not essential if all they are doing is checking out books and providing log-ins,” Davis said.
In the new learning commons, Davis said media specialists should have “pervasive and profound influence” on instructional planning at each school.
That might require the district to hire more staff, she said, citing North Cobb High School’s decision to add an additional media specialist.
She said 10 Cobb schools are prepared to start opening learning commons this year.
Those schools would provide the county with insight into what works and what needs improvement in the process of converting media centers to common areas that incorporate multiple subjects and mediums.
“This is not about making it look differently,” Davis said of the spaces slated to become learning commons. “This is actually about making it function differently.”
She said the process of converting media centers into learning commons will involve repurposing existing space — such as filling it with what she called “soft furniture” intended to encourage students to sit and read — and retraining staff to better utilize the technologies already at a school’s disposal rather than constructing a new facility.
Scamihorn said he expects the costs involved in establishing learning commons to be relatively low.
“I think it’ll be minimal to start, and we’ll transition,” he said. “That wouldn’t be my first concern in the way they’re looking at doing it. That’s what I wanted to stress: It’s the process that we’re trying to change, not the input.”
He said the bigger costs will come in the future when the district nears the point of making “the jump from laptops and textbooks to tablets.”
“It is unreasonable for us to have this conversation without acknowledging the infrastructure necessary for a large community such as Cobb, as well as the financial impact it would have,” Davis said of the move toward paperless student resources. “Because those are two very considerable variables, we really need to have a conversation about how this kind of approach goes to scale.”
Without a stronger focus on the digital skills that allow people to access online information quickly, Cobb students won’t be prepared for college or a career, Davis said.
She declined to say what sort of device — such as a tablet or a laptop — the county might present to students in order to give them access to digital texts, noting the plans are still in the early stages.
“I think what we’re learning in the school systems who have gone completely digital — all digital — very fast, is that there is a vital role that having hard-back books still plays in the education process,” she said “Your pace of literacy, like how fast you can read, and your comprehension rate are linked to your ability to flip pages and to track words at the early ages. And so we recognize (that) we don’t want to lose that. There’s got to be a balance. I think we’re probably closer to pursuing what that balance is, and we have not reached that balance appropriately yet.”
Although the school board knows why it needs to embrace digital resources, Ragsdale said, the process of doing so will be deliberate.
“It’s not going to be tomorrow. It’s not going to be a quick turnaround,” Ragsdale said. “Even if we determined what the ultimate solution should be, it’s not going to be a very quick transition because, of course, we have to identify all of the caveats up front before we get into a project like that.”
One question the board will need to answer, he said, was whether students should take their device home in the evenings or check it in and out every time they pass through the school.
“There are multiple districts who do it both ways,” Ragsdale said. “So we have to decide which way we want to go.”
Ragsdale said he doesn’t expect laptops to host the first series of digital texts.
“It will not be a laptop, a traditional laptop, because of cost. It’s cost prohibitive,” he said. “When we get into identifying the device, it’s going to have to be something that is cost efficient.”
David Banks, the board member who represents Lassiter and Pope high schools, said he could envision schools without hard-back books — but not in his lifetime. He said students in elementary schools today might not be relying on paper books by the time they reach high school.
Board member Tim Stultz, who is facing Susan Thayer in a runoff for his seat, brought the work session to a close by addressing reported tensions between himself, Angelucci and Smyrna Mayor Max Bacon.
“There’s been some rumblings in the news this week regarding myself and the mayor of Smyrna,” Stultz said in his final remarks. “Myself and the school district, we’ve had an open door policy with the city of Smyrna. We’ve met with council members and the mayor many times to discuss issues regarding our schools.”
Stultz said comments Bacon made during last week’s state of the city address calling the incumbent school board member a “problem” and discouraging voters from supporting him “came out of left field.”
“I have a different perspective of my relationship with the city. I’ve encouraged the Cobb County School District to have an open relationship with the city,” he said.
Asked after the meeting had ended, Stultz said he had not personally spoken with Bacon since the insults were publicized. He said Bacon’s hostility came as a shock to other board members as well.
“I think they were as surprised as I was at hearing those comments,” he said. “I think there’s a different perspective that we hold that differs from the mayor’s on that account. That’s just (from) speaking with two of my colleagues; I think it just took everyone by surprise.”
Stultz described his relationship with the mayor as “professional.”
“We’ve met on many occasions and talked about our schools and just how things are going in Smyrna overall, and so it just took me aback a little bit, but my lines of communication have always been open with the mayor and the City Council and I will continue to do so.”