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Sept. 28, 2008

The Promethean curse

by Lucas Alvarado-Farrar, Online Features Editor
Blamed for bringing evils, pains and diseases to mankind; heralded as the bringer of fire; and defamed as a swindler, thief and trickster - the immortal Prometheus lived a life condemned to eternal pain and retribution for his thievery and deception. He was a scammer draped in a hero's cloak much like the boards that bear his name.

The new Promethean Activboards, made by Promethean World, that have been installed across the county have the deceptive allure of augmenting education while being secretly wrapped in a large tax bill for an ailing Montgomery County economy. Already facing a $250 million shortfall for fiscal year 2010, the county council approved of a roughly $13.5 million expenditure ($3.364 million per year over four-years) on the futuristic looking boards as part of a $19.6 million technology modification this year for Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) according to figures from The Washington Post and Michael Cady, Director of the Department of Financial Operations for MCPS.

Installed to engage students as well as teachers, the Promethean boards have been installed in 65 percent of classrooms in over 54 schools across the county, according to Cady. While meant to engage, no formal, nonpartisan study has been conducted on the boards to show that students or teachers are more involved in the classroom when a Promethean board is present.

Essentially, a Promethean board is "just a big mouse," Cady said - a mouse with a price-tag of over $5,000 per unit. The boards do, however, have features unused before in the Montgomery County classroom - active vote, interactive interface and stylus pen technology - because they were already integral parts of the classroom. The active vote is simply a fancy word for a quiz; interactive interface, a nice synonym for a dynamic teacher; and stylus pen, a glorious disguise for markers.

Cumbersome, intrusive and overbearing, the Promethean boards, framed in fiery orange plastic, jut out into the classroom with all the inconspicuousness of a mammoth computer from the technologically primordial fifties. Though the boards, if widely accepted, are likely to be refined, shrunk and made more practical in the next 10 to 20 years, the current boards provide limited benefits and offer numerous obstacles.

Blair's Promethean boards have been riddled with problems: defective wires, malfunctioning projectors and faulty speakers. Although these problems are expected of any newly installed technology, the real danger with the Promethean boards is their susceptibility to damage. The boards must be immediately cleaned if written on by a permanent or dry-erase marker otherwise it suffers reduced capabilities. The faulty parts have cost Blair faculty time and effort that could have been spent on instruction and planning. Instead, faculty has been left trying to fix or navigate around board problems.

With five training session, including four, three-hour comprehensive sessions by the county, in the four weeks since installation began many teachers are still in the dark on how to use the boards, even in the most basic manner. Many simply use the boards as a way to scroll through word documents, as an overhead projector or as an Internet projection, capabilities already available on school owned projectors.

The figurative dark is not the only place where the instructors are being left. As teachers begin committing time and resources to basing lessons around the boards, power becomes more of a necessity for education rather than an extra perk. If the power fails, as it did already once this year, the boards go with it as well.

The problem is not only when the boards do not work, but when they do. As concerns for a greener world seem to be a focal point of life from transportation to presidential elections, having 3,000 LCD projectors and Promethean boards humming throughout the school day will undoubtedly raise the electric bill of schools across the county. While the boards might seem beneficial to a county that already uses significantly more paper than other counties of the same size, there has been no reduction in paper usage and there are no plans to order less paper this year, according to Cady.

The Promethean boards have numerous deficiencies and little to offer, but the biggest problem is not with what they can and cannot do. The issue is that the county authorized $13.5 million in nonessential spending during a hiring freeze and time of general economic volatility. The county is willing to spend money it does not have, for a product it does not need. Prometheus may have brought humanity fire, but he also brought Pandora's pain, much in the same manner Promethean World has brought new technology at the price of deeper shortfalls.



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  • af on September 28, 2008 at 4:53 PM
    Good job Lucas.

    P.S.--Why are there still security codes on the comments? There haven't been any recent computer attacks, and all it does is encourage people not to post (therefore taking away the debate and interaction with the article that's so fun to read).
  • Sam Barth on September 28, 2008 at 5:19 PM
    Good stuff Lucas. But you forgot the newest gizmo that is soon to be incorporated with the Promethean boards- the pointer! It's just like a regular pointer except... well actually, its just another expensive piece of plastic.

    To a new and brighter future!
  • Mythology Rocks on September 28, 2008 at 7:02 PM
    FYI, Prometheus wasn't the one who brought evils to mankind. That was his brother Epimetheus' fault for accepting Pandora as his wife, and Pandora's fault for opening her box.
  • sanity on September 28, 2008 at 8:26 PM
    In other news, we paid for the boards already. Live with it and stop complaining. Thanks.

    P.S. @ af: If you're interested in the amount of crud/spam SCO comments/mbhs.edu emails recieve, contact either technical staff. They'll be happy to complain about it to you.
  • magnet on September 28, 2008 at 9:27 PM
    i see... taking away teaching posts to have machines do the job... why hasn't anyone thought of that before?
    also...arml = $15,000 and it was cut... 3 less promethean boards would have sufficed...
  • Smartboard on September 28, 2008 at 10:27 PM
    I personally think its counterpart (the smartboard) is much more friendly...and cheaper...
  • liberal on September 29, 2008 at 1:59 PM
    To Smartboard,

    The Smart Company bid for the project and did not make anywhere as good of a deal as Promethean. And to [another complaining] magnet, These are long term investments. Because this technology will probably be kept for at least 15 years. Think about it as an economist. $4000 over 15 years is completely worth it. Plus the the money that went to this came from a capital fund not a school funs. Which is the same fund that goes to buying slot machines. SO STOP COMPLAINING!! YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT YOU ARE TALKING ABOUT!!!!
  • below is baseless (View Email) on October 1, 2008 at 5:55 PM
    but liberal, any money spent on something useless is wasted money, even if money is being wasted in other places. I sure could use 13.5 million dollars right now, and slot machines actually generate income, even if people think that they are immoral, at least they do something. You say that $4000 over 15 years is worth it? Worth what? I don't see anything progressive. And that's besides the fact that you're off by a factor of about 340 :D.
  • another magnet on October 1, 2008 at 8:25 PM
    below is baseless is completely correct.
    We do know what we're talking about. We know that 13.5 million dollars were spent on something that did not need to be purchased. Why that happened doesn't matter, we see something stupid happen, and we criticize it. We don't need to adapt to bureaucratic idiocy. The money's still being wasted.

    An economist is not someone who thinks that buying a really expensive piece of crap that lasts for a long time will be worth it.

    And anyway, liberal, you have no right to tell people to stop complaining. Complaints are what help the world improve.
  • ? on October 1, 2008 at 9:55 PM
    Ok, so the boards are susceptible to damage/defects and the money spent on them could have been used to solve more immediate problems during the county's economic downturn, but no one has addressed the effect of the boards on the classroom. Isn't the quality of education really what's most important here?
  • Meh on October 1, 2008 at 11:41 PM
    I heard that the boards were ordered several years ago, back when there wasn't a budget problem. Back when we had a budget surplus so the county just decided to buy these expensive toys.

    I personally detest these boards not only for their cost. They are big, bulky, and do not provide enough space on which teachers can write. Several of my teachers have complained about the lack of writing room, despite the supposed "infinite" number of slides.

    And then there's the difficulty of maintaining such boards. I heard that the bulb in the projector is extremely expensive to replace, and it doesn't last long due to the intensiveness of the light and long duration of use. And THEN there's the problem of the computer network being down. No computers, no place to write anymore since the Promethean boards are attached to the white board underneath.
  • Theresa Regan on October 16, 2008 at 9:46 PM
    I do think that the boards have some perks. In certain classes, perhaps a media class, they would absolutely increase the level of education. However, even though the county bought these board before there was an economic crisis, I believe it was still money wasted. Or at least money that could have been better spent. Two good questions to ask are "Was the purchase justified?" and "Was it necessary?" Anyone can justify buying the boards, but was it truly necessary? No. In some classes, they actually prevent the teacher from teaching the way they would like to. As a student, and especially as a magnet, I can think of several better uses for that money. Disregard teaching positions that benefit only some students. I'm sure I'm not the only one who would like to actually have soap in the bathroom. MCPS fails to understand that just because we have money doesn't mean we have to spend it. If we had saved it instead of spending it on unnecessary technology, we would be much better off today.
  • Bdubbs on October 23, 2008 at 11:37 AM
    This article lacks MAJOR research. If the reporter had actually looked into how MCPS purchased the boards, he would find that the county didn't pay anything for them. They bought the boards through a federal tax break for new technology in schools. So really, this was a GREAT investment for the county.
  • Re: Bdubbs on October 23, 2008 at 8:19 PM
    Really?

    I think the Director of the Department of Financial Operations for MCPS knew what he was talking about.

    The federal eRate program, which I assume you are talking about, only pays for part of the cost of the boards...the rest costs the county $13.5 million over the next four years.

    And no matter what government organization paid for the board, be it federal, state or local, it is taxpayer's money being frivolously spent.
  • KT (View Email) on October 29, 2008 at 4:44 PM
    The Promethean Boards were not funded through E-Rate. E-Rate does not fund hardware. The Promethean Boards were not free. There is no evidence of any bid from any other company. The funds came from the MCPS Capital Budget which means that an elementary school modernization or a school addition have been delayed due to this purchase. If anyone can find reference to this major purchase in the Board of Education minutes, please post.
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