West Jefferson Hills tech director wrote the book on digital equipment, literally

| Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014, 9:01 p.m.

To get the right answers, ask the right questions.

That's how every purchase of digital equipment should begin, said Suhail Baloch, technology director for West Jefferson Hills School District. Good questions are: How much do I want to spend? How will it be used? Who will use it?

Prospective buyers can make their responses a template, then follow Baloch's Technology Buying Guide for 2013 on the district's website, www.wjhsd.net.

He details tips for choosing computers, gaming consoles, tablets and smartphones and offers suggestions and research links so that purchasers can make more informed decisions. This was a “self-initiated venture to help co-workeers and the community,” he said. Emails from colleagues, asking him for advice, encouraged him to compile the information.

“The point of the guide is not telling someone what to buy, but to make them smart enough to make decisions,” he said. “There are advantages and disadvantages to every choice.”

Baloch, a Shaler resident, has been with the district since 2001.

He and two other district employees oversee and maintain technology systems used by the 2,700 West Jefferson Hills students and 300 staff members. Currently, he's studying the logistics of students bringing their own electronic devices to school.

Dan Como, principal at Pleasant Hills Middle School, said he appreciates the integration of technology throughout the district's curriculum. Students are introduced to technology as early as kindergarten.

“What we do here is in combination with what the children do at home with their tablets, iPads and PCs,” he said. As sixth-graders, “they have more background knowledge than in the past.”

At the middle school, Bob Hasak takes the lead in teaching computer software and applications, while Matt Betler applies technology to industrial arts classes. Mathematics teacher Lindsey Mitko helps other staff members as they increase their use of technology.

“We want our students to be active participants” in using technology, Como said. Classrooms have Smart Boards, which are interactive whiteboards. Through a Grable Foundation grant, the school will have an iPad lab consisting of 30 of those devices and an Apple laptop on a mobile cart.

Baloch's online guide gives specifics, such as “If possible, get hands-on experience with the computer using a local vendor. Then, compare local prices with online prices from computer manufacturers, Amazon.com, etc. Make sure the comparison is made using equivalent equipment, warranty, etc.”

He considers this to be a time of “muddled” technology, when a single device can have multiple purposes such as an Xbox game console with the ability to play DVDs.

“Sometimes, it's not this or that,” he said, suggesting that for entertainment, a tablet computer could satisfy, but for work, a laptop or desktop would be the choice. These days, however, he doesn't recommend desktop computers much.

Consumers upgrade personal equipment in as little as two to three years, for those who love gadgets, or as long as 10 years, he said. Businesses update their electronics every three years while school districts wait about five years to make changes.

“Technology is changing at a phenomenal pace,” said Baloch. “What is current is only as good to you as today. You have to keep up.”

The popularity of gaming is driving computer makers to add more power to their machines, he said. And once power is increased, more complicated games are designed.

Baloch envisions technology transforming as users seek more interpersonal connections via websites such as Facebook and Skype, rather than just typing messages. He hopes for a balance between personal and technical communications.

“Technology is a tool to supplement education,” he said. “It is not an all-in-all in itself.”

Dona S. Dreeland is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5803 or ddreeland@tribweb.com.

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