SOUTH PORTLAND – These days it’s difficult to buy a laptop or a smartphone that won’t be obsolete soon after you walk out of the store.

Imagine being on a building committee charged with choosing technology for a high school that will be completed in five years and hopefully remain viable for the next 50.

That’s the challenge facing the library, media and technology subcommittee that’s helping to plan the $47.3 million renovation of South Portland High School, a project that will rebuild and expand the 59-year-old school on Highland Avenue.

Andy Wallace, a subcommittee member who is technology director for South Portland schools, readily admits that he has no crystal ball to help him figure out what technology will go where.

“I can’t predict the future,” Wallace said. “But we’re working from the principle that each person in the building will have as many as three devices connected to the Web, as some people already do now. We’ll need to have the wireless and electrical pathways available to handle the technology we have now and the unanticipated technology coming down the road.”

Increasingly across Maine, new school construction and major renovation projects are forcing building committees and architects to design schools that will be flexible and adaptable as technology changes at an increasingly rapid pace.

Classrooms, auditoriums and other spaces are being built to accommodate new and varied teaching and learning styles and uses, driven by recent advances in educational technology ranging from interactive white boards to expanded audio and video capabilities.

The future-oriented approach to technology in major school construction projects comes as Maine marks the 10-year anniversary of its seminal school laptop program. It also reflects the fact that widespread access to information technology and the Internet has revolutionized the way most people communicate and learn.

“The conversation now is about the potential for technology to maximize learning into the future,” said Jeff Mao, learning technology policy director at the Maine Department of Education. “The questions that South Portland and other school districts are asking now are right on target. What does technology look like now, how do we use it, and how might that change?”

The technology conversation jibes with ongoing discourse about the future of education in the United States, Mao said. The current educational model — students sitting in rows, changing classes when a bell rings and graduating after four years of high school — took root 100 years ago at the height of the industrial revolution. Now, that model’s usefulness is fading, along with the factory jobs it was set up to feed.

“Learning as we know it is changing shape,” said Laurie Wood, an assistant principal at South Portland High who is co-chairwoman of the technology subcommittee.

“Our challenge is to teach kids not just what they need to know now, but how they will learn going forward,” Wood said.

“A classroom conversation today can happen over 24 hours, when a teacher posts a question on a Web page and students respond to it individually. When you have access to infinite information resources, it forces you to look at those resources differently.”

With that in mind, South Portland High will likely have a “learning commons” instead of a traditional library, Wood said. It will accommodate various reading, writing, computer, Internet, audio and video uses, and probably will include diverse individual, small group and community areas for study, instruction and performance.

To see how technology works in a modern school, Wood and other technology subcommittee members recently visited the year-old Westbrook Middle School. It was designed by Harriman Associates of Portland, the firm that’s working on the South Portland project, which is expected to be ready for contractors’ bids in the fall.

The South Portland visitors saw that Westbrook Middle School has no computer lab because all rooms are wired for various technology uses. White boards are strategically placed in each classroom for maximum viewing ability. And with wiring hidden behind walls and above ceilings, the computer server room lacks the bales of wiring typically seen in older, retrofitted schools.

“It’s remarkable how few wires are showing,” Andy Wallace said.

Try as they might, those involved in choosing school technology still may have trouble keeping up with and anticipating advances, said Mike Johanning, an architect with WBRC Architects-Engineers in Portland. He designed the new Ocean Avenue Elementary School in Portland and is working on an addition to Old Town High School.

Old Town’s technology director faces some tough decisions about digital image projectors, which are evolving quickly, decreasing greatly in size and becoming easier to mount and maintain, Johanning said.

Security systems are also growing more complex, including video surveillance cameras, key-card entrances and emergency lock-down systems such as the one at the Ocean Avenue school in Portland.

“And you don’t see TVs in classrooms anymore,” Johanning said. “That was a hard thing for people to let go of, but you can really do so much more with computers.”

As wireless technology improves, the need for hardwiring is changing and decreasing in many cases, Johanning said. Despite this trend, new schools are being wired to accommodate long-range technology needs under the “wire once” principle to save time and money in the future.

Manufacturers also allow districts to try out the latest white boards, projectors and other devices before buying a slew of them when a new school opens, Johanning said.

And building committees are doing their best to choose technology that will last and can be updated easily.

Still, there’s only so much they can do to predict future technology needs, according to Matt Nelson, curriculum dean at Westbrook Middle School.

“We built an infrastructure to have state-of-the-art technology that won’t be soon outdated and can be adapted to our needs in the future,” Nelson said. “But who knows? Maybe some changes in the future will be so drastic that we couldn’t anticipate them. You have to do the best you can.”

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

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