Members of the Berkshire County digital education community will be connecting with each other as a new group this month in hopes of better integrating technology into schools.

Schools from across the county will be designating representatives to join the Technology Professional Learning Network, which will convene for the first time on March 28.

The Professional Learning Network model for professional development and planning, is a new initiative organized by the Berkshire Compact for Education. It's designed to bring together specific subgroups of education personnel -- from technology staff to school nurses to middle school science educators, for example -- to help them share ideas and learn strategies from one another.

"There is a slew of issues to discuss. One of the hard parts of working in technology is that you end up being in a silo and don't get out to talk with other people [in the same field] as much," said Jim Schultz, director of technology for Pittsfield Public Schools.

He said one particular issue he's curious to hear about is how other schools are addressing social networking policy for the use of social media websites, such as Facebook and Twitter and other online and mobile programs and communities.

"It has so much possibility as a learning tool," said Schultz, who also noted that social media can be equally distracting.

Sharon Harrison, business administrator for the Berkshire Hills Regional School District said she's been working with Diego Solis, the district's information technology director, to assess how accessible new digital technology is to teachers and students.

Harrison said this includes having enough bandwidth and hardware, as well as ensuring devices are compatible with the school's
network.

One initiative being examined by schools in Berkshire County is the national BYOD or BYOT -- bring your own device or bring your own technology -- movement, through which students can bring their own Internet-connected mobile tablet, phone or laptop to be used for school work and to aid instruction.

Harrison said at Monument Mountain Regional High School, between 400 and 450 devices are accessing the school's network via guest access, versus school-owned devices.

"The idea with BYOD is that so many students have their own devices, we can allow them to go through our network, with our controls, to access research and reference materials," she said. "Technology is another tool in a teacher's toolbox to help students succeed."

Both she and Schultz said the inherent problem with the BYOD is the risk of marginalizing students.

"You have the have-nots to consider, the kids who don't have anything," Schultz said.

Still, both districts are currently piloting the idea by allowing students to access a designated BYOD wireless network.

Schultz said other topics he believes the new Technology Professional Learning Network will address include the integration of technology into the curriculum, data management, tech investment and support, online testing, broadband vendor options, professional development, bulk purchasing, best practices for instruction and "clouding" or "cloud computing," being able to use Web-based files, software and applications versus only being able to access files on the machine on which the programs are installed.

While working on all this, school technology departments also tend to have a limited number of staff and face shrinking budgets.

To better help schools navigate the digital learning landscape, the state department of Elementary and Secondary Education operates an Office of Digital Learning (www.doe.mass.edu/odl) and is currently seeking people who have experience with online learning as it relates to district technology administration, special education, and the teaching of English Language Learners to help form a new state Digital Learning Advisory Council.