Robert G. Witten

At the Fore of the Technology Frontier by JAY P. GOLDMAN

On the Information Superhighway, Bob Witten drives in the fast lane.

Back in the early '80s, before the masses ventured into cyberspace, he was a regular user of CompuServe, the first major on-line network. And as a public school leader in the rural terrain of central Pennsylvania, Witten has seen to it his schools remain, as he puts it, "ahead of the speed curve."

That's no small feat in the world of educational technology, where change is non-stop. As superintendent of the Upper Adams School District in Biglerville, Pa., for 15 years and executive director of the Central Susquehanna Intermediate Unit since 1994, Witten has provided the visionary leadership to keep these organizations at the forefront.

Witten says he sees no alternative if students and teachers in small, rural schools are to enjoy the same learning opportunities as their counterparts elsewhere.

"I don't believe it's technology alone that will increase the academics. That has to be the teacher working with the students," he says. "Technology opens new doors for students in rural America where schools can't provide everything a wealthier suburban district can."

Both in Upper Adams and the intermediate unit, Witten has worked to find complementary linkages among schools through distance learning and fiber-optic networks to expand curricular offerings and bring better in-service programs to professional staff. "It means every high school wouldn't need to hire a Latin teacher," he offers by example.

In Upper Adams, after surveying high school students on what courses they might like added to the curriculum, he approved video teaching arrangements for classes originating from distant ports in business law and veterinary science. By the time he left the superintendency, the student to computer ratio was an enviable 5:1.

In Central Susquehanna, Witten has insisted his agency take an entrepreneurial approach to serve the 17 member districts and the marketplace beyond the five-county region. His agency soon will begin operating a nursing program discontinued by another agency and a state-funded program for incarcerated youth. In the past year, he moved the intermediate unit's long-time joint purchasing program online, which boosted the client base to 60 districts statewide, a 40 percent gain. But his greatest impact is on instructional technology.

Through crafty marketing, the agency's technology group has become a major provider of computer software to schools statewide. Staff members handle district-level technology planning and computer installation and repair, provide software training to educators and the public, and run a video production service from concept to distribution.

The technology consulting group alone is expected to bring in close to $400,000 in revenues, just a year after it was created.

"We run a marketplace philosophy here," says Witten. "Like a supermarket, we have our brands of products so we need to ensure we have products on the shelves that people want to buy or we go out of business."

Ronald Ebbert, a principal in the Upper Adams district for most of Witten's tenure, says he welcomed the responsibility and authority he was given to get things accomplished. The two served as the district's computer coordinators when the first terminals entered the schools in the early '80s.

"He'd ask, 'What can we have students do with these computers in the real world?' ... He knew how to use them and would pester me constantly to come in and figure out how we can use this application," Ebbert says. "He was always very curious."

Adds Roy Herrold, the technology group director in Central Susquehanna, about his boss: "He doesn't have to fear being lost when we are talking about a term. He has a real affinity for technology."

Witten continues to occupy a claim on the technology frontier as one of 34 educators nationwide to serve on the Apple Computer Educational Advisory Council.

"My own personal and professional interest is to deliver better programs through technology," he says.

Jay Goldman is the editor of The School Administrator. E-mail: