Schools: Laptops prepare students

In spring, when Spring Cove School District administrators unveiled a bold plan to put a laptop computer in every student’s hands past fifth grade, some parents bristled.

How could the district afford to buy hundreds of brand-new computers? What would happen to students whose families lacked Internet access? Who would keep them from accessing questionable websites in their free time?

Few seemed to know that, in the past two years, two neighboring districts have implemented similar programs: handing simple, Internet-accessible laptop computers to hundreds of children and – teachers hope – opening a world of information to those who would otherwise never see it.

“We issue the laptop, they take the laptop home with them,” said Northern Bedford County High School Principal David Burkett, whose district, along with Chestnut Ridge, has implemented the “one-to-one” system in the past two years. “We like to be the best-kept secret in the area.”

A part of everyday life

On its face, one-to-one is a simple concept: A district buys laptops in bulk – usually simple, web-based machines with the basics – then distributes them to every student over several grades. Students can use them to take notes, access course content during class and take them home to complete homework assignments wirelessly.

At Spring Cove, Superintendent Robert Vadella spent weeks in the spring pressing a plan to buy Samsung Chromebooks, which could ultimately replace paper textbooks for students in grades six through 12.

On June 24, the board approved a controversial budget that included the one-to-one plan.

The first of more than 1,000 Chromebooks are due to arrive this month, Vadella said.

The machines are far simpler than what most parents are used to: They operate solely on the Internet, with none of the programs, like Microsoft Word and Excel, that students have used for years. Documents are written and submitted through Google Drive, a web-based application that teachers can use to review work even before it’s turned in.

Eight seconds pass between pressing the “on” button to full operation, experts told the board, saving precious minutes in classes long forced to wait on slow, aging computers.

And at a little under $300 apiece, they cost less than even regular maintenance on the district’s existing computers, Vadella said.

“The teachers in this district are embracing technology,” Board President Jeff Brennecke told parents at the June 17 meeting. “No matter what you do anymore, computers are a part of everyday life, no matter where you go.”

But in a rural district like Spring Cove, the Chromebook’s greatest strength – its singular reliance on the Internet – can also be its greatest weakness.

Seeking access

In a Pew Research Center study released in November, just 9 percent of teachers at rural schools said “all” or “almost all” of their students had sufficient home access to the digital tools they need for education. That places rural districts significantly below both their urban and suburban counterparts.

2010 Census data showed that Pennsylvania remains below the national average for home Internet access, while low-income families nationwide showed a substantial access gap compared with wealthier groups. That year, 42 percent of families making less than $15,000 reported “no Internet use.”

Those numbers could have an impact in districts like Spring Cove, where students without home Internet can’t readily walk to a library or cafe to complete their homework.

“These things are really intended to be on the Internet,” Phil Matish, a representative from Johnstown-based In-Shore Technologies, told the board June 17. “If you don’t have Wi-Fi at home, you’re at a bit of a disadvantage.”

Some parents swiftly attacked the idea, with one mom arguing that she can’t be expected to drive her children to McDonald’s every evening just to access its free wireless connection.

Vadella said Spring Cove administrators might seek Atlantic Broadband’s support for a reduced-price service program akin to Comcast’s. The Philadelphia-based service provider offers $10-per-month home Internet for families whose children qualify for reduced-price school lunches.

While many rural households still lack Internet access, administrators at Northern Bedford and Chestnut Ridge said the numbers are dropping noticeably each year. Even two years ago, when Northern Bedford first piloted its one-laptop-per-student initiative, student polls revealed a sufficiently high access level to justify the program, Burkett said.

“And it’s better now than what it was three or four years ago,” he said. “Very, very few people don’t have access to the media anymore.”

Mark Kudlawiec, Chestnut Ridge School District superintendent, agreed. In the coming school year, his district is set to give Chromebooks to every student in grades nine through 12 after a successful one-year test.

“I think more people have Wi-Fi, or some type of DSL connection, than we think,” he said.

That will be their textbook

For a one-to-one test bed in a similarly sized rural school, Spring Cove parents need look no farther than Chestnut Ridge, less than 30 miles away in Fishertown.

Over the past year, science teachers in a seventh-and eighth-grade pilot program quickly embraced the Chromebook as an education tool, Kudlawiec said, spurring administrators to buy 500 for the entire high school.

“Our teachers got on board. … They really took the ball and ran with it,” he said. “That will be their textbook. The Chromebook is the textbook.”

Properly used, laptops and tablets can supplement old-fashioned teaching styles: take the science teacher who handed out rock samples for students to feel while they looked up additional information in real time, Kudlawiec said.

The machines posed almost no technical problems all year, he said, and teachers even reported fewer disciplinary problems as students remained distracted by their ever-present computer screens.

In last year’s second semester, administrators added a “bring your own technology” policy in the high school, allowing students to take their laptops to class. That, too, was a success, he said.

The district will likely phase out textbooks for most subjects starting as soon as this year, Kudlawiec said – especially in history and the social studies, which move too quickly for years-old books to cover properly.

“We wonder if, when we were using textbooks, we were almost slowing them down a little bit,” he said.

Northern Bedford, Spring Cove’s neighbor to the south, has delved further into the technology, albeit at a slower pace.

Now in their third year issuing Acer netbooks to high-schoolers, teachers have embraced them largely as another tool in their arsenal, alongside older methods like books and paper notes, Burkett said.

“It’s not going for a completely paperless society. We still have textbooks,” he said. But many teachers have worked online applications like Google Drive into their curricula, while some students prefer keyboard note-taking over pen-and-paper.

The older generation of teachers, many of whom remained skeptical of laptops in the classroom, has gradually given way to a more technology-friendly group, said Northern Bedford school board President Larry Garlock, himself a former teacher.

“We’re just working our way into it,” Garlock said. “It’s getting to the point where, in a year or two, they won’t be able to do without them.”

A head start

For parents and board members at Spring Cove, cost has remained a constant concern. Vadella blamed false rumors for much of the opposition: Teachers came to believe their colleagues were being furloughed to make way for an expensive, untested pet project.

But the raw numbers, Vadella said, show that one-to-one computing can save tens of thousands of dollars each year. By scrapping some of the ancient classroom computers and replacing them with simple, relatively cheap Chromebooks, the district could begin a four-year upgrade schedule and still save $54,000 annually, he said.

And Matish of In-Shore Technologies hailed Spring Cove’s Internet infrastructure at the June 17 board meeting. Unlike many other districts, he said, Spring Cove is almost fully up-to-date on wireless Internet access in school buildings.

Regardless of the price tag, however, national commentators on one-to-one education have reminded schools to focus on the teaching, not the technology.

With President Barack Obama laying out a challenge last month for all the nation’s schools to adopt high-speed Internet access by 2018, the focus on new tools could grow exponentially – but for local districts, it’s simply about preparing students for the future.

Kudlawiec noted Monday that many colleges and universities now offer free electronic tablets and laptops as an incentive for prospective students.

“There’s a reason they’re doing that,” he said. “That’s how they’re learning. We’re just trying to give them a head start.”

Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.