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Ditching textbooks for laptops

Several Sauk Valley schools going digital

Published: Saturday, June 15, 2013 1:15 a.m. CST

Milledgeville High School students are ditching their textbooks for laptops come this fall.

The more than 150 students will be among hundreds of others in the western Sauk Valley who are in schools that recently have gone digital.

“It’s something that matches their learning style,” Chadwick-Milledgeville Superintendent Tim Schurman said. “Learning styles have changed from book learning to computer-based learning.”

The Erie schools have had a one-to-one technology program at the high school since 2009 and at the middle school since 2010. The Eastland schools in Lanark and Shannon have had their program at the high school since 2011 and will add it for third- through eighth-graders this fall.

The Morrison schools are looking to refinance old bonds to make room for a one-to-one technology program within the next couple of years.

School officials say students nowadays are “digital natives,” that is, they have grown up immersed in technology, and as such, they are more engaged on a computer than in a textbook.

“Kids today aren’t like they were when we were growing up,” Erie Superintendent K. Bradley Cox said. “Kids today, that’s their world: It’s far more about cellphones and iPads than it is about paper and pencil.”

Officials also say modern education demands digital classrooms. The Common Core standards include technology skills; students at all grade levels must be comfortable using and producing content on a computer. State assessments soon will be entirely online, too.

“If students are required to perform on state assessments using technology, ... it is only fair that the students are taught how to do these tasks and to have the time and resources to practice and master these skills prior to the assessment,” Morrison Superintendent Suellen Girard said. “We would like to assess students’ knowledge in reading, math and science, not assess their ability to use a computer to take a test.”

School officials add that technology simply is part and parcel of society.

“I think technology is a tool ... that we use to learn and is becoming the tool that the world uses for its communication, for its business, for its economy,” Eastland Superintendent Mark Hansen said. “It is the tool, so to somehow have a school where kids are not using that tool, it got to the point of, ‘How could we not do this? How can we responsibly not move in this direction?’”

In some districts, such as Erie, where every student in fifth through 12th grade (425 students) has a laptop, students use the technology to take charge of their education – they craft their own learning by creating lessons and projects.

“We’re making the classroom itself more student-centered,” Cox said. “Students lead the lessons, so now teachers are more the ‘guide on the side,’ rather than the ‘sage on the stage.’

“We’ve found that students are more engaged, more responsible for their own learning, and so take more pride in their schooling.”

In other districts, chiefly those that have recently joined the one-to-one technology club, such as Eastland, students use the technology to supplement their education.

School officials from both one-to-one scenarios say students learn in a way that is most effective for them – the pinnacle of differentiated instruction.

“It teaches each student to his or her needs, rather than a group of students to one student’s needs,” Hansen said.

Officials also say one-to-one programs foster a rapport between teachers and students.

“It’s necessary for our credibility with our students,” Hansen said. “Children are much more proficient than many of us adults. We need to demonstrate that we understand.”

School officials add that one-to-one programs level the playing field among students of varying socioeconomic backgrounds and eliminate barriers to technology.

The keys to success, experienced districts say, are reliable infrastructure – from up-to-date hardware and software to a fast, reliable Internet connection – and knowledgeable, comfortable teachers, who receive training not just before the rollout of a one-to-one program, but even regularly after deployment.

Local districts had no trouble getting their staffs on board; in fact, teachers most often led the charge to go digital. They also had little trouble getting parents and students to back the idea.

Schools officials cannot point specifically to their one-to-one programs as the reason for any gains in student achievement. But they do attribute positive changes in part to the technology.

Erie, for example, has seen higher test scores and fewer discipline issues.

Some critics of one-to-one technology programs might question the expense of putting laptops or tablets in the hands of hundreds of students. But officials in districts with successful programs say the cost difference between maintaining desktop computer labs and buying and maintaining individual laptops is minimal.

In Erie, for example, the district had a ratio of five students to every computer at a cost of about $105 per student. Now after its switch to one-to-one technology, it has a ratio of four students for every five computers, or about $115 per student.

In fact, officials in such districts expect their one-to-one programs will save them money as more and more resources, such as textbooks, are available online and at a cheaper price. They also expect to save money on printing as schoolwork is produced, turned in, graded and handed back, all online.

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