- Associated Press - Saturday, December 24, 2016

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - Come January, it’s going to be a lot harder for Millard high school students to say, “The dog ate my homework.”

A lot of their homework will be inside a laptop.

All high school students in Millard Public Schools will be issued laptop computers when they return from winter break.

The Omaha World-Herald (https://bit.ly/2hK2wZd ) reports Nebraska’s third-largest school district will join the growing list of districts implementing one-to-one computer programs.

One-to-one means putting a single, district-owned computer in the hands of each student rather than having them share classroom computers or visit computer labs.

In January, district officials will distribute nearly 8,000 laptops to students and some teachers in grades 9 through 12 at Millard North, South and West and the alternative school, Horizon High. The plan is to eventually put about 5,500 devices in the middle schools too, phasing in those machines by August 2018.

Millard officials said the timing was right for the launch, with the cost of devices, bandwidth and online curriculum materials coming down.

Paper textbook costs are going up, and their content is fixed, said Ken Fossen, Millard’s associate superintendent for general affairs. Meantime, technology is getting cheaper, and it’s flexible, he said.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out where the future is,” Fossen said.

The rollout comes as computer use in schools continues to be a controversial topic.

Criticism abounds about kids spending too much time in front of screens. Some teachers complain that computers have reduced kids’ attention spans and, ultimately, their ability to think.

Some research suggests that computers in school have little to no effect on achievement. Other studies indicate that, when done right, such technology can have a positive effect. Some say computers cannot replace good teaching but they can enhance it.

Millard officials said they are taking care to make sure the computers will be used wisely and not overused.

“This is intentional use for a purpose,” said Heather Phipps, the district’s associate superintendent for educational services. “I’m not surfing Facebook. I’m not looking at Vines. I’m not on Snapchat.”

Officials said a big reason they chose one-to-one is that the annual costs are about the same as the district pays now for technology in its high schools and middle schools.

“When we fully ramp this up, six through 12, we’ll be spending about a million dollars a year,” he said.

Middle school students will keep the same computer through eighth grade. High school students will keep them through graduation.

Once the system is up and running, the district will have to buy new computers for sixth and ninth grades every year.

Millard officials said the popularity of Chromebooks and netbooks have driven down the price of computing devices.

After trying out devices and getting input from students, the district chose the HP 360. It is a conventional Windows laptop with a solid-state hard drive, Intel processor and touch screen.

At $327 apiece, including case and charger, the initial January rollout will cost about $2.6 million.

The device is not a “Cadillac,” said Kent Kingston, the district’s executive director of technology.

The laptop can fold into a tablet, a configuration many students find comfortable for reading and searching, he said. When it’s time to write a paper, it converts to the laptop with a keyboard.

District officials initially explored having students bring their own devices from home.

But officials weren’t eager to have students bring a dozen different devices to a classroom, with different specifications, capabilities and operating systems.

“Instructionally, it is way better for them all to be using the same tool,” Phipps said. “It would be like handing them four different math books and hoping that Page 17 is going to look the same for everybody. Of course it’s not.”

Phipps said she has been using one of the HP 360s as her work computer. She said she wants to know exactly how various educational software works on it.

“I want to know, as the instructional leader, what’s the experience going to be like for kids,” she said.

If kids brought their own devices, the district would have needed “back-end” computer systems to ensure that each student was seeing the same things regardless of the device, Kingston said.

“The amount of money that you start to spend on back-end systems becomes equal to or more than this,” he said.

The district also would have to set minimum standards for devices, below which the district couldn’t guarantee each student would have the same experience, he said.

“You create the ‘scarlet letter’ effect,” he said. “Here are certain kids whose device doesn’t meet the school spec.”

Kingston said people sometimes have the wrong impression that school computer systems can run like the wireless Internet at Starbucks: You just log on and start browsing.

“But that doesn’t mean great instructional things are happening,” he said.

The HP 360s will be loaded with G Suite for Education, Google’s collection of education-focused applications.

A key application is Google Classroom, used to keep classes organized. Teachers can use it to create, share and grade assignments.

“Google Classroom is a great workflow manager for Google Drive, and assignments and calendars and message board,” he said. “So that’s where most of our staff will live with kids.”

The computers also will be loaded with Microsoft Office and Adobe, tools kids are likely to use in their careers.

Students gave the HP 360 good marks in district pilots, he said. About a thousand of the devices are already in use in Millard schools.

Some Millard South students used them in an early-college high school biology class this fall.

Four freshman lab partners - Hayli Wheeler, Mikayla Brandl, Abbey Dyer and Emma Ricke - each had a laptop. For one assignment the teacher sent everyone the day’s lab lesson on Google Classroom, with a link to a video of an instructor guiding them through the lab.

Hayli said she likes the laptop to help organize her homework. She gives it a thumbs-up. It’s better than shuffling paper.

“I have my laptop on me all the time,” she said.

Paper homework is more likely to get ruined by a spill or by getting crunched in a backpack, she said.

Students and parents must fill out a loan agreement. If they choose, they can enter into a cooperative loss agreement with the district to cover damages if the laptop is broken.

Interest in one-to-one policies remains high among educators, despite a lack of consensus among researchers on their impact on achievement.

More than half of U.S. K-12 students and teachers will have access this year to a school-issued personal computing device, according to a study by Futuresource Consulting reported by Ed Week, a periodical that focuses on U.S. education news and trends.

For the 2016 to 2017 school year 104 Nebraska high schools report having one-to-one computer programs in ninth through 12th grades, according to the Nebraska Department of Education.

Over 300 of the state’s schools had one computer per student in at least one grade level.

Although a lot of money has been invested in computers for education, the benefits are not clear.

A study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that despite considerable investments in computers, Internet connections and software for educational use, there is “little solid evidence” that greater computer use leads to better scores in mathematics and reading.

Overall, data on computer use at school suggest limited use may be better than no use at all, but above-average use is associated with “significantly poorer results,” the study found.

Earlier this year, however, a study led by a Michigan State University researcher concluded that one-to-one computer policies, when done properly, can improve achievement and teach 21st-century skills. Researchers drew that conclusion after reviewing existing research.

But they noted that a disproportionate amount of the research to date consists of small case studies in a handful of schools. And only a small number of studies have used reliable methods.

At the Waldorf School of the Peninsula, featured in a 2010 New York Times story, the children of Silicon Valley parents are taught with a skeptical eye for computers.

The school’s website explains, “Exposing children to computer technology before they are ready (around seventh grade) can hamper their ability to fully develop strong bodies, healthy habits of discipline and self-control, fluency with creative and artistic expression and flexible and agile minds.”

Technological literacy - a crucial 21st century skill - can be mastered quickly, it said, when children reach adolescence and have the developmental maturity to know how, why and when to use technology as a tool.

The website notes a 2012 study by Common Sense Media in which many teachers felt entertainment media - everything from TV to cellphones to online programming computer games - have hurt kids’ academic skills.

The biggest concern was attention span, but teachers also were concerned that students’ writing skills were hurt.

In October, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued new recommendations on children’s media use. Noting that media have become “ubiquitous” in children’s lives, the academy recommended that children ages 2 to 5 should spend only an hour a day on high-quality programs. For school-age children and adolescents, the academy calls for balancing media with other healthy behaviors.

Kingston said he’s wary of the pitfalls of too much computer time.

“I’m an old social studies guy,” he said. “We still want to sit in a Socratic circle and have a discussion. I still want kids to do that. I might actually say ‘Close the laptops and shut it down.’ “

Phipps said that although each student will have a device, that doesn’t mean students will be on that device in every class, all day, every lesson.

“That doesn’t instructionally make sense,” she said. “When it’s appropriate to be using a digital tool, you’ll be using a digital tool. When it’s appropriate to be having a conversation, you’ll be having a conversation. When it’s important to be working something on paper, you’ll be working something on paper.”

To make for a smooth rollout, Millard officials have tried to think of all possible problems, including what happens when students turn them all on at the same time.

To make sure the laptops were secure, officials invited students to try to hack them. The students discovered some vulnerabilities that needed fixing, Kingston said.

Students will have a unique logon only good on that device.

Filters will keep an eye out for inappropriate material - sexting, threatening behavior, bullying - even when the kids take them home, he said.

If there’s suspicion that a student’s health or welfare is at risk, then school authorities will be alerted, he said.


Information from: Omaha World-Herald, https://www.omaha.com

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