Learning via laptop takes off in Orange Co.

Successful launch in middle and high schools may lead to expansion to younger kids

glloyd@newsobserver.comOctober 28, 2012 


A.L. Stanback 6th grader Maddie Vavrousek concentrates on a book report session on her school-issued laptop during and open class session Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2012 in English language arts teacher Michele Johnson's class. At the start of this school year, late August 2012, over four thousand (4,000) 6th - 12th grade students in Orange County schools were issued the first laptop computers to begin the transition from textbooks.

HARRY LYNCH — hlynch@newsobserver.com

  • At a glance What kind of laptops did they get? 4,100 Orange County students were the first in the world to get 12-inch Lenovo Thinkpad X131E laptops. About 600 teachers got the similar X130 model in May. Special education students each received unique devices, such as an iPad or a desktop with a touch screen. Are they easily damaged? The “ruggedized” laptops have rubber bumpers and stronger hinges. Students are careful with them, teacher Michele Johnson said. They will return the laptops in June, but will get the same machine back each year they are in the same building. How much does it cost? $2.6 million over four years, primarily paid for by $500,000 expected annually from a special county sales tax. The laptops and warranty cost $636 each. Padded backpacks cost $50, or $205,000 total. Parents pay a $25 annual technology fee that covers insurance and maintenance. What if the child has no Internet to do homework? Families can purchase high-speech Internet for $9.99 a month, and the Orange County Library and area businesses offer WiFi hotspots. How are technical problems handled? IT staff are available during the day, and a help desk has weekend hours.

— At the start of this school year, Orange County Schools became one of the first school districts in North Carolina, and the first in the Triangle, to give a laptop to every middle and high school student.

The transition has gone so smoothly the district plans to expand the program next year to include fourth- and fifth-graders. Some teachers say they can’t imagine going back to a no-laptop classroom. “It would be like trying to go back and teach math using an abacus,” said Michele Johnson, who teaches English at A.L. Stanback Middle School.

The laptops are simply a way to prepare students for the way the world is going, said Superintendent Patrick Rhodes. In addition, a confluence of events added up to a “perfect storm” for Orange County to go digital right now, said Angie Veitch, media and technology director.

Last year, county voters passed a quarter-cent sales tax, part of which goes to school technology. State textbook dollars have dwindled just as districts must implement a new curriculum and online testing for statewide exams. That meant the district had to improve its previous ratio of one computer for every three students, and many district computers were due for replacement.

Before they had computers in front of them, some students were visibly bored, even sleeping in class. The laptops are a tool for teachers to enter a world familiar to students and engage them in learning – often without students realizing it. Teachers do not have to ask students to take notes anymore, Johnson said. They just open their laptops and go at it.

Johnson’s students have private accounts on Goodreads, a social networking site for reading, and she has already seen the difference in her students’ enthusiasm for reading. “Without being prompted, they’re sharing books and making recommendations to each other,” Johnson said. “They’re learning to live a readerly life – and it’s fun for them.”

Students take notes in Google Drive, a free, Web-based document storage system that lets students, teachers and parents share workbooks, notes, assignments and homework. It also makes it easier to remember to do your homework, said Stanback seventh-grader Hannah Jarvis. “I don’t have to have a binder that’s this thick,” she said, holding fingers four inches apart. “Everything’s in the computer.”

Customized assignments

Johnson may see six different reading levels in one English class. She can customize assignments for varying skill levels without singling students out in front of peers.

Interactive digital textbooks let students explore simulations, videos and bilingual features that print textbooks just do not have – which is important in a district with a high English as a Second Language (ESL) population.

In the past, one department always had books at least five years old – now the students have the latest information at their fingertips. Although not every digital textbook costs less, the science curriculum Discovery Education costs about $5 per student, compared with $60 to $120 for a print textbook.

“History and science – those change every day,” said school board Chairwoman Donna Coffey.

Although each student is on a laptop throughout class, the teacher is still the most important part of the classroom, Veitch said. A few teachers previously ready to retire told her the program had reinvigorated their classrooms, she said. “From a scientific point of view, it’s a great enhancement tool, and they’re more engaged in learning. We have review programs, and they can play games on Study Island,” said seventh-grade Stanback science teacher Kristie Mabry of her students. “But we still have to reinforce the content with teaching and actual labs.”

Plans to expand

Many would not have a computer at home without the 1:1 program, administrators say. About a third of the district’s 7,500 students receive free and reduced lunches.

Last year, Orange County administrators studied the nationally acclaimed 1:1 program in Mooresville, outside Charlotte. They liked what they saw, Veitch said: Rather than lecture, teachers spent time working with students.

County administrators feel lucky to have a reliable source of funding in the sales tax; Mooresville laid off teachers to help pay for its program. Veitch could not think of anything Orange County has given up – with most of the money coming from the tax, the district has been able to redirect money it would have spent on curriculum, books, computer replacement and other technology toward the laptops and digital curriculum.

Lenovo is providing a third-party, independent evaluator for the program. Although many 1:1 schools and districts struggle to translate digital education into higher test scores and other evidence that students learn more with laptops, Mooresville students’ test scores increased by more than 10 percent in the first year, and it has one of the highest graduation rates in North Carolina. Education Week said last year that Mooresville’s program “appears to be a model of how to do it right, and in a community whose roots are more akin to Mayberry than the state’s Research Triangle region.”

Some of the few problems reported are new versions of old problems – waiting for websites to load takes up time that passing out papers and sharpening pencils used to. The technology can solve problems, too – a teacher can tell if students are viewing the right document, look at their work real-time and take written comments from students, including those who might be too shy to raise their hands to ask, said Stanback seventh-grade social studies teacher Joe Sisco. Students no longer have to carry as many heavy textbooks, and the school saves on printing and copying costs. Teachers spend less time deciphering students’ writing, and sixth-graders who previously struggled to juggle paperwork for six different classes can focus.

Sisco gestured to encyclopedias and dictionaries. “I’m guessing they’ll probably get very little use this year,” he said. Coffey laughed and suggested another use: doorstops.

Lloyd: 919-932-2008

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