Freshmen at Western Albemarle High School will all be given laptop computers when they start school in the fall as the second phase of the county school’s Digital Learning Initiative kicks in. Monticello High School ninth graders got laptops last fall. Albemarle High School ninth graders will also get them this year.
“We’re at a turning point,” said Vincent Scheivert, the school’s Chief Technology Officer. “Resources are no longer analog any more—books, other resources. Teachers are using the textbooks less and less. We can have more relevant, up-to-date information if we maximize the digital resources that are out there.”
Assistant Superintendent for Student Learning Billy Haun has teams of teachers under the direction of Jennifer Sublette and Matt Blundin developing appropriate curriculum for digital tools, said Scheivert, who formerly taught history in Maryland and northern Virginia schools. “The device has a role. It’s not the main player. The main player is the curriculum. The device is a conduit. Technology can’t replace a teacher. This to help the teacher and student reach their goals.
“We looked at the price of devices. Providing a personal learning device is not new. We’ve been doing it with physics students for four years now. We can put a device in students’ hands without jeopardizing other funding.”
Scheivert said it will cost the county a total of $600 each to provide a student with a computer. The laptops are made by Lenovo and have 11.6–inch screens, 500 gigs of storage and four gigs of RAM. They will not have touch features, but Office and Photoshop will be installed. “That allows students to interact with content,” he said.
Tests show the computers have a battery life of six hours when continuously streaming video. Scheivert said a charged computer should be able to make it through the school day before needing a recharge.
“Students will keep the same device until graduation,” explained Scheivert. “They will turn them in at the end of the school year. We’ll refurbish them and give them the same computer back in the fall. We’re trusting kids with $1,000 worth of textbooks now.” Students will get a new computer when they start middle school (Jouett and Burley schools phase-in this year) and a new computer when they start high school.
The county is using a state technology grant to pay for the laptops. No money is coming from the textbook budget, he said. “The budget item comes in the curriculum piece and investing in teachers and getting them to capitalize on digital possibilities.
‘The first reaction to chalkboards was that they would never take off,” said Scheivert (who lives in Crozet), alluding to Claudius Crozet, who is credited with introducing chalkboards to classrooms when he came to teach at West Point and needed a way to present engineering problems.
“The kids we have exiting high school now are generationally different from the kids in middle school. The middle school kids are more adapted to technology. They have an expectation about technology. It’s in their life.
“It’s a matter of the adaptation rate. We refer to “digital natives” and “digital immigrants.” Older people are immigrants. We haven’t moved the devices ahead of where the students are. We’ve been getting ready for three years. There isn’t a reason now to hold kids back. We want to provide for the students’ behalf.”
Scheivert said the school division has tried to anticipate misuse problems.
“When I talk to parent groups I show a picture of McGruff the crime dog. When we saw it, we knew the message was don’t take candy from strangers. The void we see is that we don’t have a figure like that now [whose message is broadly recognized].
“How do we teach digital security? How do we know who we are interacting with online? We have security precautions already in place. We’ve always had those for the computer labs.
“Certain kids will make bad decisions. We want to teach right and wrong. We don’t vilify the technology over the behaviors. Students should know they shouldn’t be looking at pornography. There’s no real way to prevent technology break-ins. We take every reasonable precaution.”
Scheivert said the school division will provide a publication to parents called A Parent’s Guide to School-provided Laptops. “It demystifies educational jargon related to technology,” he said. “Parents can punish kids by taking the computer away.” Parent meetings will also be held at Western.
“We have an over-arching idea about digital learning, but each school community implements it a little differently. It’s about the learning objectives they are really after. You don’t have to stop using books and newspapers.
“I think the reception to the idea ranges from, ‘It’s about time!’ to ‘Are students capable?’ We want to enable students to reach their potential and the device is a conduit to spots they aren’t yet able to reach. We think we have all the pieces. We don’t expect things to go smoothly when we start up. We’ve worked some bugs out and when the laptops are prevalent, we’ll have enabled our teachers.
“One thing we learned at Monticello is that laptop bags are not cool. They are cool to middle schoolers. But we’ll have protective sleeves for every computer to help cope with expected abuse. We have a fund to deal with accidents.”
Scheivert said that all the computers issued at Monticello were returned. “At Walton, [where middle schoolers also received them last year] we have yet to lose a single one. When the device is personal, you don’t lose it.”
The trial-run experience at Monticello also showed that implementation might have to be accelerated because of mixed classes where some kids have been issued laptops and others have not. “It will take four years to fully implement,” he said.
“We had no resistance at Monticello. There have been unexpected benefits. We saw kids sitting around figuring out how to scan a seat screw and print it on a 3-D printer to repair chairs that had lost screws. Kids can create movies that used to require lab. It’s opening doors for kids’ creativity and how they can apply what they’ve learned.
“Libraries are still the primary resource location in the school, but we see them where they look more like libraries at colleges. It’s a place where they collaborate, not just check out books.
“Digital gives us a way to meet students where they are. The opportunities for students to engage in a new way is profound and we are at that tipping point.”