Schools plug along toward getting plugged-in
BY TINA AKOURIS email@example.com September 17, 2013 9:46PM
Joliet West freshman Alexis Herod works with her newly issued laptop as part of the district's One-to-One program. | Tina Akouris~Sun-Times Media
Updated: October 19, 2013 6:56PM
Brittany Adams may be an atypical teenager when it comes to technology. The Joliet West High School freshman prefers to take notes in Kristin Demski’s biology class the old-fashioned way — with a notebook and pen, instead of using the tablet the school district gave her when classes started Aug. 19.
“I think they are modern, but I don’t think they are going to help us,” said Adams, a Shorewood resident. “I think doing our work on paper is a lot easier than logging on to a computer. I think they are trying to tie in our life with the work we do at school, since we spend most of our time on the computer.
“But I don’t really like it.”
Adams is one of nearly 3,000 students who are part of Joliet Township’s One-to-One program, where students are issued mobile devices — tablets — that they use for the duration of their high school careers.
Joliet Township’s program is rare for school districts in Will County, as most are unable to issue their students laptops or tablets to keep outside the classroom.
Plainfield School District 202 spokesman Thomas Hernandez said because of his district’s size — it is the state’s fourth-largest — financial constraints have prevented the district from buying laptops or tablets for its students. Hernandez said the district also does not allow personal devices in the classroom.
Joliet School District 86, which includes 21 schools for children from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, has desktop and mobile devices in the classroom for students to use. But according to district technology director John Armstrong, more needs to be done.
“The concern is that standardized testing is going online in the 2014-15 school year,” Armstrong said. “We know we won’t have a One-to-One (program) but we are doing preparation for that.”
As technology affects nearly every aspect of people’s daily lives, school districts are constantly evaluating the needs of students and teachers when it comes to computer use in and out of the classroom.
A big step forward
Joliet Township District 204 Supt. Cheryl McCarthy said the process of providing tablets to students took about four years, from the initial idea to its implementation in fall 2012.
“We needed the time to look at the curriculum and improve the infrastructure,” McCarthy said.
About 2,600 students at both West and Central campuses have Intel Classmate PC Convertible devices and can use them 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
According to Karen Harkin, the district’s director of information technology services, each device cost the district $550, and the total was $2 million, with 421 bought using grant money. Harkin said the district hopes to have all students at both campuses taking part in the One-to-One program by the 2014-15 school year.
All freshmen and sophomores have tablets, along with select juniors. McCarthy said underclassmen received the tablets instead of upperclassmen because the district wanted the students to have the maximum amount of time using the tablets during their high school years.
“At the end of the year we used to collect the devices, but now they can keep them until they graduate,” McCarthy said.
Adams, who uses a Dell laptop at home, thinks the program keeps students tethered to technology a bit too much.
“I’m always on a laptop and I’m not really learning from a teacher,” Adams said. “If that’s what we are doing our work on, then I have to go with it, but it kind of bothered me.”
Where Adams is having a hard time with the transition, classmate Alexis Herod, a freshman from Joliet, is adapting well after initial misgivings about the technology.
“I heard they were old and slow and I thought it would slow the learning process down, but I like them now,” Herod said. “For students, it’s easier for us and we don’t have to carry as many textbooks and it’s easier for us to learn. When I think of textbooks, I think, ‘Boring.’ When I use a computer I try to make it seem more fun because I like using technology.”
Demski said there has been a lot of positive feedback and the district’s technology staff worked out the bugs in the tablets by improving Internet service and reprogramming them.
In the classroom, Demski said, the students use the tablets like a conventional notebook and can participate in classroom discussion through online discussion boards.
“They submit assignments to us on them and each teacher has their own website,” Demski said. “That is their home base for assignments. We also hold discussions on the Internet. We want our students to graduate with the knowledge of using technology in their everyday lives.”
Lemont High School District 210 also incorporates technology into the classroom, but with a different approach.
District spokesman Tony Hamilton said students are allowed to use cellphones and other electronic devices during class, but only if approved by a teacher and only if it is for educational purposes.
But Hamilton said math teachers at Lemont High School have tablets they use during class. Whatever is on the tablet’s screen can then be projected onto a screen for the whole class to see.
Through four grants from the Lemont High School Educational Foundation starting in the 2009-10 school year, the math department has been able to provide Texas Instruments calculators to math students along with the software necessary to send files to and retrieve them from teachers.
Getting to kids early
Elwood School District 203 Supt. Cathie Pezanoski knows how important it is to get children involved in technology at a young age. The sooner they are exposed to it, the better prepared they will be for secondary education and beyond.
The district bought 50 laptops over the summer and 50 iPads as part of its three-year strategic plan. One of the district’s main goals is to expose its students, who range from kindergartners to eighth-graders, to more technology.
Pezanoski said the devices can be taken from classroom to classroom on carts and used in the school’s instructional media center and Tiger Think Tank.
“We have 200 functional devices, and for every two students there is one device,” Pezanoski said. “We are looking at a One-to-One-type program and we hope to have one realistically in place by 2016, primarily for sixth-graders.”
Pezanoski said the laptops and iPads cost $150,000 and the funds came from the district’s budget.
“Our students are definitely motivated by technology, and we want them to be secure enough in their skills, because we know it is ever-changing,” Pezanoski said.
Changing technology is one thing that Armstrong is considering before District 86 makes any commitment to buy devices. He said any device that is bought must be able to handle the online standardized tests that students will need to take.
Classrooms in District 86 already have two desktop computers, three mobile devices (laptops, tablets), an interactive white board, digital camera and an LCD projector.
Armstrong said the district is going to add iPads, especially in special-education classes.
In this age of social media and cyberbullying, District 204 is among those that have taken steps to monitor students’ usage on the devices. McCarthy said all the tablets are on the school district’s network and administrators can monitor what websites the students use.
“We have some filters and we have the ability to turn the machines on and off,” McCarthy said. “The kids do know this. We can go into their computers and monitor what they are doing.”
Interestingly, District 204 board President Jeff Pierson said the biggest worry for school board members and administrators was about being one of the first districts in the area to implement a program such as One-to-One.
“We had the kids’ input and we wanted them to take ownership,” Pierson said. “But our biggest concern was being the pilot program for this.”
Herod knows she is probably at an advantage compared with students in other districts who don’t have the same devices in and out of the classroom that she does.
“I have some friends at Plainfield and Minooka, and they’re kind of jealous of me now,” Herod said.