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North Neighborhoods
Bumpy start for digital district

Arming every student with a laptop trickier than expected

Tuesday, June 18, 2002

By Eleanor Chute, Post-Gazette Education Writer

As one of the state's first Digital School Districts, Quaker Valley's goal this year was to provide working laptops to about 1,600 students in grades 3 through 12 and install Internet connections and wireless service in each of their homes.

James Vescio and Tim Hall, 12-year-old sixth-graders at Quaker Valley Middle School in Sewickley, work on a project in social studies class. James, foreground, is using a laptop computer. (Bill Wade, Post-Gazette)

Reaching that goal turned out to be tougher than imagined. State funding came late, the laptops broke down frequently, repairs took a long time, and students and their families did things with the computers they weren't supposed to do.

But school officials also have been surprised at how readily students and teachers put the technology to use.

Some students even taped the Apple iBooks shut rather than give them up for latch repairs.

"It's unbelievable the progress that has been made so far in terms of facilitating learning and teaching," said Harry Faulk, adjunct professor of educational policy at Carnegie Mellon University. As chief researcher for the project's evaluation, he visited the district a couple of days a week during the school year.

"When the students would come to class, immediately they would open up their computers. They seemed to be excited about what was happening."

The challenge of being one of the state's three Digital School Districts has been massive.

Quaker Valley -- along with Spring Cove in Blair County and Carlisle Area in Cumberland County -- last year won a competition to become model digital districts in 2001-02.

That enabled Quaker Valley to receive $4.1 million extra in state money over two years. The district is paying the $2 million balance. The district has leased the laptops for three years and plans to pay for the third year of the project. CMU has been hired for $60,000 a year for two years to evaluate the project.

Joe Marrone, Quaker Valley's director of administrative services and project director of the digital school, talks frankly about the hurdles encountered and the way the district is continually evaluating what it's doing.

"It's important to know these are issues we have to work through so others don't work through them," said Marrone, who remains enthusiastic.

There were 300 reported cases of laptop repairs -- some on the same machine -- and that number may grow as the machines are examined over the summer.

Some of the repair problems might have been prevented with the use of protective cases, and cases won't be ready until the coming school year. As a result, elementary pupils weren't permitted to take their laptops home, but middle school and high school students were.

A problem with students' breaking the rules by trying to personalize their laptops with their own programs was solved when the students were told they'd have to pay for a technician to remove what they'd added.

For next year, the district is considering changing security procedures so that students can add some of their own software -- such as a printer driver -- and be able to reinstall software themselves in the school library if they do something that disables the laptop.

And the state money to help pay for the technology didn't arrive until August, later than expected, in part because of turnover at the top of the state Department of Education.

Despite the difficulties, the laptops appear to be making an educational impact.

Joel Neft, who graduated with the senior class last week, said: "I thought it changed education. It gave us unlimited resources at our hands. We had basically anything we could need."

Some teachers turned paperless for assignments, having students electronically submit work to their electronic drop boxes. Some students found they could take organized class notes on the laptops or begin their term papers at school and easily pick up where they left off when they got home.

"Students were using the laptops for everything," said sophomore Justin Starr. "I thought you'd see a little note-taking here and there. You had kids who had never taken a class on film production making high-quality digital movies, PowerPoint presentations."

Faulk said Quaker Valley's model will catch on, but progress will be slow because of the expense, not only for equipment but also for "far more intensive training that most are doing right now."

Since last June, each of the 160 Quaker Valley teachers has had about 45 hours of technology training during professional development periods during the school day, plus about 5 1/2 days of in-service training in technology, according to Marrone.

To get a laptop, each student and at least one parent had to attend a 90-minute training session.

A few parents chose not to have their children receive a computer. The district provided alternatives so the students still got their work done.

Faulk's April survey of the students showed some of the highest use occurred in the middle school.

"It's been a learning year for all of us. The more we use them, the more we'll make them educationally beneficial," said sixth-grade teacher Tracy Brains.

Brains said the laptops have helped her pupils do research without having to go to the computer lab. In math, the pupils have used spreadsheets and graphs on the laptop to better understand concepts.

High school physics teacher Mark Williams said, "I can count on the fact that every student has access to the information that I am sharing, instantly and from home."

According to a survey conducted by Faulk, teachers who use technology are more likely to plan lessons that involve students helping each other learn, activities that require higher thinking skills, interaction with the world outside of school, and combinations of more than one subject area.

"If the computers are used effectively, then the teacher becomes somewhat like a coach.

"Psychologically, learning is more productive and more permanent in a discovery mode rather than in a mode in which they're being told," Faulk said.

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