Rebecca Feazel’s gifted second-graders had a big day recently — it was the day they learned how to use a Google Chromebook laptop.
The Hazelwood teacher showed the nine children how to make a Google Slides presentation about fractions on their laptops. They poked the keys one by one with their index fingers, eyes searching for the right letters and punctuation marks.
One girl had misspelled the word “dalmatians” as “dolmations.” Feazel gathered the other pupils to show them how to right-click the word with the wavy red line underneath, then click the correct spelling that popped up.
“It changed it for Addilyn!” Feazel said to them. “That’s called — are you listening? — spell check.” The second-graders squealed with delight.
Such scenes have become a relatively new norm in education: Schools are teaching children as young as kindergartners to work on laptops, tablets and even smartphones.
Schools say they do so to prepare students for an increasingly technology-immersed world.
In Orchard Farm, elementary students are timed on how fast they can log in to their Chromebooks. In Hillsboro, middle-schoolers have used Chromebooks during PE class, sitting cross-legged on the gym floor. In St. Louis Public Schools, administrators gave hundreds of students free smartphones to use for online classes and homework.
“Let’s face it. The kids today learn differently than we did,” said David McCorkle, chief information officer for the Hazelwood School District. “We need to teach the way our kids learn today.”
Tools vs. innovations
While schools have been buying laptops and tablets for years, many St. Louis-area schools are still rolling out so-called “one-to-one” laptop and tablet initiatives, which provide a device for every student in certain grades.
The enthusiasm for one-to-one has captivated charter schools like St. Louis College Prep, suburban districts like Rockwood, parochial schools like St. Mary’s High School and urban districts like East St. Louis. Education leaders say such initiatives can close technology gaps for students from low-income families.
Overwhelmingly, schools are buying Google Chromebooks, a laptop that typically costs about $200 and can be used only for internet applications. More than 20 million students worldwide use Chromebooks for education, according to Google. Schools buy Chromebooks partly because they are enticed by Google’s accompanying Apps for Education, which are free online tools such as Gmail and Google Docs.
An August review of educational technology studies published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that giving laptops to K-12 students generally has no impact on academic achievement.
More technology generally means that students become more digitally savvy, but it remains to be seen whether that makes for a higher-quality workforce down the road. The review suggested that real improvements in student achievement occur when educational software is paired with devices to personalize learning for individual students, which some local schools do.
One-to-one initiatives haven’t come without criticism. For example, Hazelwood parents questioned the district’s decision last year to allocate $1.7 million for new laptops, months after making controversial budget cuts.
But overall, one-to-one initiatives are perceived by many schools as a necessity, said Fred Harlan, director of technology for the Ritenour School District.
“We’re doing it today because that’s so embedded in instruction and in education that it would be really disadvantageous to the students, as well as to the faculty, to ask them to develop lessons to deliver content without a technology foundation,” Harlan said. Ritenour has about 4,500 Chromebooks in a district of about 6,300 students. “We’re no longer asking to justify it so much because it’s almost replacing books. It’s replacing pencils and paper.”
Tracy Gray, an education technology expert at American Institutes for Research, said schools should use technology to have students do things they otherwise wouldn’t be able to do, whether that’s programming robots, creating something with a 3-D printer or videoconferencing with Nobel Prize-winning scientists. Simply digitizing tasks that students can accomplish without computers or tablets, like writing papers, peer-reviewing essays or doing research, doesn’t count as an innovative use of technology, she said.
“That’s using technology literally as a tool, which is fine, but it’s not using it in innovative ways,” Gray said. “That’s how people communicate. That’s not using it to expand one’s learning and understanding.”
But some teachers and administrators report much value in using Chromebooks as a digital classroom tool.
Students can do schoolwork on their laptops from home, even if they’re sick. They can complete group projects without having to meet in person. Many schools use digital educational programs that test students with English and math questions, then adjust lessons based on their strengths and weaknesses. Teachers can receive immediate feedback and data analyses of student test results.
“In my classroom, we use Chromebooks every day,” said Hannah Tripp, chemistry teacher at Ritenour High School. “I don’t really have any experience designing curriculum from a textbook. Technology makes my life easier.”
Policing laptop use
With students spending more time online, schools have taken measures to monitor, and even police their activities.
Schools pretty much always block adult and explicit content such as pornography sites, but they don’t always block social media sites such as Facebook. They often buy computer surveillance programs, such as GoGuardian, that let teachers see all their students’ screens while they’re using them and students’ internet browsing histories. When using Google apps like Google Docs, teachers can tell which student wrote what, and which students aren’t pulling their share of the load in group projects.
During a recent English lesson about annotating texts, Ritenour High English teacher Melissa Monzyk watched as students added highlights and comments to a common Google Doc.
When one student said he was finished with the assignment, Monzyk pulled up his Google Doc and said, “You’re commenting? I don’t see any comments, honey.”
Monzyk said using laptops does make it easier for some students to become distracted online, but teaching them to manage that is part of a digital education.
“These kids need to learn how to manage competing digital attention,” Monzyk said.
Not for everybody
Not everyone wants to put a laptop on each student’s desk.
John Burroughs School, an independent school that sends students to Ivy League universities, is one school that consciously chooses not to have a one-to-one laptop program.
“Most students are probably four, five, six, seven, eight hours a day on screens,” said Andy Abbott, John Burroughs’ head of school. “It is, we think, a good thing to have some time at school not on screens, when they are interacting and debating and thinking through things.”
In John Burroughs classrooms, seats are arranged in a horseshoe formation to facilitate Socratic seminar-style discussions. At the school’s open house last year, Abbott felt the need to tell prospective parents: “We don’t want kids’ eyes buried in the screen, we want their faces up, looking at their teachers and at one another and ready to engage.”
But Burroughs doesn’t swear off technology entirely. The school has six computer labs and dozens of laptops and tablets that students can check out. Every seventh-grader learns how to code, Abbott said, and the school offers AP Computer Science and web design. Students have built robots and a weather balloon that can travel to space.
Leaders at one-to-one schools agree there is such a thing as too much screen time.
“There’s still that social piece and that interaction that needs to happen with kids,” said Manuel Herrera, one-to-one coordinator for the Affton School District. “I think we’re aware of all that and we try to find balance in everything.”