by Cole Pirwitz, ’16, Olivia Van Arsdale, ’17, and Tom Weimer, ’18

District-Wide Laptops Spark Debate

Once upon a time, technology in schools was considered taboo, and phones, tablets and computers were confined to “BYOT”  (bring your own technology) days. Today, electronics are slowly but surely cementing themselves into the American education system. Known as “one-to-one education,” this learning style has picked up momentum nationwide as classrooms adopt laptops, tablets and other devices to help keep up with the demands of the 21st century.

In the Upper Arlington School District, this will soon become part of daily education as 11-inch MacBook Air laptops are distributed Dec. 5 to middle school students and Dec. 12 to high school students.

The premise of one-to-one is that by issuing students their own device, they will be able to receive a more personalized, in-depth learning experience. Instead of learning through in-class lectures and readings, students will be more involved with their own educational experiences by seeking out information themselves.

Tech Troubles

While some pushback is coming from those inexperienced with modern technology, criticism of this approach also comes in large part from individuals who are tech-savvy and are familiar with experiencing firsthand the drawbacks that can occur from an overreliance on technology.

UAHS teacher Henry Michaels—a fictitious name, as the teacher requested anonymity—said that the “personalization” of the curriculum through distribution of laptops could possibly undermine the goal trying to be accomplished, in that technology may surpass the human contact that Michaels considers so vital to teaching.

Michaels worries that class discussions, face-to-face conversations and student-to-teacher communication may diminish significantly because of one-to-one.

Michaels also expressed his concern that this initiative could alienate students who learn best with physical paper, where they can annotate and interact with material.

“Upper Arlington High School, by any objective standard, is an excellent school,” Michaels said. “A cautious use of technology can make us better, but making transformative changes to the great education we provide could be counterproductive. Not all students learn best from computers.”

Another worry pertains to students’ growing reliance on search engines like Google and Yahoo! to answer questions.

According to Community School teacher Melissa Hasebrook, instead of using inquiry and critical thinking to analyze problems in a creative manner, the allure of getting an answer within seconds is believed to cause a decrease in the thought process. This is due to the lack of context in an answer. When one receives an answer in the form of a single phrase, further thought is discontinued because the answer is easily memorized by the brain, but forgotten in a short amount of time.

Over the past summer, Hasebrook conducted an experiment where she would check her laptop only once a week and said that it profoundly increased her brain activity, while now that the grind of the school year has begun, her mind has worked less often and deeply than it used to.

“I found that I could sustain long periods of thought and reading, and then during the school year when I’m on this [laptop] all the time, I think in 20-minute bursts,” Hasebrook said. “I find it hard to think about the same topic for longer than that. I don’t remember nearly as much anymore.”

Despite the excitement over technology in education, there are ways to implement the change that fail to improve learning.

The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), an organization that develops programs and products to empower both students and teachers in the classroom, denoted several examples of places that this initiative has failed.

“Like most interventions,” ASCD said, “the reality may be that one-to-one laptop programs are only as effective—or ineffective—as the schools that adopt them.” 

ASCD found that the largest programs, such as the statewide implementation of one-to-one education in Maine, were the most likely to fail. In five years, Maine’s state-mandated tests had very little improvement, with the exception of writing, which edged up a meager 3.44 points out of 80.

“Rather than being a cure-all or silver bullet,” ASCD said, “one-to-one laptop programs may simply amplify what’s already occurring, for better or worse, in classrooms, schools and districts.”

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Making It Work

Despite failures on a statewide scale in Maine, research by the Center for the Advanced Study of Technology Leadership in Education (CASTLE) at the University of Kentucky shows that one-to-one can be and has been implemented with incredible success.

ProjectRED, a study of 997 schools in 2010, denoted several ways large-scale success with one-to-one have affected places that enact the programs.

“Improvements in writing, literacy, science, exam scores, and GPAs all have been noted in various research studies,” the research abstract states. “Of the core content areas, some of the most substantial academic achievement results of one-to-one programs have been seen with writing skills.”

Adopting the one-to-one initiative first resulted in more engaged learners with a lesser likelihood of behavioral problems in 92 percent of schools.

In 89 percent of those schools, dropout rates decreased as well. Additionally, 100 percent of schools reported drastic reductions in paperwork for both students and teachers. Finally, 90 percent had an improvement on important tests.

ProjectRED was clear that a well-organized rollout was essential to the success of a one-to-one initiative.

Another key factor was that teachers receive the technology before students, as is the case with UA’s one-to-one program, which distributed laptops to some teachers as early as last school year.

“Teachers of an older generation aren’t as connected as kids and need the technology first to be empowered,” said Jeanne Hayes, president of ProjectRED.

ProjectRED denoted nine keys to making one-to-one effective, the top three being uniform integration of technology in each class, providing time for teachers to learn about the technology and using technology daily for the purpose of online student collaboration.

In UA

UAHS has spent the past several months working at these three key factors outlined by ProjectRED. Here, laptops were in the teachers’ hands months before student distribution, as early as the spring of last school year.

Additionally, there have been multiple workshops, such as the Summer iTeach Institute workshops in August, dedicated to instructing teachers on various ways to use the technology. District-wide integration will be almost identical, as each school and class is receiving exactly the same product.

During distribution of laptops to students, families are encouraged to get their technology together, so if a high school student has a middle school sibling, they can receive their laptop on the middle school day. This helps families get it out of the way all at once so they don’t have to make multiple trips. A $50 fee is due for the laptops and an optional $50 fee is for insurance.

Students who already have a personal computer are not required to obtain a new one, the district has confirmed that students may opt-out and use their own device.

However, these students cannot be guaranteed assistance at the school’s help desk. There’s also no certainty that programs that teachers might require to use during class on the school laptops will be able to run on a personal computer already owned.

In addition, the district has been working on ensuring a functional, efficient network to ease possible technical difficulties. The current network often goes down or fails to connect to devices. Once there is the potential for over 2,000 devices to be running on it at the same time, issues could definitely arise.

However, Upper Arlington City Council announced on Oct. 19 that there are plans to construct a new, more up-to-date network across the city, and that the entire school district will have access to this network. This new fiber-optic network will allow the schools the proverbial firepower to keep a massive one-to-one initiative functional with less crashes and disconnections.

Though the new network will not be up and running by the time student laptop distribution occurs, the district is working hard to achieve the goal.

“We have 1,800 kids and 200 staff members, so 2,000 devices,” said Principal Andrew Theado.  “But I have a phone, you have a phone, I have an iPad, we all have other devices, so every person might have 3 to 4 devices that are on the wireless. I think they planned for every student to have multiple devices, but it’s hard to predict.”

Theado recognized that the administration is still getting to know the technology, but stressed learning together.

“Just like our students, our staff is in different places and we recognize that. You might be in classes with teachers that are just running with it and want to try it and they might fail or be successful but they will try,” Theado said. “Ultimately, what I think is going to happen is [that] the adults will learn a lot from the students to better reach [them] through the device.”

Theado sees this change as a big step.

“What I like to say, and I heard this from a gentlemen this summer, is it’s not ‘one-to-one,’ it’s ‘one-to-the-world,’ because it opens up the entire world to us,” Theado said. “And I see the endless possibilities and I can see us being able to engage students that maybe we haven’t been able to engage in the past, and I see it as a way for us demonstrate learning different.”

Theado is also hopeful that after a long road, one-to-one will help spark more discussion and community within classrooms.

“There will be some bumps, but at the end of the day we have to recognize that this is a tool where we will close the laptops, look each other in the eye and have a discussion like we do in a lot of classes right now,” Theado said.  “We [won’t] lose that personal communication and we [won’t] spend all our time staring at the screen. I think it will be a success.”