In an effort to prepare students for the 21st century workforce, Falls Church City Public Schools is providing laptops for every student at George Mason High School and Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School as part of their Personalized Learning Initiative.
The laptops were rented out to students in August during orientation sessions led by George Mason Technology Coordinator Steve Knight. At the sessions – organized by Mason and City schools to allow students and parents a chance to ask questions about the program – students learned how to log into the laptops and access educational tools they’ll use in the classroom and parents learned how to manage their children’s usage of the laptops.
George Mason students are allowed to take their laptops home. Students at Henderson are able to get laptops from a cart every morning, which they have to return at the end of the day. Access to digital technology was also expanded in the classrooms at Thomas Jefferson and Mt. Daniel Elementary Schools, according to school officials.
George Mason principal Tyrone Byrd said in a letter sent to parents over the summer that the new initiative will “ensure equal access for every student” at the high school.
“Having 24/7 access to the laptop and software they use in their classroom levels the playing field for our students as they listen to class lectures, review teacher and student notes, and collaborate with one another in and outside the classroom – an invaluable advantage to advancing their learning,” Byrd said.
Byrd said that he’s learned from talking to professionals and digital literacy and comfort with new technology is a new soft skill demanded at colleges and universities and in the workforce today.
“There are certain skills and abilities that you need to enter the workforce with and our kids are no longer competing with kids their age,” Byrd said. “They’re competing with career switchers who are in their 40s and 50s, who – in this difficult economic time – are willing to accept entry-level positions and they’ll boot someone out who doesn’t have those skill sets.
“Dr. [Toni] Jones has put us in rooms with professionals who are looking to bring new people into their profession. And those professionals are looking for them to have certain sets of skills and they don’t want to have to send somebody away to train them on how to use technology. They’re looking for them to show up on day one and be able to use it.”
In addition to everyday learning in the classroom, students will be able to practice for and take statewide assessments using the laptops, according to F.C. City schools superintendent Dr. Toni Jones.
Falls Church schools are in their third year of implementation of the PLI. Before the initiative began, many of the school division’s classrooms had limited access to digital devices. Three years ago, for example, Mason only had 35 laptops.
During the first two years of the program, schools provided laptops and other digital technology to teachers on a per request basis. Last school year, a grant was used to provide iPads to a limited number of Mason students who didn’t have access to digital devices.
“That’s why we’re excited about this year; we’re able to expand access to technology to all of the students at Mason,” Jones said.
The recommendation to provide laptops to every student at Mason came from the work of the Technology Advisory Committee, which is comprised of students and parents, community members, teachers, building administrators, school administrators and IT staff and representatives of the Digital Learning Teams at the schools. The committee was advised by representatives of Mason’s Digital Learning Team that the high school’s teachers were requesting expanded access to digital technology in their classrooms.
After vetting and piloting several different methods of fulfilling the requests of teachers at Mason and the other city schools, the committee recommended a purchase of 1,200 laptops for the 2014-2015 school year to meet the needs of the entire division. Approximately 750 laptops purchased were allocated to Mason.
According to the schools, the total cost of the devices, which are being leased by the school division, will be nearly $1.08 million over the next three years. That’s when the triennial lease renews and the school division receives newer versions of the devices.
Jones said that this funding model is cheaper than trying to buy laptop carts for every classroom, which was how they met teacher requests for laptops in previous years.
But the move to bring up-to-date technology to the classroom has been met with praise, skepticism and ambivalence.
At the final orientation session, a few parents expressed gratitude at the fact that their children have virtually unlimited access to the laptops. Kim Maller, a City resident with two daughters at Mason, said she was initially skeptical of the plan to give laptops to every student, but warmed to the idea after attending one of the orientation sessions.
“At first it seemed like a waste of money because my two high schoolers already have Apple laptops,” Maller said. But she acknowledged the fact that some students don’t have access to laptops for financial reasons or because the parents of some students aren’t as open to giving their children access to digital devices.
“Last year, they both brought their laptops to school everyday and I don’t think a lot of kids were doing it but I think it was really helpful to the other kids and the teachers that they could research things on it…so now I see the benefit of it.”
Maller’s younger daughter Sarah, a freshman at Mason, was also unsure of the plan but has warmed to the idea since experiencing how the laptops are being used in classrooms since school started.
“I think it was a big step for education in our city and I think it’s going to help our test scores and morale also,” Sarah Maller said. “I think I found out two or three days before I got the laptop that it was happening. I was a little skeptical but I’ve been in school three weeks now and it really is used in every class I have. It’s just easier, I think.”
Jones said the decision to provide the same laptop to every student at Mason was a specific request made by the Digital Learning Team. Jones said teachers told the team they wanted some uniformity to the type of digital devices being provided to students to ensure they all had the same digital education tools being used in the classroom.
That’s one of the benefits, Maller found, of her daughter receiving a laptop from the schools. “I went to an orientation session and I realized that our younger daughter doesn’t have Microsoft Word on her computer and that’s one of the things that she has access to with the school laptop,” Maller said.
Peter Laub, an English, journalism and creative writing teacher at George Mason, said providing laptops to every student at Mason was a “step in the right direction.”
“That’s what we as professionals are asked to do. We’re constantly connected to the Internet and that’s how we create what we need to be professionals. That’s the tool that we need,” Laub said. “And so our job as teachers is to make sure students have the tools they need to be professionals. It’s a necessary step for education.”
But Laub said he’s also unsure of the long-term impact of using digital devices in the classroom. “I just haven’t read anything that proves its impact one way or the other. But I’m certainly excited regardless. Professionals can’t live without something like this. It would be impossible for us to do our jobs,” Laub said. “We’ve got to help these kids figure out how to navigate the world of the 21st century and that’s a really important thing to do.”