Benefits of Laptops for All Touted At F.C. Schools’ Budget Hearing

PART OF THE PUBLIC that attended Tuesday night’s F.C. School Board budget hearing and meeting at the Schools’ central office. (Photo: News-Press)
PART OF THE PUBLIC that attended Tuesday night’s F.C. School Board budget hearing and meeting at the Schools’ central office. (Photo: News-Press)

The Falls Church School Board reviewed the technology component of the City’s public school system – centered on the policy of providing a computer tablet to every child – and learned that upgrading it with new computers as part of a new four-year contract will not be as pricey as earlier thought because of the ability to get back $279,337 in trade-in refunds from existing, outdated models.

The board requested a review of comparable prices and capabilities of the Apple Macbook Air it is currently utilizing with other options, such as the Google Chromebook. The board is moving toward the final version of its budget submission to the City Council by the middle of next month.

“It is our energy,” said Steve Knight, head of the Schools’ Technology Advisory Board, told the School Board about the growing use of tablets from the top to the bottom of the school system, now enhancing the system’s ability offering of International Baccalaureate, known as IB, curricula at all levels.
Going with a new four-year plan with Apple’s Macbook Air will cost the system $64,192 the first year (based on the trade-in revenues), and then $342,829 for each of the following three years.

George Mason High School math teacher Jennifer Jayson told the School Board, “Technology is ubiquitous in our lives today and it is important that our students leave high school knowing how to use technology responsibly, efficiently and effectively.”

She added, “I have seen a tremendous amount of growth and maturity in students in terms of technology use over the past two years. Students are able to leave Mason and go into the workforce and into universities and colleges as technology-literate citizens.”

In addition to classroom uses, which are limited to 20-40 minutes out of 5.5 hour days at the younger ages, the computers have assisted the high school robotics team, the yearbook, literary magazine and Lasso online newspaper.

One big advantage of the Macbook Air is its battery life, which is far greater than other options. Strong arguments were also made for the need for each student to have their own device, rather than to share.

In her comments, Jayson said about the benefits of the computers, “I see my second language learners liberated because they can access material at their level; I see all students supported by the technology provided to them by school; I have students that work ahead because the materials they need to go on are at their fingertips; I have students that communicate with me over breaks and weekends or when they are absent.”

She added, “Students are empowered to explore their own interests and go beyond what we are asking them to do in class, because they have a tool that allows them to investigate a world they might not otherwise have access to.

“The computers allow my students to work asynchronously, to explore concepts with dynamic graphs, to investigate questions, and to work collaboratively with groups while in different locations.

“The computers allow teachers to differentiate, enrich and provide a myriad of content appropriate for different students with different needs.

“Many teachers have invested significant time and energy in creating rich, engaging content that students can access at home and school.

“I am currently grading calculus projects that would have been impossible for my students to do without the computers. I have been able to provide feedback for my students without them having to wait for me to hand back papers, and they have been able to ask questions as they work through their projects. The results have been outstanding, far exceeding anything I would demand of them on a test or a quiz.”

She concluded, “As teachers, we are enhancing many of our lessons through the use of technology, but we are also teaching students how to use technology as a tool for research and investigation.”

Among citizens who spoke during the public hearing portion of Tuesday’s meeting were Melissa Vann, who proposed that parental groups raise the money for the computers, and Alison Kutchma, who called for more transparency in the budgeting process.

The Technology Advisory Board prepared a flier circulated at the meeting, “Technology: Frequently Asked Questions.”

It cited that the laptops are used “with balance, purpose, autonomy and creativity, to enable asynchronous learning, as an integral part of instruction and planning with no set percent of classroom time required.”

To the question, “Why not bring your own device from home,” it answered that it would create “device inequality,” add to the risk of theft, enjoy no technical support from peers, teachers or IT staff, it can’t set up student devises with needed programs and can’t restrict unneeded or distracting programs or sites.

To the question of why not the cheaper Chromebook, it answered that the Chromebook “only works when connected to the internet, is an unfamiliar device on which teachers and students will have to be trained (compared to five years already put into learning Apple devices), it limits creativity, does not support STEM programs with no iMovie, GarageBand, iBooks Author, Adobe, QuickTime or Microsoft programs.”

Among other things, the Apple product offers iBook Author for free on all its devices, with Photoshop and Illustrator programs offered at $24 per year per student.