Chromebooks making an impression with area schools

By Ted Pennekamp

It can be quite challenging for school districts to sort out all of the available new technology and to find the right ones in order to give their students the best possible learning experience.

One intriguing state-of-the-art technology that area districts are incorporating into their programs this school year is Chromebooks. Prairie du Chien, Wauzeka-Steuben and Seneca are all anticipating a good experience for students and teachers through the use of Chromebooks beginning in 2013-2014.

“The Prairie du Chien School District is very excited to announce that students in grades 5-12 will be using Google Chromebooks in the classroom,” said Prairie du Chien High School Assistant Principal Jennifer Gallagher in a recent report.

Gallagher explained that Chromebooks are computers that run a web-based Google search background and have the functionality of the Google Drive options. The computers are limited to the Google suite of products and compatible web-based applications. Due to this streamlined processing, these computers are very fast and efficient. Basically when they open, they are on. Traditional Microsoft products do not run on these machines and downloading of specific programs is limited. These are machines that run in what is referred to as the “cloud” or basically operate only on Internet access. It can almost be referred to as more of a mobile device than a computer in the traditional sense.

Gallagher said that many of the resources used in school today have an online component. There are many educational “experts” predicting that, within just a handful of years, all materials will be online. The advantages of digitized educational media are quickly surpassing what has traditionally been able to be done in print. The sharing of resources through online options has blossomed and is only projected to continue to grow. Another potential advantage of digital materials is efficiency and less cost. A small number of schools have gone so far as to eliminate their library book collections as they have gone totally to online resources.

Right now, however, Prairie du Chien is not anywhere close to the point of moving to only digital materials.

“We are not yet ready to pronounce the textbook or other print books as being dead; most classes will still have abundant printed materials,” said Gallagher. “The bottom line is that this transition is already in progress worldwide and we plan to ease into this transition as smoothly as possible in our schools. Obviously, this will be a change for students, parents, and staff and we plan to wade in slowly rather than fully jumping in.”

Through a couple of sources of funding, the Prairie du Chien School District is able to support the purchase of Chromebooks for all teachers and students in grades 5 through 12. All students having the same technology and access at school is important as an equity issue; all students are at the same technology level regardless of family resources. Educationally, this is important also, as staff can tailor information toward what is available to all students. Using a print comparison, they can all be on the same page.

There already have been requests for elementary grades to have Chromebooks as there are multiple online resources available for all of Prairie du Chien’s elementary materials. However, at this time PK through 4 will not have one-to-one technology. “We will need to study this to see if it is practical for those grades,” said Gallagher. “However, it should be noted that all of our elementary classrooms have access to multiple in-classroom computers and also computer labs. Our teachers consistently incorporate the latest technological resources across all grades and subjects.”

“Over the years, we have worked hard and used some creativity to keep fees as low as possible,” said Gallagher. “Many schools charge registration fees that are much higher than what we have. For many students, the only fee that will be paid in the registration process is the $25 Chromebook fee. This fee is not to purchase or rent the computer as it is basically considered a textbook; the Chromebook itself is provided free of charge. What we are charging is a maintenance fee to upkeep the background software and associated materials needed to allow full access to our wireless system, educational materials, filters, etc.  As noted, the Chromebooks are considered a required textbook as students will be using them in the course of their studies.

“The Chromebooks are great little machines. However, it is to be fully noted that they are limited in functionality. Families with other devices such as pads or laptops are encouraged to continue to use them as they see fit for other educational, business, or recreational uses. The Chromebook is just another tool that teachers will use to present educational materials to students. Toward the middle of this school year, there will be an evaluation of the one-to-one program to see how it can be tweaked or expanded to give better service to the children of our district.”

“Our students and staff are excited about the latest technology project in our school,” said Seneca District Administrator/Principal David Boland in a newsletter. “Each high school student will be receiving a personal technology device for their use in classes and at home. This initiative is the culmination of a project that began about two years ago.”

Boland explained that in November of 2011, Frank McCormick of the Seneca Educational Foundation approached the school, expressing the Foundation’s desire to make a donation to the school for a project that would make a difference for the students. After considering many options, Seneca’s teachers decided that it would best benefit the Seneca District to do a deeper exploration of the many different options of personal technology devices, so that staff could better understand which of these devices would best serve the students at each specific grade level. That donor, and other private donors, made it possible for the school to purchase a number of the following personal technology devices: Amazon Kindle Fire, Apple iPads and Google Chromebooks. The Seneca teachers received training on the various devices, and incorporated them into their classroom activities.

Boland noted that after a year of using the various devices, the consensus among high school instructors was that the Chromebooks were the best fit at that level. A decision was made to pursue a “one-to-one” technology device ratio in the high school: a Chromebook for each high school student.

Because Chromebooks store all their information over the Internet on the “cloud,” they are ideal for classroom projects and activities.

“As they have so many times in the past, the Seneca Educational Foundation stepped forward to support our students by providing the $19,456 in funds needed to provide each of our high school students with a Chromebook,” Boland said. “We have laid the groundwork for the project this summer, and expect the students to have the devices early in the school year.”

This important project will benefit student instruction in many ways. Among them, students will have almost instant access to their device for instructor designed classroom activities and projects. Students will be able to make more effective use of instructional time, as they will no longer have to take time moving to a computer and waiting for it to log them in. Students who could not normally afford a personal technology device will now have one assigned to them, and will be able to access their school accounts from home.

Seneca’s plans are for the students to keep the device upon graduating. An added benefit of this project is that it will allow middle school and elementary school students to have better access to the other computers and personal technology devices in the building, as the high school students will not need to use them. These are some of the benefits that Seneca is anticipating. According to a study done by Project Revolutionizing Education, 100 percent of properly implemented one-to-one schools reported improvement on paperwork reduction, 92 percent said disciplinary action decreased, 90 percent had an improvement on high-stakes test scores, and 89 percent reported a reduction in dropout rates.

“We are excited about this next step in our district’s efforts to stay at the technological forefront in educating our students,” Boland said.  “Thanks to the Seneca Educational Foundation and all its benefactors, our students can receive top-notch educational services. We greatly appreciate their support, and the support of all those in our community who make it possible for our students to benefit from great educational activities such as these.”

At the Wauzeka-Steuben School District, District Administrator Mike Garrow said that the district continues to delve into the use of Chromebooks.

“We’re delving in, but we’re not a full fledged one-to-one effort yet,” Garrow said. “Full implementation for all grade levels is not quite worked out yet.”

Garrow explained, however, that Wauzeka-Steuben has 60 Chromebooks, which will be used by high school and middle school students beginning this school year.

“We’re moving forward cautiously,” said Garrow, in noting that Wauzeka-Steuben is excited by the use of Chromebooks but is also looking into the myriad of other state-of-the-art technologies in order to give Wauzeka-Steuben students the best possible educational experience. Garrow said that Chromebooks cost about $250 apiece and that the district has applied for grants to help with the funding. Donations have also been received which can help to pay for Chromebooks or other educational improvements.

“Any time you put new technology with students and staff, you can apply learning in a different way,” said Garrow. “We continue to search for the state-of-the-art, relevant technologies in order to best develop 21st Century skills and critical thinking skills for our students.”

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