WESTERN SPRINGS – Starting in fourth grade, District 101 students are now equipped with their own laptops.
Starting in fifth grade, students can take their laptops home, giving them continuous access to shared documents for a group project or feedback from teachers on writing assignments.
The changes are part of an enhanced technology initiative following an 18-month study by the district that included studies of tech programs in several neighboring districts, including La Grange Highlands District 106 and Riverside District 96.
Pre-kindergarten through third-grade students now have more access to either a laptop or iPad – with ratios of either 2 or 1.5 students per device – and students in or past fourth grade possess their own Google Chromebook, a laptop produced by Samsung that, like Apple products, is often sold in bulk to schools.
“Technology access in a lot of ways has become a new basic,” Superintendent Brian Barnhart said.
Before this year, McClure Junior High seventh- grade language arts teacher Katie Hoffman said she had to share a cart of computers with four other teachers. Now, each of her students has a laptop at his or her desk at all times.
“The teachers really wanted to use them more often than they were available,” said Vickie Antonsen, technology integration specialist at Field Park Elementary.
In Hoffman’s seventh-grade class, students use their laptops to write, edit and review assignments, view feedback from Hoffman and fellow students, and play games that help them review material.
Hoffman occasionally has to tell her students to close their laptops, but in all, they haven’t been major distractions, she said.
“I don’t feel like the kids are buried with their heads in their [laptops] and not participating or talking,” Hoffman said. “They’re kind of waiting for [feedback on writing assignments] now more … They’re like, ‘When are you getting to my essay?’”
The use of laptops also eliminates a headache for teachers like Hoffman: Reading their students’ handwriting.
Field Park first-grade teacher Jennifer Schauf said teachers must balance the use of technological devices with activities that develop find motor skills.
“It’s really important that there’s a good balance,” Schauf said.
Schauf has her first-graders use iPads to complete grammar assignments and create movies of field trips, among other things.
“They were so engaged and motivated to be on the iPads and to be emailing back and forth,” said Schauf, who sends her students quizzes via email.
Students can only receive emails from people with a district account, Barnhart said. All content that students access also has to pass through the content filter the district uses in schools.
“We recognize it’s a potentially powerful learning tool, but [that] there are some potential downsides to it,” Barnhart said. “And we’re going to work really, really hard to make sure the kids know what their responsibilities are.”
Educational applications allow teachers like Schauf to personalize assignments, too. Schauf uses an app called Raz-Kids that customizes reading comprehension quizzes based on a student’s level.
“As they continue to improve, the levels get trickier; a little more challenging,” she said.
Teachers also will train students on topics like cyber bullying, Internet safety and conduct, Antonsen said.
Fourth-through eighth-grade students who have their own laptops received a carrying case that can be carried with a handle or a strap, like a messenger bag.
The district owns the computers, but students’ families will have the option to buy them upon their students’ graduation from eighth grade. For broken or lost computers, the financial burden falls on the families.
To fund the initiative, the district increased its technology fee from $35 to $100/year for fifth- to eighth- graders, who take their laptops home each day.
Kindergarten to fourth- graders now pay $50 per year.
Barnhart said the changes are not simply a technology initiative, but a way to improve learning.
“This is how they get their info and how they learn,” Barnhart said of today’s students.
“It’s not about more content, more content. It’s about access to information and sifting through and using the info that’s most needed.”