1-1 Laptop Trends in the San Joaquin Valley

High schools in a California valley are largely providing a laptop for each student, though some still have carts of devices.

by Nan Austin, The Modesto Bee / September 26, 2016 0

(TNS) — While stacks of lined paper still fill classroom cubbies and hardbacks still line the library shelves, schools' shift to digital platforms is happening as fast as new money and old wiring allow.

The slow swell of school technology over the past 20 years spurted forward as the state moved testing online. Classrooms that were shuffling along with a few cubelike computers in the back of the room have raced forward since 2013 to get slim laptops or tablets on every desk.

The so-called 1:1 — one to one — or "1 to web" trend in most cases, means devices travel home and back each day. A Bee survey of local school districts found all but a few have students with devices on their desks for much of the day, but not all are sending them home.

High schoolers in Ceres, Hughson, Newman-Crows Landing, Patterson, Riverbank, Manteca and the Merced Union High School district all pack up laptops at the end of the day. In Modesto high schools, only Davis High has laptops for all students, with teens at the district's six other large high schools moving between devices set up by class. Oakdale and Turlock high schools, too, are still at the computers-on-carts stage.

The switch to student devices goes beyond trading a No. 2 pencil for a stylus. Teaching and learning become more intertwined, with kids more able to find answers, and managing assignments get streamlined.

"A 1:1 program has many benefits over a technology cart program," said Burt Lo via email. Lo is a Stanislaus County Office of Education expert on digital curriculum and instructional tech. When multiple classrooms share a cart, he pointed out, computer time has to be scheduled. "With a 1:1 program, teachers and students can utilize technology as a tool, and access it when it best benefits learning," he wrote, adding that students who take tech home have online help for homework.

Homework, moreover, on laptops sails through cyberspace directly to the teacher -- no way the dog could eat it.

"There is no excuse at this point," said Javier Nunez, a fifth-grade teacher at Walter White Elementary in Ceres. "That their Chromebook's not charged, that's the only thing I've heard," he said.

Ceres Unified checked out a Chromebook laptop to every student at the start of last year, which Nunez said gives him a lot more options. For a reading assignment Friday, he sent students an online article, with a sheet of questions he scanned on his phone. But other days, Nunez said, "I go old school. I still use a paper textbook for social studies."

Tech comes in handy, he said, "but I still have to do the teaching." The big change for him was the move away from long lectures. "It puts a lot more pressure on them to perform and less on me to perform," Nunez said.

One plus of this, his student Adamari Gonzalez noticed, "The teachers don't lose their voice." Adamari, 10, said she prefers reading stories on a screen, that it keeps from having to flip pages so often, and typing is better than writing. "It'll get the job done faster," she said.

"The students love the technology. Student collaboration has increased -- really, they're teaching us," said Walter White Principal Edith Narayan. "We still have our lesson design. It's infusing the tech into the teaching, using the technology as a tool."

Narayan said the universal rollout helps even the playing field for her students. "Ceres is diverse. A lot of our students are low-(income). This is giving them opportunities to compete," she said.

Ceres is diverse. A lot of our students are low socio-economic (level). This is giving them opportunities to compete. Edith Narayan

Math online beats the pants off paper textbooks, teachers say. For example, as Nunez's fifth-graders tackle fractions and decimals, a tool bar on the side of their e-book lets them create 3-D interactive objects to picture the problem.

Where paper textbooks offer collections of short stories or a few pages out of a longer classic, the new e-versions can link to whole novels. Online access is more like a subscription that includes options for extras, such as a large digital library, online writing labs and embedded checks on student progress.

Also available only online -- embedded definitions, images and links to videos that demonstrate a concept, such as "dropping objects off the leaning tower of Pisa to understand acceleration," said Lo. Computers can read books aloud, enlarge text and decipher words for English learners, opening regular classroom discussions to kids with disabilities or language barriers.

"There's so many things available to us in the technology. We're using it for every lesson," said teacher Shannon Baca. But bins of paper reading books march across the back shelves of her room at Walter White, and her sixth-graders have to handwrite first drafts and summaries.

"It's still very important to have the writing. We don't want to lose that skill," Baca said. "It's a learning curve. It's a balance of using tech effectively while still fostering skills essential to life, like writing and reading."

For her student Anmol Chahil, moving to computers seemed natural. "Everything became easier," she said. She still carries paper textbooks in a backpack, as well as her computer carrying bag. "You know, it's not that hard. It's a commitment, a responsibility to take care of what you have," Anmol said.

It's a learning curve. It's a balance of using tech effectively while still fostering skills essential to life, like writing and reading. Shannon Baca

Economical Chromebooks rule around here, the survey showed. Modesto City Schools and Manteca Unified stand out for buying solely Microsoft-based PCs. Apple iPads and other tablets are popular for kindergarten classrooms. In the Sylvan district in north Modesto, however, middle schoolers use iPads.

In the Hickman Community Charter district, Superintendent Paul Gardner said his students have used only Chromebooks since 2013 and he is a fan. "Chromebooks are highly functional, practical, durable, affordable and easy to manage," he said.

Bucking all trends, Stanislaus Union schools provide a mix of devices: iPads and Kindle Fire tablets for the youngest students, Chromebooks, Microsoft PCs and Macs through eighth grade.

"We say 'one to many' because students will be exposed to a variety of devices in the real world. Likewise, some devices are better suited, for usability and durability issues, to different grade spans," said Stanislaus Union Superintendent Britta Skavdahl. Macs perform better in artistic applications, while PCs align best with business software, she noted.

Chromebooks are laptops of any brand that use free Google software. Where Microsoft Office users would pop open Word to write a paper, Google users have Pages. Where they sharply differ is price, with districts reporting they pay about $200 to $350 for a Chromebook and $600 to $800 for a Microsoft-based device and pay for Microsoft programs.

Adding to the expense is the cost of replacements every five years or so. Multiply any price by thousands of students and brace for sticker shock. In the case of Modesto City Schools, buying PCs for its 30,000 students will take at least $18 million for devices alone, with an ongoing commitment of at least $3.5 million.

Ceres Unified chose to lease, rather than buy, its laptops. The $300 per device for three years stays steady and allows updates and replacements to roll through without disruption, Superintendent Scott Siegel said at the time.

Home internet access is an issue. Modesto-area districts spread the word of low-cost Comcast service for low-income families. Hickman provides free Wi-Fi on campus until 8 p.m. When needed, Turlock Unified and Hughson Unified provide connections via cellphone cards for laptops. Oakdale Unified expanded Wi-Fi time through after-school programs and longer library hours. In Salida, school libraries are open before and after school.

As a fail-safe, most texts or assignments can be downloaded before kids leave school, worked offline and turned in once reconnected the next school day.

The law is very clear, that no child can be denied needed materials -- period! Britta Skavdahl

One looming issue for districts is the cost of lost or ruined laptops.

Many districts offer insurance plans to parents. Ceres charges $10 per laptop with a cap of $40 for larger families. Riverbank has a $15 policy with a cap of $45. Newman students pay $30. Patterson parents can buy $25 basic coverage or $40 to cover loss, and kids keep the same laptop for four years, an incentive to care for them. Hughson insurance options are $35 or $50. Sylvan kids, with iPads, pay $33.99 or $59.87.

The thing is, once computers become part of instruction, by law they must be free to students. What kids lose or destroy can be charged to their parents, similar to textbook fees. But a computer can cost as much as five periods' worth of textbooks. What about parents who cannot pay?

Modesto teens can pay $42 for insurance. Others who lose or wreck computers have another option, said spokeswoman Becky Fortuna via email. "Students can work at the school to satisfy the debt. A new device is issued whether the debt is satisfied or not. Instruction is not interrupted."

Empire does not charge for insurance, saying it has had only three cases of damage and worked with families on a case-by-case basis. Turlock, Salida and Waterford students also do not pay insurance fees.

Stanislaus Union is weighing buying a cache of extra devices in the initial purchase as an alternative to insurance. "We are not sending devices home with students at this time. In the event that we start doing so, the law is very clear, that no child can be denied needed materials -- period!" Skavdahl said.

©2016 The Modesto Bee (Modesto, Calif.), distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.