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Becoming tech-savvy: Cape Girardeau School District exploring initiative that would provide portable computers for every student
Editor's note: This is the first of two stories on the Cape Girardeau School District's research into a program of integrating individual electronic devices into district classrooms.
Students in some of Cape Girardeau's public school classrooms may be asked by their teachers to open and read from a computer instead of a textbook starting in August.
Administrators in the Cape Girardeau School District say that for several years they have been searching for the right way to put more technology into the hands of students. They now believe an initiative known as "1:1" could be the answer.
Assistant superintendent Sherry Copeland is working closely with the district's technology department to form plans for trying out laptops or netbooks among students in a limited number of classrooms at the start of the 2012-2013 school year. If successful, the initiative could eventually spread districtwide.
How 1:1 initiatives work in schools and affect learning varies based on which types of devices are used, how the devices are used in class and at home and the level at which the device is used for communication between teachers and students. In the past decade, thousands of schools nationwide have implemented some form of 1:1 initiative through providing a laptop or tablet to students, or in some cases allowing students to use a device they own.
For now the Cape Girardeau School District is leaning toward providing students with netbooks, which are small, Internet-capable laptops. Early plans call for students to be issued the netbooks on contracts holding those responsible for the student liable for damages and would also offer an option to buy insurance for the devices.
Copeland and other proponents say the initiative will improve the student-teacher interaction that facilitates a successful learning environment and will prepare students for using technologies in college and beyond.
"Schools today need to be able to teach effectively to this generation and the next," Copeland said. "Everyone before now has moved to using technology, whereas they've always known it. The students we have in our classrooms right now are 'digital natives.'"
Proponents also say the initiative could eventually save the district money by eliminating the need to buy traditional textbooks and cutting back on paper use.
A districtwide wireless network required to make a 1:1 initiative work in the Cape Girardeau School District will be completed by the end of the summer. Copeland and others say implementation would happen in steps and would likely begin by identifying and selecting a few classes or grades in several of the district's buildings, where staff would be asked to focus on related professional development for classroom teaching with netbooks. Students would receive their devices at the start of the year, and use would be slowly incorporated into learning activities and assignments. More students would receive devices if the initiative proved to be working, Copeland said.
Cape Girardeau staff have been researching the initiative's implementation, cost and success in other Missouri districts. One where they have focused some attention is Ste. Genevieve, where all students in sixth through 12th grades will begin using netbooks in August.
That district's superintendent, Shelley Jokerst, said all parents are required to attend meetings this summer to educate them about the initiative. Teachers will also spend a half-day per month of professional development time focused on the initiative. Ste. Genevieve also looked to other districts using 1:1 for guidance in planning its program, according to Jokerst. Staff visited the Lindbergh School District to see it in action and took cues from other districts, such as Wentzville and Monett.
Copeland said Cape Girardeau must be careful.
"This hasn't worked in every single place it's ever been tried," she said. "But ones that haven't been successful are districts that skipped necessary steps by just buying devices and handing them out. We aren't going to do that."
Question of cost
Government programs have funded initiatives in a limited number of school districts in some states. Many began by way of private donations, grants, fundraising campaigns, community business partnerships and, in some instances, bond issues.
Copeland said the district is exploring how to fund its initiative and won't rule out any of those options. The total cost to implement the initiative and maintain it would be hard to determine because prices of devices and programs and other related costs are still being evaluated, she said.
It has, however, determined that providing a netbook and protective case would cost around $300 per student. The district had 3,999 students enrolled in 2011. Also being considered would be the amount saved by using digital textbooks instead of traditional textbooks, which on average cost more.
'Flipping' the classroom
A new method of completing assignments could be possible with a 1:1 initiative. Known as "flipping the classroom," students would be able to use the time they traditionally spend out of school on homework assignments watching a recorded lesson or lecture by their teacher. In class, they would do their assignments with their teacher and classmates present.
"With this, you don't waste kids' time, and you don't waste teachers' time," Copeland said. "They receive any help they need right there in the classroom."
The use of netbooks would also allow teachers to know that students were following along at all times with the rest of the class, said Kris Oliveira, computer systems and web specialist for the district.
"They can actually make sure everyone is on the same page," he said. "Teachers will know who is not getting it and can do what they need to so everyone does."
Board and committee
School board members who attended a special meeting last week to go over details of next year's proposed district budget had questions for administration about the initiative and its feasibility, but also expressed intentions to support one going forward.
"I think it would be a phenomenal use of surplus funds to be able to say everyone in our district is on a 1:1 initiative," board member Phil Moore said. Other board members, including board president Stacy Kinder, asked administrative staff to produce some financial figures for an initiative.
The district is forming a committee to look at the pros and cons of an initiative. The committee, made up of teachers, administrators, parents and community members, will hold a series of meetings this summer. The first one is set for 5:30 p.m. June 25 at the central district offices at 301 N. Clark Ave. in Cape Girardeau.
301 N. Clark Ave., Cape Girardeau, MO