Some W.Va. Schools Closing the Book on Laptops

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A decade-old initiative to bring more laptop computers to the hands of public school students across West Virginia has fizzled out in some of the areas where it began, raising concerns about the long-term stability of 1-to-1 computing programs.

In 2000, every student and teacher in Wetzel County’s 175-student Hundred High School was handed a laptop, thanks to the Netschools Corp.’s 1-to-1 e-learning initiative, a joint venture by Netschools, the Appalachian Regional Commission, the West Virginia governor’s office, and several counties in the state. The initiative provided a wireless laptop to each student participating in the project to use in school and at home.

At the time, educators from around the state welcomed additional technology in their schools with open arms.

Brenda Whitecotton, who is now the superintendent of West Virginia’s 2,300-student Hardy County school district, was disappointed to hear that Hundred High is no longer able to provide a laptop to each student. Ms. Whitecotton was the principal of Moorefield Middle School in Hardy County when the initiative brought laptops to an entire 5th grade class there shortly after Hundred High received its laptops.

Integrating technology “doesn’t just happen, you have to stay on top of it,” Ms. Whitecotton said. “A high school is a little more difficult, but sometimes it is harder for secondary teachers to take that change and put it in their instructional practices.”

Digital Decline

When the laptops were initially distributed at Hundred High, students and teachers used them primarily for research purposes and assessments. Entire classrooms were able to simultaneously take a test or quiz electronically, which put them far ahead of most schools in the country in their use of digital tools for teaching and learning.

In addition to Hundred High, middle school classes in Hardy, McDowell, Nicholas, and Calhoun counties all received laptops 10 years ago.

But as the years passed, the laptops became obsolete, and the wear and tear from being handled daily by adolescents led Hundred High to discontinue their use.

The current technology director at Hundred, Sean Snedden, said charging the computers became a problem, too, though they were “pretty indestructible.”

Hundred’s technology director in 2000, Bernard Shackleford, has since retired, but has had extensive experience working with laptops in the classroom. He said that the addition of the technology was helpful, and that the computers were sturdy enough to be handled by students.

But there were problems.

“Some things were easier; some things were not. If an instructor was trying to get a point across and students were trying to work ahead with the laptops, then they missed quite a bit,” Mr. Shackleford said.

Hundred High is not the only school from the original effort to make technology more accessible to students that no longer can provide laptops to entire classrooms or schools.

Summersville Junior High School was another one of the schools that received laptops a decade ago, but Principal Ernie Jarvis said the student body of 568 has overwhelmed the school’s 330 computers in two stationary labs and a mobile lab.

The 630-student Calhoun Middle/High School, another recipient of laptops 10 years ago, is currently going strong in terms of laptops and iPad use in its classrooms, thanks to various grants and program funding, said Principal Karen Kirby.

Rather, it is the shortage of bandwidth that is bogging down technology in classrooms, when 500 students are trying to use the Internet simultaneously, Ms. Kirby said.

Ms. Whitecotton of Hardy County also said her school system has maintained laptop usage, including at Moorefield Middle, which has replaced the original laptops that were given to the school 10 years ago.

“You really have to train, have ongoing professional development, and you’ve got to have good leadership in your schools that encourages the use of the computers,” Ms. Whitecotton said.

Spending Request Denied

Not every school in Hardy County has a 1-to-1 computing ratio, however.

That was the dream of Brenda Williams, the executive director of the state education department’s office of instructional technology, when she brought a plan before the state school board in December to give laptops and mobile devices to every student and teacher in the state.

The plan to spend $271 million over the course of four years stemmed from the need to upgrade social studies textbooks throughout the state. Ms. Williams said that none of the texts brought forward met the state’s curriculum requirements, leaving online textbooks as the answer.

“We need to make sure students have access to what meets our standards, and that they’re not asking ‘why do we have to learn this?’ and that’s rigorous, but it also keeps things relevant,” Ms. Williams said, pointing out the benefits of using e-textbooks, which can easily be updated with new material.

Unfortunately, she said, the state legislature turned down the request that would have spent $54.3 million in the first year to begin furnishing more students with laptop computers and mobile devices, which are necessary to provide students with online textbooks.

Vol. 30, Issue 29, Pages 16-17

Published in Print: April 27, 2011, as Laptop Initiative in W.Va. Fizzles Out in Some Schools Where It Began
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