Special Report
Classroom Technology

Districts Forge School-to-Home Digital Connections

By Amanda M. Fairbanks — March 11, 2013 9 min read
Seniors Michael Callahan, left, Ariel Camacho, and Hannah-Marie Valenzuela view photos on a laptop during their lunch break at Ramona High School.
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Ashley McCaslin teaches in a one-room schoolhouse on the island of Frenchboro, about eight miles off the coast of Maine.

In her classroom, where seven students span six grade levels—from kindergarten to 7th grade—each has his or her own state-issued MacBook.

Whether class members are participating in a video discussion via Skype in reading groups with students in other communities, writing essays in Google Docs, or building a social studies wiki, McCaslin sees the laptops as their key link to the outside world. And, she says, for the 7th graders, who take the devices home in the evenings and on weekends, they offer nothing short of salvation.

“The kids can start feeling really socially isolated,” says McCaslin, 23, a first-year teacher. Of the island’s 30 year-round residents, most work in some capacity in the lobster-fishing industry. “For my older students, [the MacBooks have] really become their lifeline.”

To be sure, Frenchboro is an extreme case, set apart by ocean waters and sparsely populated. But experts on digital learning say it illustrates the importance of using today’s technological tools to bridge homes and schools in all kinds of communities—rural, suburban, or urban—and give students online access to learning resources well beyond the school day.

Yet, as increasing numbers of school districts have put 1-to-1 computing programs in place, administrators are wrestling with whether to allow those devices to go home with students at the end of each day. While nearly all educators see the value in continuing learning and instruction beyond the school day, they also have questions about how to let students take the devices with them without too much risk of damage or misuse.

Home Use Required

In 2002, when a pioneering program in Maine provided each middle school student with a laptop computer, the state first gave districts the choice of whether or not to let their students take the devices home. Within a few years, half the state-issued laptops were headed home, while the other half remained under lock and key until the start of the next school day.

The program, which later expanded to include high school students, has since made it mandatory that all participating districts allow students to take their laptops home. In terms of protecting the devices that are sent home, Maine has a contract with Apple to provide various levels of protection. The partnership with Apple allows for a certain percentage of surplus devices, should any laptops get lost, stolen, or damaged beyond repair. The state also takes out a catastrophic loss plan to cover large-scale loss—for instance, should an entire school building burn down. Otherwise, explains Jeff Mao, the director of learning-technology policy for the state department of education, schools would have to amend their building insurance plans to account for the additional value of the computer equipment.

Finally, each community follows an individual plan to suit its needs. Some districts opt to purchase additional insurance, while others pass along any additional costs to families.

“Before we made it mandatory, students only had 50-minute blocks of time in order to get something done. It’s difficult to construct something coherent in that time frame,” says Mao.

Senior Ariel Camacho raises her hand during class at Ramona High School in Riverside, Calif. Camacho uses an iPad to take notes in her classes and to access the Internet at home.

“In general, we saw that integration was far less likely to occur when they didn’t go home with the students,” he says. “By requiring they be sent home, we started making kids much more fluent with technology.”

Each school district adopts a policy to dictate what is appropriate and allowed and what is not. While content is filtered by school-operated networks during school hours, online activity is unfiltered outside the school day. Additionally, the state provides professional development to help schools teach digital citizenship. It also supplies families with an optional software tool called “Web History Viewer,” which Mao created. The tool records all web activity regardless of whether a student deletes the browser’s history. The state also publishes a how-to guide for parents to implement a no-cost content filter for home use.

Finally, for any online activity that goes beyond inappropriate and into the realm of illegal, “we leave that to the legal system,” says Mao. “It is rare—very rare—but that is our protocol.”

In Auburn, Maine, that fluency begins at a young age. The district recently began an iPad initiative with its kindergarten and 1st grade classes. Last year, two kindergarten classes piloted an experiment that allowed the youngsters to take the devices home.

The students memorized a song about proper iPad care, and all abided by the rule that it couldn’t be used at either before- or after-school day care or during bus rides between home and school. The first night’s homework assignment was to to use their iPads to make a short video of their families.

“There was no damage to the ones that went home,” says Kelly R. McCarthy, a kindergarten teacher at Auburn’s Fairview Elementary School. “And they all came back to school the next day because if they didn’t bring them, they couldn’t use them during class time.”

Sadie Grealish’s son, Jake, took part in the pilot. At home in the evenings, the two would sit in front of the iPad, taking pictures, working on a story-writing app, or playing a math game together.

“It’s nice for the kids to have that instant feedback,” says Grealish. Based partly on the take-home initiative, the family bought its own iPad this past Christmas for everyone in the family to use.

“He loves doing his assignments,” Grealish says. “It just made it more exciting.”

Parent Training

The Riverside school district in Southern California places so much emphasis on the home-school connection that it has even joined forces with the city-sponsored SmartRiverside Digital Inclusion Program to help implement a parent-training program designed to support computer use in the homes of low-income families.

For instance, if a family has a combined income of less than $45,000 a year and at least one parent attends one of its training classes, Smart Riverside will supply the parents with a refurbished desktop computer and wireless card, free of charge. So far, 8,000 computers have gone to families through the program.

The Riverside district, which serves about 43,000 students, runs a “bring your own device,” or BYOD, initiative in each of its classrooms, pre-K through 12th grade. If a student cannot supply his or her own laptop, tablet, or smartphone, the district will provide its functional equivalent.

“They check out digital devices at the beginning of the year, and check it back in at the end,” says David E. Haglund, the principal of the Riverside Virtual School, a blended learning program in the district serving grades 1-12 that mixes face-to-face instruction in school with virtual learning at home. “If it’s lost, damaged, or stolen, they’re responsible. The system works exactly like it always has with regards to textbooks.” The district offers parents the option of purchasing third-party insurance to cover theft or damage to the devices.

Monica Ward teaches social science at Riverside’s Ramona High School, which decided to move toward 1-to-1 computing about a year and a half ago. But BYOD wasn’t really an option. About 80 percent of the school’s students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and their families typically do not own PCs, tablets, or other computing devices.

Camacho studies at her home in Riverside, Calif., using a mix of handwritten notes along with an iPad that she uses to read and do research.

Instead, the school purchased 2,100 Lenovo tablets at $180 per device. “They’re nothing fancy,” says Ward. “But they get the students where they need to go.”

Ward sees the tablets as essential tools in helping to “close the achievement gap and bridge the digital divide.” Because neither teachers nor administrators can predict when learning will occur, she views the home piece as an essential part of the 24/7 learning puzzle.

“There’s no way to bring students into the 21st century if they can’t then take their devices home with them every day,” she says.

Her former student Ariel Camacho, an 18-year-old senior, remembers the days of lugging six textbooks from home to school, and back home again. Her tablet now contains everything she needs to get her schoolwork done, such as digital textbooks, class notes, written assignments, and group projects.

Camacho, who was recently accepted into Colby College in Waterville, Maine, and will be the first college student in her family, describes the tablets as “helping to level the playing field between my classmates.” Mostly, she sees the devices as having a motivating effect among her peers, especially for completing homework.

At home, she says, the device was used by every member of her family. On a given weekend, her parents might use the tablet to review the school’s digital dashboard to check her grades, while Camacho might use it to tutor her younger sister in fractions by scanning YouTube for instructional videos.

For her own work, she recently used it to figure out a calculus concept that had confused her.

Addressing Achievement

To protect a $1.3 million district investment in new MacBooks, the superintendent of schools in Natick, Mass., Peter Sanchioni, secured a personal investment from each family to deter theft and misuse. All students now pay a $75 fee to take school-issued laptops home.

In addition, each school-issued laptop comes equipped with its own GPS device and protective case.

The $75 student-user fee helps to offset costs associated with the stocking of spare parts, repairs, and student subscriptions to Microsoft Office. In the case of damage or loss, the district has a tiered approach for repair. While minor wear and tear is covered by the annual $75 laptop fee, a broken DVD drive costs an additional $100, a cracked screen costs $200 to repair, and a lost or stolen laptop requires that a student replace the device’s full value.

He notes that in last year’s pilot initiative with the district’s 8th graders, fewer than five percent of the laptops had any damage.

Concerns related to damage aside, Mark Warschauer, an education professor and associate dean of the school of education at the University of California, Irvine, has found that even when students already had computers at home, they were generally more inclined to do homework on the laptops they used at school.

“When you have a device that has all of your projects and information on it, there’s a natural, integrated way to bring work back and forth between school and home,” he says.

Integration rules the day at the Mooresville Graded School District in Mooresville, N.C. The district is in its sixth year of a digital-conversion initiative. Every student in 3rd to 12th grade is supplied with his or her own school-issued laptop, with 4th graders and above required to take them home.

Mark Edwards, the superintendent, says the 1-to-1 program has breathed new life into the 6,000-student district.

“We’ve always heard that learning does not stop at 3 o’clock,” says Edwards. “Our students are voracious learners between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. Now, we can provide them with the tools and the resources that connect and compel them to keep on learning at home.”


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