Sunday, February 12, 2006
EDUCATION: Seventh-grade laptop-in-classroom initiative reduces discipline issues, but is learning occuring?
Teachers and administrators in two Massachusetts school districts that outfitted seventh-graders with laptops under a state-funding experiment say the program is cutting down on discipline problems. Students are happier coming to school, some parents say grades are improving and not too many children are said to be listing to music on their machines during school. The laptops were distributed two months ago; research on their effects on learning is underway with some results expected by summer. The Berkshire Wireless Learning Initiative targeted schools in North Adams (pop. 14,000) and Pittsfield (pop. 44,285).
(Source: The Berkshire Eagle, Feb. 12, 2006)
Article Last Updated: 2/12/2006 06:12 AM
Loving their laptops: Students and teachers happy with early results
By Tony Dobrowolski
Berkshire Eagle Staff
PITTSFIELD, Mass. -- The lights are dim in Matt Webster's classroom at Reid Middle School, but his students' minds are not.
The 22 seventh-graders are sitting at their desks, staring intently at their Apple iBook G4 laptop computers, which they are using to complete an exercise on ancient Egyptian religions. The lights are lowered so that students can see their computer images better. Some students are working alone; others are in groups. But all are paying attention.
Webster said that getting his students to focus in class was difficult until they received their laptops last month. "The discipline problems are gone," he said. "I don't know if it's the novelty of it, but every time I've used the computers, every kid is on task."
The scene has become familiar in seventh-grade classrooms since the $5.3 million Berkshire Wireless Learning Initiative (BWLI) began five weeks ago. A total of 711 seventh-graders and 175 teachers and selected staff members at four schools in Pittsfield and North Adams were given the laptops to use as an educational tool in this three-year initiative, which is being used as a pilot program by the state.
Teachers and administrators at Reid and Herberg middle schools in Pittsfield at Conte Middle School in North Adams and at St. Mark School in Pittsfield say the program hasn't been in place long enough to gauge academic improvement. But, like Webster, faculty members say they have noticed a big improvement in students' attention spans, particularly when those students use laptops to perform assignments in class. "The kids are engaged the majority of the time they are allowed to use their laptops as an educational tool," Reid Principal Colleen Rossi said.
Seventh-graders say the laptops enliven the learning process. "It makes our education a lot easier," Reid's Sara Hinckley said, "because we can look up things instead of just using textbooks." Hinckley said it's easier to write essays on laptops instead of in a notebook, especially if corrections need to be made. "If you're writing with this, you don't have to erase everything," she said. "You can delete it."
Other students voiced similar sentiments. "I find I look forward to going to school more because what we do on laptops is a lot more fun," said Andy George, a seventh-grader at St. Mark. So far, students have used their laptops just at school because they haven't been permitted to bring them home. Before the initiative began, BWLI steering committee members said take-home policies would need to be in place before laptops could be removed from school. A take-home start date has not been set.
"We're working on it now," said North Adams Superintendent James Montepare, who also is a steering committee member. "We've had discussions, but we want to make sure that Internet safety procedures and workshops are in place here. We've had three of them already, and the parents have been in. We want to make sure all of our ducks are in a row." Once students are allowed to bring their laptops home, Montepare said parents probably will be assessed a "nominal charge" in case the computers are damaged. Committee members said they are working on determining that fee. They said previously that youngsters who couldn't afford the cost would have other options.
Teachers and administrators say damage to laptops has been minimal. One computer at Reid was damaged because it was stored on a faulty shelf, according to Michael Supranowicz, the committee's co-chairman. Webster said his students have been "very careful" in handling their laptops, while Montepare said seventh-graders he's observed seem to have accepted the responsibility for taking care of them. "They've been walking around like little professionals, for crying out loud," he said.
Conventional teaching methods are still in use at all four schools because teachers can choose whether to use the laptops in every class period. Rossi said Reid teachers, as a group, use the computers between 25 and 50 hours a week, while Conte Principal Diane Ryczek said her school's seventh-graders use them approximately three days a week. At Herberg, Jacoby said the laptops are used every day, but not every seventh-grade teacher uses them daily. St. Mark's students use the laptops about two hours a day, five days a week, according to history teacher Matt Collins. "I don't use them in all of my class periods, and I don't use it the entire period," said Susan Bach, Herberg's reading and literature teacher. "It will be something at the beginning or at the ending of class."
Bach was one of the teachers who wasn't sure the laptop initiative would work. "I was never against them," she said. "But I'm not a technologically gifted person myself. And I hadn't used them in the classroom much. But I'm very pleased by what I've seen so far. It's going along a lot smoother than I thought. ... I don't know if it's a honeymoon period, but the kids are really excited about the laptops."
Not every parent favors the initiative. Pittsfield resident Nick Marshall, whose son is a sixth-grader at Herberg, said he believes students should spend more time on basic learning skills than working with laptops because they already are familiar with that technology. (Incoming seventh-graders will receive laptops in September.)
Marshall is a history professor at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and he said that that school is toying with the idea of dropping a mandatory computer course for freshmen because most students already have those skills. "I know a lot of kids are going into schools skilled at the computer, but they're not good at reading or analyzing things," Marshall said. "I'm afraid the laptops are encouraging different kinds of things that students might find to be helpful, but it's not what they need at this time in their careers."
Lois George, Andy George's mother, sees things differently. She describes her son as "the classic boy in the seventh grade" who would forget when his assignments were due. Andy's behavior has changed since the laptop initiative began, she said. "His grades are right on the mark," Lois said. "He's much more organized."
Rossi, the Reid principal, said other potential issues regarding laptops haven't surfaced yet. "We're concerned about kids going on inappropriate Web sites," she said. Although students are blocked from accessing those sites at school, she added: "Our kids haven't taken them home yet. That's something that we need to be aware of." Rossi also said there haven't been "too many kids" listening to music, noting that students can access iTunes on their laptops.
The BWLI's goal is to help improve student achievement and transform the way education is delivered in North Adams and Pittsfield. Steering committee members said the Berkshire program is unique because of the three-year evaluation process being conducted by Boston College's technology and assessment study collaborative at the Lynch School of Education. Damian Bebell, a research professor there, said an on-line survey will be given to teachers and students in late May, and the assessment team should have the data compiled by middle or late summer. "Unfortunately, good research takes a long time," he said. Bebell said Boston College and Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts students are being trained to serve as classroom observers. Bebell said he expects the observers to begin visiting classrooms by mid-March.
Ryczek said Conte Middle School intends to take the laptop program one step at a time. "It's been a new learning experience for all involved," she said. "I'm sure there will be peaks and valleys. Right now we're in a peak."
Tony Dobrowolski can be reached at email@example.com or at (413) 496-6224.
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