When Ayer Shirley Regional High School students return to their classrooms next week, each one of them will be issued a brand new Dell Chromebook, ensuring equal access to the perks today's technology provides and that all of them -- and their teachers -- will be on the same page.
If this one-on-one idea -- call it the Chrome project -- sounds like splurging, it's anything but, according to ASRSD Superintendent Mary Malone. It's simply a matter of keeping up with the times and a key step forward for an up-and-coming school district aiming for excellence and equity.
The Chrome Project fits the state's educational vision, too. "The governor supports offering computer science to students K-12," Malone said.
In a recent joint interview, Malone and Technology Director Mike Thibeault talked about the new computers-to-go program and explained how they plan to implement it when school starts.
User friendly and good to go from day one, with built-in, typewiter-style keyboards, page-size screens and appropriate software installed, these nifty notebooks are light and compact, ideal for toting around school or off campus, and "very reasonably priced," Malone said.
Total outlay for outfitting the school's 420 students with as many Chromebooks (teachers already have them) was offset by a grant from the Ayer Shirley Education Foundation, which pitched in $10,000, and the School Committee agreed to add $40,000, funding the one-time cost with school choice money, Malone said.
Ticking off its pluses -- besides portability and price -- the decision to buy Chromebooks rather than, say, iPads, made perfect sense, she said. "And they work on a Google platform."
Asked about some students not being able to take full advantage of the look-up option if they don't have Internet service or Wi-fi at home, Malone and Thibeau said they'd figured that into their plans. Students can work off-line on reports and other assignments, Malone said. There are public places in the area that offer web acess, such as the library, she added. And the school, of course.
But on-line research can be done on campus or in the classroom, with teachers to guide the process. It's a value-added skill for students to learn how to do research, understand content and to develop critical thinking, Malone continued. "So it's instructional."
"That's the focus...it's not just about Google," she concluded. "We want to support students" and encourage "engaged learners," she said. Asked if students can expect a tutorial on how to use their new tools, she said yes, absolutely, including typing, if needed.
In a way, the project is a collaborative effort that expands the district's reach, helping teachers stay in touch and to keep up with current trends and best practices. With other area school systems headed in the same direction, such as Littleton and Harvard, "educators can share," she said, making professional development more cost effective, especially for a small district. "I'm really excited about that," she said.
Students, too, can collaborate using Chromebook applications, locally or world wide. "It's such a great opportunity," Malone said.
The project Malone and Thibeault enthusiastically laid out has too many notable nuances to describe them all, but the gist of it is that the new Chomebooks -- placed in the hands of teachers and students at the start of the school year, with controls in place and teachers in charge -- should enhance the learning environment and improve chances for success, for the system as a whole and each student, individually.
Teachers have given the plan a critical once-over and they approve.
"Our teachers already have Chromebooks," purchased previously to replace desktops, Malone said, and they use them for everything from classroom instruction to records keeping tasks such as grading and attendance to curriculum maps and evaluations, all accessible on-the-spot. "This is a tool for...all of that" Malone said. Plus, the computers are part of the district's professional development plan.
"Teachers are comfortable with the Chromes," Thibeault said. "So many apps work with it, so it will be a seamless transition." Google Classroom, for example, is "easy but effective," he said, and teachers use it already.
So in practical terms, what happens when a notebook gets damaged or breaks down?
Malone sketched an "innovative approach." with a 3-tiered repair/replace cycle, partially funded by a $25 per student fee. At some point, Malone hopes the program becomes standard practice, perhaps even a budget line item and that much of the technical to-do list can be tackled in-house, with student interns under Thibeault's direction servicing the machines, learning the trade. "We've discussed it," she said.
All things considered, including potential problems such as lost or carelessly destroyed devices, Malone and Thibeault said they don't anticipate major issues, but time will tell. They agreed the project is an experiment but not quite a "pilot," per se. Progress will be tracked, with results reported to the School Committee at the end of the year. "We'll see how it goes," Malone said.