The first phase of a multi-year plan to get digital devices into the hands of every county high school student is underway.
For the past two weeks students at North Stokes High School have had a new way to learn and do their school work — with a brand new Dell Chromebook distributed to each student, thanks in part to a $200,000 Golden Leaf Foundation grant.
“There are 397 students at North Stokes right now and every student got one,” said Stokes County Schools Director of Technology Sara Wood, noting the school system ordered 450 so there would be extras to switch out if any student has a technical issue. “The Chromebooks are little different than regular laptops in that they are internet-only devices. They are using Google Apps and online resources.”
Wood said the distribution of take home devices to high school students was intended to provide additional learning avenues in a high tech world.
“We hope to see much more student engagement and a change from the whole group standard instruction with the teacher standing at the front of the room,” she said. “We would expect to see much more student ownership in what they are doing. We expect to see the students producing products they are proud of and things they can display online. That will lead to students taking more pride in those kinds of projects than what they are just turning into the teacher as a homework assignment right now.”
The new devices could also help with textbook costs, thanks in part to a new online education management program called Canvas.
“Teachers can store all of their teaching materials in Canvas,” said Wood. “That will help with students who are absent or have extended illnesses because they will be able to keep up with their classes online.”
Wood noted that the county had gained access to Canvas through a state contract.
“It is very economical for us,” she said. “The high school teachers are training on it very extensively.”
North Stokes High School Principal Nathan Rasey said the roll out of the new devices had gone very smoothly and noted that he was already seeing some changes in how the high school operated.
“I think it has been a good deal all around,” he said. “It has already made a difference. You see kids everywhere with them. Research in the classroom is where they are learning to use them first, but it is going to take a little bit of time before they start using them for writing papers and that kind of thing.
“But the old ‘the dog ate my homework’ is a thing of the past because everything is stored on the cloud,” he added. “If they leave their device at home they can pick up any computer here and access their homework.”
He said the school had not developed any specific classes to maximize on the potential the new devices offered, but noted that the variety of what teachers can do in each existing class had already dramatically increased.
Maintenance and security
Wood said each device came with a standard three year warranty, but noted that students and parents were required to pay for insurance for the device each year, at a cost of $25, and sign a contract highlighting security issues.
“If the device is damaged the students will be held responsible just like they would with any other school property,” she said. “If someone has an accident then it is an accident and the insurance policy will pick up and cover the repairs needed. If it is malicious or is not taken care of then the student will be responsible.”
She said the school system expected the devices to last for four year, and noted that they would pro-rate the cost of replacement in the case of damage for each of those years.
“We expect the Chromebook we give to ninth graders to last their four years in high school,” she said, adding that that the devices come pre-installed with filtering software to protect students from malicious and inappropriate websites. “There is no real hard-drive in these so the virus threat is not as much as on a PC. We use a program called ZScaler as our filtering system. It will work at home as well as it does at school, but it is not 100 percent. It only catches what someone has identified as a problem, so we try to teach our students and teachers safe searching. In the long run, that is better than building a wall to protect them because it teaches them to understand and learn how to safely navigate the web.”
She said the school system had also addressed the issue of sexting, since the Chromebooks include built in web cameras, with students and parents.
“Mr. Rasey had a meeting with all of the parents and the students and they both signed the handbook and contract,” she said. “We continually explain that this is an ongoing issue. We handle it just like any other discipline issue. We just have to trust they will act in a responsible way and help them if they do not.”
Pilot seems to be a success
Rasey said he had been pleasantly surprised with how much the school community had bought into the new devices.
“We are navigating success,” he said. “I would really like to thank the community for the their openness to this. They have made it a very smooth process.”
He added that he and his staff had been carefully keeping records of the whole process to share with the other high schools if they get devices next year.
The distribution of Chromebooks at North Stokes is a pilot program, but Wood said she hoped the system would be able to start similar programs at South Stokes High School and West Stokes High School next year.
“Hopefully we will get another grant in the fall to get devices to the other high schools,” she said. “We are working on that right now. I don’t know how that will work out and if we will be able to roll out devices to all of the students in the fall or if we will have to stagger by grade levels.”
Wood said the best thing parents of students at South Stokes and West Stokes could do to make that a reality was lobby for funding.
“They need to advocate for funding with both our local and state leaders,” she said.
Nicholas Elmes may be reached at 336-591-8191 or on Twitter @NicholasElmes.