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Technology initiative gives laptops to Texas students
Teaching the Tech-savvy

Texas public school students are trading in their Big Chief tablets for laptop computers.

Many educators are integrating technology into teaching plans and classrooms. Although many students do not have access to computers or the Internet at home, they are still surrounded by technology and are often bored with traditional classroom instruction, said Dr. Alice Owen, executive director of technology at Irving Independent School District (ISD).

"They grew up being 'digital,'" Owen said. "They come to us knowing how to use technology or have a great interest in technology. We need to meet them where they are and address their needs and interests."

Electronic immersion
The Texas Legislature created the Texas e-Learning Initiative (TeLI) in hopes of making laptop computers available for all Texas students by 2012.

For $660 million a year, Texas could provide its school districts with electronic course materials, equipment and training, said Dr. Jon H. Fleming, TeLI steering committee member.

The TeLI plan calls for phasing in Texas' middle and high schools at a rate of 25 percent each biennium between 2006 and 2012. The plan would extend to kindergarten through grade five by 2015, according to TeLI.

"$660 million a year for the children of Texas is not very much," Fleming said. "That works out to a tech allotment of $300 per student."

The TeLI plan calls for all state-approved textbooks and course materials to be available in digital formats by 2008, which means that every "book" will be stored on students' laptops, and students will submit homework electronically.

Digital divide
Access to computer technology separates school-aged children in the U.S. into the 'haves' and the "have nots," according to Computer and Internet Use by Children and Adolescents in 2001, a National Center for Education Statistics report. The report states that technology use among school children is divided along social and economic lines.

For many kids, school is the only place they can get access to the Internet, according to the report. Nationwide, states and individual school districts are trying to bridge this gap. In Texas, a handful of school districts aren't waiting for the state to ante up before implementing full immersion technology initiatives.

Between 2001 and 2003, Irving ISD provided all of its 8,000 high school students with wireless laptop computers, said Superintendent Jack Singley. Most of the money for the technology came from a $54 million bond fund, he said.

The school's wireless network extends over the school grounds, so students without Internet access at home often come to school with their computers and sit in the parking lot to link to the Internet, Singley said.

"Not all of our kids have Internet access at home," Singley said. "They come early, and they stay late to use it. Some of our kids will never be able to afford even a $10 a month plan."

About 65 percent of Irving ISD students get free or reduced-price lunches, the state criteria for economically disadvantaged students, he said.

In 2003, Pleasanton ISD, located about 35 miles south of San Antonio, issued each of its nearly 1,000 high school students laptop computers, said Superintendent Alton Fields.

"We just feel that computers will prepare our kids for the 21st century skills that they're going to need," Fields said. "Some of these kids would never have access to this type of technology if they didn't get it in the schoolhouse."

About 68 percent of Pleasanton ISD students receive free or reduced-price lunches, he said.

Teaching for
the times

Pleasanton ISD teachers use a mix of traditional and online textbooks, Fields said.

"[Teachers] used to worry about finding enough material on a subject, and now their biggest problem is determining which material to use," Fields said.

At MacArthur High School in Irving ISD, many classrooms are completely paperless, said Principal Tracie Fraley.

When students enter a classroom, they immediately open their laptops, retrieve the day's assignments and begin working on them, Fraley said.

"Teachers e-mail the kids the notes for the day, and they've got them," Fraley said. "Then the teaching and learning can take place instantly. They can start working in teams and working on projects instead of spending a lot of time copying out notes, which is a lower-level thinking activity."

Many teachers put their courses online, and students can retrieve the lesson for the day as well as notes, resources and assignments from home, Fraley said.

MacArthur High School Senior Scott Clark, 18, said he appreciates the flexibility of having his own laptop.

"I had [a computer] at home, but it wasn't the same," Clark said. "It wasn't as easy to produce the work that was required for the courses I was taking. It's much easier with the laptop I was issued."

Now, when Clark finishes work in one class, he has access to assignments for other classes or he can work on the school's Web site, for which he is the Webmaster.

Parents have access to this information as well, Fraley said.

"What parents really appreciate is that they can keep up with what their kids are doing because they have the information right there," Fraley said.

"Overall, it's been a very positive response [to the technology initiative]," Fraley said. "The teachers are telling me that the kids are more engaged and that the levels of projects and papers have improved. [The kids] say it makes learning more fun, and they think they're being prepared for life after high school, whether that's college or work."

New tricks
Dishing out computers does little for students if teachers aren't able to adapt their teaching methods to the new technology, said Anita Givens, director for educational technology at the Texas Education Agency (TEA).

"Part of that [$660 million a year for] total immersion does include professional development," Givens said. "We've got to make sure that teachers know what to do with the technology. It's a total package."

Owen said it's a big shift in thinking for teachers.

"It just doesn't work to stand up and lecture in a classroom where all the students have laptops," he said.

Teachers often have to get used to learning from the students, said Brandy Avant, world geography teacher at MacArthur High School.

"Teachers feel they need to be the smartest person in the room," Avant said. "Once you've got computers in the room, you've got to throw that out the door. The students will know more than you. You'll have students interrupt your lesson and suggest a different way to do things."

With computer technology in place, teachers assess their students' skills at any time and can get immediate results, Givens said. Based on data from these tests, teachers can customize instruction to the students' individual needs and monitor their progress more closely, Givens said.

"It's like a global positioning satellite--we'll always know where our kids are and aren't and can move to correct things early and decisively," Fleming said.

Starting small
The Texas Legislature has yet to fund the TeLI, but the TEA is accepting applications for a $12 million technology pilot program, Givens said.

"We will have a whole district and at least 30 middle school campuses with total immersion projects this fall," Givens said.

TEA will track the students for three years to evaluate their progress.

Angela Freeman