Starting in September, Fitchburg High School will join the ranks of schools nationwide that provide every student a personal laptop.
The trend, according to Boston University lecturer Dr. Laura Jimenez, is likely here to stay.
“I think the cat’s out of the bag. The genie is out of the bottle,” Jimenez said. “All those horrible metaphors.”
Of the local students and administrators who have firsthand experience with the program — some for several years — opinions are generally positive.
“It’s a three-year lease. We just finished our first year, and we’re still full speed ahead,” said Sheila Harrity, superintendent of Montachusett Regional Vocational Technical School.
Monty Tech implemented the one-laptop-to-one-student program this school year after a rolling out Chromebooks — a laptop made by Google — last year for teachers and classroom rental.
The introduction of Chromebooks at the Fitchburg Public Schools was similarly gradual, leading to the School Committee’s agreement to allocate $170,000 of school choice funds for the purchase of 650 devices Monday.
This number, combined with the 550 the school already owns, will be enough to assign every student their own laptop, according to Fitchburg Director of Technology Eileen Spinney.
This year’s graduating class of seniors and all four years of Honors Academy students have already been using personal school-provided Chromebooks in the classroom.
Ethan Chandler, a freshman Honors Academy student, has had a few technical hiccups with his Chromebook but overall likes the device.
“I type really fast, and I get work done a lot faster,” he said.
The students say they use their Chromebooks to instantly check their grades, take tests, email teachers, find out what assignments they missed if they weren’t in class, and participate in classroom activities.
Through Kahoot!, a multiple-choice quiz program used in both Leominster and Fitchburg, students can answer quiz questions using their devices at the beginning of class. Chandler said the program shows which students are in the lead and how many points users need to catch up with the person ahead of them.
In one of junior Kylie Dudek’s courses she uses her computer for classroom group discussions where students message the group instead of speak.
The Chromebooks are also used for research. On Thursday, freshman Elise Pierce was preparing for a debate in her English class. She turned her computer to show the many tabs open on her internet browser as she crafted her argument.
Jimenez said this type of use for the devices can help students better understand what sources they should use.
“It can really teach critical multiliteracy, which means it shows kids to look at what is the source material,” Jimenez said. “Should this be trusted? Is this picture reliable? Is this news article reliable?”
Though Dudek has her own computer at home, she said many students in her class do not have the same access.
Fitchburg High School Principal Jeremy Roche said the devices in the hands of all students could create a more “level playing field.”
“Every kid now has it, and it’s not a question of whether you have access or you don’t,” Roche said.
While the introduction of devices, particularly one-to-one, into the classroom has benefits, like anything, it also comes with pitfalls, Jimenez said.
Students profit the most when teachers embrace the devices and have some guidance on how they should use them in the classroom, she said. In some classrooms, these devices may be used only to perform a task that could just as easily be completed using a pen and paper, Jimenez said.
“If that’s what happening was the price tag worth it?” she said. “In the hands of a trained teacher that’s interested and really works to push the boundaries, having something like this in a classroom is hugely important.”
Sizer School, which introduced the one-to-one program, this school year, started training teachers and teaching students about the technology in 2014, according to the school’s Director of Technology Brian Sullivan.
Monty Tech introduced teachers to the Google platform, which Chromebooks run, two years ago, according to Harrity. Many classrooms in Fitchburg are already one-to-one, and Roche said the school is planning to provide professional development to teachers.
“This will be a shift for everyone to be sure but a great opportunity,” he wrote in an email.
Jimenez said some schools also run into trouble when they purchase the devices but don’t have a maintenance plan.
At Sizer, Sullivan said having a device assigned to each student has increased accountability compared with the shared laptops the school had previously.
The purchase recently made by the Fitchburg district includes sturdy cases and a four-year warranty. Superintendent Andre Ravenelle described the laptops themselves as “rugged.”
When freshman Chandler had trouble with his laptop, he used a school loaner for a day until his own was repaired. Since all of his data is linked to his Google login, not the Chromebook, he can access all his schoolwork on any device.
Though this protects students from losing assignments, Sullivan said it would also make it difficult to switch away from Chromebooks and the Google platform, because everything is connected to the login.
“You’re almost subscribed,” Sullivan said.
He said Sizer opted to wait to implement the program until it could fund the laptops through a steady source — the operating budget.
The Chromebooks at Fitchburg have a strong firewall according to Spinney, which students say also block games.
“We know when to play and when not to play,” Fitchburg freshman Fiorela Cruz-Rivera said.
Other districts, like Leominster Public Schools, have laptop carts but are not yet one-to-one. Leominster High School Principal Chris Lord said the school hopes to move in this direction.
“Smartphones are going to be their lives. They’ll be buying their groceries and scanning their smartphone across to pay for it,” Lord said. “Technology is going to keep accelerating I’m sure.”
Though even in Fitchburg Honors Academy classrooms, the pen and pencil are not extinct, students said.
“In math class (we hand write),” freshman Erin Donelan said. “Not ever in English, really.”
As much as his position promotes technology, Sullivan said he doesn’t expect low-tech methods will disappear anytime soon.
“There’s still a lot of teaching situations and life situations where the best thing to do is to put away the technology and get out a pencil and paper or a book,” he said.
Follow Elizabeth Dobbins on Twitter @DobbinsSentinel.