She and her deskmate, Brooke Stevenson, hope the county will allow them to take home the computers they will get next year. Marissa pointed out that she could discuss homework problems with friends over Skype. She'd like the county to buy the lighter tablets, but Brooke believes laptops offer more flexibility.

Baltimore County has not decided whether it will choose tablets or a laptops or whether students will be allowed to take the devices home. Imbriale said if the school district decides on tablets, they will be equipped with a keyboard.

Baltimore County is the only large school system in Maryland to plot such an ambitious path, though a number of others, such as Howard County, have piloted the idea in a few schools.

Students in a Howard middle school where iPads are being used appear to be more engaged, and the technology has enabled teachers to be more creative in how they teach, said Rebecca Amani-Dove, a spokeswoman for the district. The district is evaluating the pilot program to "help the school system make decisions about the best models for technology," she said.

In a program that started in 2004, Talbot County gives laptops to high school freshmen that they keep for four years. Students are allowed to take the laptops home and pay a $40 user fee, and also pay if the laptops are damaged. Each June, all laptops are turned into the schools for software updates.

"What we find is that our kids are very responsible," said interim Superintendent Kelly Griffith. "We definitely are seeing our students more engaged in the classroom. We are seeing them apply that knowledge."

The next challenge will be to expand the program to the middle and elementary schools, she said.

The advent of testing that will match the new, more rigorous Common Core curriculum will increase pressure on school districts around Maryland to ramp up technology by the 2017-2018 school year, when all tests will be taken online.

Despite the popularity of the technology and the push to get it in schools, there's little research showing that it improves learning, said Emory University English professor Mark Bauerlein, author of the book "The Dumbest Generation."

He believes the devices can be counterproductive. Students who are trying to look at three screens at the same time have lost the ability to focus for a long period of time on reading and writing, he said.

"You can't understand a complex text if you are multitasking," he said. He added that most teenagers, when handed the new devices won't say, "Oh, wow. This is an amazing new scholarly apparatus in my hands!"

And, he noted, the new technology is expensive. "What could that money be used for otherwise?" he asked.

It is also particularly expensive if something goes wrong.

The parents, teachers and students in Guilford, N.C., were excited about the prospect of getting laptops, and the school district had trained teachers in advance.

"The training camps went well," said Nora Carr, the school district's chief of staff. But then they passed out 5,000 new laptops last August. "It came to a screeching halt over concerns we had about the quality, durability and safety of the devices. We are still in negotiations with the company."

In Los Angeles, the $1 billion bill for new technology is being funded by a bond issue; some of the money went to pay for curriculum, which will have to be updated in a few years at an added cost.

Baltimore County will try to reallocate money from existing funds to pay for its technology purchases, a model that is being tried in Houston public schools, where Dance worked as an assistant superintendent. Dance is cutting per-pupil funding to elementary schools by 13 percent and to middle and high schools by 5 percent next year to begin paying for the rollout.

Lloyd Brown, the county's assistant superintendent of technology, said the cuts won't hurt students because the school system is taking over the management and expense of every school's tech needs — from printers to online report cards. He acknowledges that those savings probably won't be enough to fully fund the project, though, and said the district will request additional funds from the County Council.

After the pilot program in the 10 elementaries, known as "lighthouse" schools, the system plans to give the devices to students in grades one through three in the remaining elementary schools.

Middle schools would then get the devices during the 2016-2017 school year, and high schools the following year. If they can, digital learning director Imbriale said, they will try to speed up the timeline for high school students. Eventually, even kindergartners will get some devices.

Imbriale said the focus of the initiative is on what the technology can provide in the classroom.

"What we want for our students to have in the classroom is a level of instruction that is highly engaging and that meets their individual needs," he said. "We want to give a device to every student in the system and open the door to a wealth of information."

Tribune Newspapers contributed to this article.

liz.bowie@baltsun.com