When every sixth-grader at Ridgely Middle School in Baltimore County was given a laptop this fall, the event was such a big deal that students and parents came to school on a Saturday to receive them. There was plenty of excitement that day as students were handed the devices, HP EliteBook Revolves, which can be converted from tablet to laptop.
Ridgely was among seven middle schools that received the computers as part of an initiative to eventually put a laptop in the hands of every public school student in the district.
Four months later, Superintendent Dallas Dance is adjusting his plans, slowing the purchase of computers for more middle schools. While he's pleased with what he's seeing in elementary grades, he believes middle-school teachers need more time to change their entire approach to teaching, as the technology requires.
"I appreciate that, as a teacher," Kelly Ena, who teaches sixth-grade math at Ridgely, said of the slowdown. A veteran with 18 years of experience, she agreed that the shift wasn't easy.
"It is changing a lot with the way we are teaching," she said. "For me at the beginning of the year, it was hard to understand how to do it."
Ena says she learned over time how to use the computer to enhance her teaching style. She's now a convert, but not everyone is on board.
"Some teachers are really receptive, and some teachers are really against it," she said. "I have some parents who really like the devices, and some parents say this is really awful."
The differences in opinion and mixed results in experiences with the laptops prompted Dance's decision. He said he realized the educational shift was not going as smoothly as hoped. He still plans to spend about $200 million on the program, which began last year at the 10 elementary schools given computers for grades one through three.
He expanded the program this year for those three grades in all elementary schools and to the seven middle schools that are now part of the pilot program. He also hired technology teachers for each school and gave the devices to all the teachers.
Despite problems, some teachers say the laptops have brought positive change to classrooms. There has been a steady shift to a model where teachers spend less time lecturing and children spend more time working in groups. Teachers say they are finding new ways of encouraging exploration, creativity and problem-solving using the technology.
During one of Ena's math classes this week, students were curled up on pillows on the floor or sitting at desks and working on their laptops. Each was signed onto a math program that allowed them to practice skills they were having trouble understanding.
Student Christian Powell said when she hits a hard math concept, she can watch videos on the laptop that instruct her, use online study guides, or do practice problems online. Ena works nearby in the corner with three students who need extra attention.
All the sixth-graders can take their computers home at night. Christian said that comes in handy because she can sign on to a school system website to see her homework assignments or go over the day's lesson.
"You can email a teacher to help you with things you don't understand." Christian said she is doing better in math this year "because the devices have helped a lot."
That's not to say there haven't been unanticipated consequences of having so many laptops at students' disposal. Principal Susan Truesdell, a big supporter of laptops in classrooms, said three were stolen this year and mysteriously reappeared only after an amnesty policy was announced. She said teachers told all students they wouldn't get in trouble if the stolen laptops were returned anonymously to the school.
Students also figured out how to break through the firewall of the school system website so they would have free access to social media and the Internet, she said. But that has largely stopped as teachers got better at keeping a sharp eye on what everyone is doing in the classroom. Truesdell also said her students also experienced trouble because there was not enough bandwidth when the laptops were first handed out. That problem was resolved.
"So this has allowed children to take ownership of their education," Truesdell said. "We want to make learning not just engaging but authentic and real-world." Teachers must still teach the concepts, she said, but "students have time to discover and investigate."
In an English class at Ridgely, students worked in groups with pipe cleaners and aluminum foil to create a cultural artifact, and occasionally used the laptops to do a little research. Some students said they loved the laptops; others were ambivalent. The use of the computers varies among classes, students said, depending on how comfortable teachers are with the technology. Overall, they said they believed it was just a tool that helped them learn.
Truesdell said students can always turn to a textbook if they would prefer to use that instead of a laptop.
School district leaders have been criticized recently by some parents who say they don't want their children to have more screen time and believe the computers can become a distraction.
"I think a healthy learning environment could certainly include technology, but I don't think that students should spend the majority of their time learning via the computer," said Karma Quinn, the parent of elementary and middle-school children who have the new devices. "Students need to also learn how to interact and collaborate with peers and teachers in person."
Quinn, and some other parents, say the money would be better spent hiring more teachers to lower class sizes and installing air conditioning at every school.