On the first day at Lyons Mill Elementary school in Owings Mills on Monday, Alayla Michael was bursting with questions about the new laptops her class will use this school year.
"It is a better way to learn," said the 10-year-old, who believes learning on a tablet will be more fun than using paper and pencil. "It is fundamental."
Baltimore County is one of several school districts in the region expanding the use of laptops in the new school year — spending millions to put devices in the hands of youngsters.
Although approaches are different in each district, educators across the state say schools must move away from computer labs, where most of a school's technology is relegated to one or two classrooms, to a new approach that makes the devices integral to learning.
School superintendents such as Baltimore County's Dallas Dance want the devices to become tools integrated into daily lesson plans, pulled out from a student's desk to look up information or used when a student wishes to work independently.
"I really want to make sure we have a unique experience for every student," Dance said Monday.
Baltimore County is spending $13.6 million this school year to distribute 28,300 devices to students, said Ryan Imbriale, the system's executive director of Innovative Learning. Devices are to be given to every student in grades one through three, and to sixth-graders in seven middle schools.
The devices, which are to be phased in at the elementary schools during the fall, can be used as tablets or laptops.
The district's $205 million multiyear program started last year in 10 elementary schools. The goal is to put laptops into the hands of every student and teacher in the school system by the 2017-2018 school year.
Howard County has taken a different approach, rolling out a policy this year that allows middle and high school students to bring their own devices — smartphones, tablets or laptops — to school. The school district piloted the program for two years in three high schools and is expanding it this year.
Howard is also launching new software systems. One gives parents and students access to interim and report card grades and progress reports. The other allows students to view assignments, take quizzes, submit homework and communicate with teachers. The systems are expected to cost $3.9 million over five years.
Carroll County implemented a bring-your-own-device policy last school year that allowed smartphones, tablets, laptops and e-readers for students in third grade and up. This year the district is pulling back slightly to limit the use of electronic devices by elementary school students during recess and cafeteria time.
Nearly 200 Carroll teachers attended a professional development conference this month to help teachers use technology in classroom lessons — tapping programs and Web-based applications students can use with the devices they bring to school.
The Baltimore school district is exploring ways to provide laptops or similar devices to all of its students but does not currently have a plan, chief technology officer Kenneth Thompson said.
He said the district has improved its network infrastructure in the last two years to support more classroom technology use, provided 1,850 laptops to schools and invested more than $6 million in technology for students.
Last year, Anne Arundel County had one computer for every two students, one of the highest ratios in the region. This year, the county is allowing students to bring devices to school. Principals have leeway to determine how much they can be used in the school, and teachers can determine "authorized use" within their classrooms.
Harford County, which allows students in several middle and high schools to bring a laptop or tablet to school, will expand the program to more schools this year. A local foundation is sponsoring a 5k road race to raise money to give computers to students whose families cannot afford them.
In Baltimore County, Alayla Michael and her classmates at the new $31 million Lyons Mill Elementary were greeted by a classroom flooded with new technology. Dance and other county officials toured the school Monday, the school system's opening day.
Fifth-graders were eager to know whether they could watch YouTube, play games or take the devices home.
No, no and no were the answers from their teacher, Malachy Duffy, who was anxious to put the devices to work.
"I think it is a really great tool. I have seen how it increases their engagement," Duffy said. "They are going to easily click in [to a county school's website] and do all sorts of things."
Alayla's father, Alfred Michael, didn't know the devices were being introduced at his daughter's school this week.
"I am excited to hear about that," said Michael, who works in information technology. "We must keep our kids abreast of what is going on in the world. … It is a must nowadays."
In Baltimore County, each classroom teacher will decide how much or little to use the devices, and students will be given a choice about whether they want to use a tablet or a textbook for learning. The curriculum for grades one through three is now digital.
Imbriale said the county opted against a bring-your-own-device policy because leaders feared it would lead to problems of inequity.
"We believe firmly that the approach needs to be that we provide the device to every child," Imbriale said.
The Evening Sun
The school system is allowing high school principals to decide whether they want to use smartphones in classrooms until laptops are available.
Dance said he would keep expanding the use of tablets into middle school next school year if there is money in the budget.
Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said he is convinced that providing one computer for every child in the system is necessary, but he made no commitments about adding the $18 million that officials say is needed for the 2016-2017 school year.
"We are committed to the program. The only issue is the time frame," Kamenetz said.
All of the state's school districts will be increasing their stock of computers in the next two years to meet a deadline for giving the new state tests entirely online.
Baltimore Sun Media Group reporters Lauren Loricchio and Amanda Yeager contributed to this article.