In one Baltimore County school next semester, students will swap notebooks for 1-inch touch screens, textbook passages for online articles, worksheets for apps, and writing utensils for a keyboard, launching the first "paperless classroom" in a county school.
The program is a pilot with 70 middle-school students enrolled at the Loch Raven Technical Academy's law and finance magnet program, a distinctive program that teachers say requires students to navigate digital platforms to keep up with the fast-paced fields of study.
"We're already heavily reliant on technology for our programs, so this seemed like a perfect marriage," said Michelle Dressel, magnet coordinator for eighth grade at Loch Raven. "Class will be 24-7, and that's how students learn today. The [classroom] hasn't really changed to reflect today's learner, and this is really taking a huge leap."
The Baltimore County school board approved a $200,000 contract for the program this month, and it will begin in January, Dressel said. But students are already looking forward to the classroom catching up to their reality of living in a digital world.
"I'm very excited," said Austin Hepburn, a seventh-grader in the law and finance magnet program who wants to become a lawyer. "I don't like writing at all, and it makes my hand hurt. And I have a smartphone and an iPad, so I know how to use the technology better."
Another student said that he was looking forward to being able to do real-time research.
"There's always a time when I want to look up stuff on the Internet, and it just isn't there," said eighth-grader Jordan Brand. "Plus, it's just a better way to organize than having to look through a binder."
The students will each be assigned a tablet — whose contents will be managed by teachers and which will have safeguards installed to prevent inappropriate use — to take home with them, affording students who might not have access to technology an opportunity to stay connected.
Teachers will upload everything from homework to exams onto the tablets, and the students will be able to access their large-scale data projects — the magnet students are in the middle of examining Uniformed Crime Reporting statistics from the FBI — around the clock.
"When they feel that ownership, that's when they get good at using the technology," said Alex Wolf, technology liaison for the sixth- and seventh-grade magnet program.
The program will also free up much-needed computer lab space in the school, said Principal Stacey R. Johnson, who added that Loch Raven would be looking at the pilot program to see if it could be replicated for the entire school.
"That's what this is all about," Johnson said. "If we could do that, we're on to something."