Last year, the Roaring Fork School District was faced with the question of how to administer an online test to 225 students at once.
That’s the size of the largest grade at Glenwood Springs High School, and thus in the entire valley. It’s far too many students to cram into a computer lab as standardized tests like the NWEA (internal student assessments) and TCAP (required state assessments) converting to digital.
The solution: Chromebooks.
Last December, the district approved the purchase of enough of the inexpensive, web-based laptop computers to allow everyone in the largest grade at each school to use one at the same time. A total of 1,393 units arrived in January and were configured and organized into carts so that they can be easily moved between classrooms.
Individual schools began general use of the new computers in February, and they’re already transforming education in the Roaring Fork Valley.
“We thought, if we’re going to have them let’s not just have them for testing,” said Glenwood Springs Middle School math and computer teacher Richard Scott. “Let’s have them in use every single day.”
Glenwood Middle School has been leading the charge for digital conversion. It bought a cart of Chromebooks with its own funds last year. Each classroom has a projector, and the cafeteria has an Apple TV.
Now, the school has its 230 Chromebooks split up to allow two carts for each grade — one for math and science and another for humanities.
“If they use them more often, it’s not a toy any more, it’s a tool,” Scott observed.
Someday, he said, the posters and projects taped to the walls might be replaced with flatscreen televisions. They’re already trying to discourage printing, although Scott cautioned that middle school education should always keep a hands-on component.
The laptops have allowed Scott’s class to conduct statistical surveys, a project that used to take more than a week to coordinate, in a couple of days. They have also answered more than 40,000 math problems using IXL, a program that adjusts difficulty as it goes along.
That adaptability is one of the key benefits of digital, Scott says. High-achieving students can be proven to know something in 10 questions and move on, while someone who’s struggling with a concept can practice until they master it.
The same goes for standardized testing. Instead of a few variations of the same test, each student receives a personalized experience that adapts to their strengths and weaknesses. This leads to more accurate results and a less frustrating experience for the kids.
Easing students in
The learning curve is a little steeper at Glenwood Springs Elementary School. This year’s fourth-graders are working with the computers, which will follow them to fifth grade. Instead of wrapping textbooks in paper bags, they personalize their Chromebooks with snap-on plastic cases.
The fourth-grade class is also teaching the younger students how to use the laptops for upcoming testing. Outside of the NWEA and TCAP, first-, second- and third-graders won’t work with Chromebooks much.
GSES has a fleet of iPads and is looking at some touchscreen laptops to ease the transition, but at the elementary level, technology can only go so far.
“I love that we have them and know how to use them,” GSES Media and Technology teacher Jeremy Heiser said of the Chromebooks, “but having been a classroom teacher for many years, I cherish the learning that takes place without them.
“Nothing can ever replace a thoughtful, caring teacher as an effective educational tool,” he said. “Using technology is not our final goal but rather a means to an educational end. Chromebooks are just one tool we are using to ensure that our students are receiving the absolute best education possible.”
The digital age
Students at Roaring Fork High School in Carbondale, by contrast, are already immersed in the digital world. The benefit of the Chromebooks is mostly quantity and ease of use.
“The hope was to provide less of an interruption in the learning environment. The transition from the classroom to a computer lab is a challenge,” RFHS Principal Drew Adams explained.
“I can stay in my room where I have the resources students need and my own boards with the information we are working on,” teacher Hadley Hentschel added.
Hentschel was one of the first RFHS teachers to utilize the school’s 100 new Chromebooks, though the demand for the carts has grown considerably. According to Hentschel, they see use three out of four periods a day for collaborative projects, writing, online simulations, testing and more.
He uses a $30 “Chromecast” device to easily project what students create onto a screen.
So far, bandwidth has held up under the increased usage. The school district has upgraded its infrastructure to cope with smartphone usage and streaming.
According to Jeff Gatlin, technology director for Re-1, the district ran seven miles of cable to make sure the net wouldn’t go down under heavy traffic.
That’s important, because Chromebooks have very little internal storage and rely on an Internet connection for most functions.
Even so, Gatlin thinks they were the right piece of technology for the job.
“We felt that the learning curve was minimized for this device,” he said.
Students can download Chrome at home to get an idea of the interface. Most basic functions are available without the need for additional applications and are easily accessible for flexibility and collaboration.
Google has also worked hard to cater to educational needs. The district can remotely enable or disable features, enforce safesearch, push apps, and auto-update in the background.
“The management piece is pretty nice,” Gatlin said.
There’s also the price point. The $430,000 pilot program comes out to just over $300 per computer, including the cost of carts, setup and software. The relatively low cost also makes it easier for parents to buy a computer for home use. Since everything is stored on Google Accounts, students can access everything they worked on at school when they are at home or anyplace with wireless access.
The Chromebook revolution may not extend to teachers. They rely on more robust, traditional applications for content creation and offline storage. Printing can be tricky due to lack of drivers.
For now, the district is content to work with a mix of different technologies.
“We don’t want these things to feel pushed,” said Gatlin, “We want this to be more about instruction than tech.”
With only one Chromebook dead on arrival and a handful of later mishaps, the district hopes the devices will hold up for three years.
To that end, they’ve asked certain teachers to act as “owners,” bringing accountability for the devices down to the classroom level. When the three years are up, the district will have the option to refresh the current stock or even add more. Someday, there might even be a Chromebook for every student.