At Chantilly High in Fairfax County, students have long had a variety of ways to get their hands on computers. The school encourages students to bring in their own laptops and smartphones, and also has laptops available for students and teachers to check out.
But the school district is trying a new approach this year, putting school laptops directly into the hands of every student at Chantilly High and its seven feeder schools for the entire year through an initiative called FCPSOn. The school district expects to distribute 7,800 laptops to students as part of a pilot program that eventually could be expanded.
It is the first time this approach — known as one-to-one — has been tried on a large scale in Fairfax County Public Schools, Virginia’s largest school district with more than 186,000 students. The school district — which is spending $2.1 million to provide the laptops and train teachers on their best use in classrooms — is hoping the investment will pay off with more-personalized learning and seamless integration of electronic technology into classroom activity. Students in five other Fairfax County high schools also are receiving their own laptops with the help of a state grant.
“We’re looking at changing teaching and learning,” said Teresa Johnson, principal of Chantilly High.
Internet access is critical for Fairfax County high school students because many textbooks are available only online. And although Chantilly offered laptops for some students to take home, most of the school’s laptops and tablet computers previously had been for use on campus only.
Other D.C.-area school districts have already tested large-scale one-to-one programs, and others are preparing pilots. Officials in Arlington County, Va., aim to provide every student in grades two through 12 with an iPad Air or MacBook Air by 2018. Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland has given laptops to 50,000 students.
Some school districts, such as Loudoun County, Va., have opted to encourage students to bring in their own devices and have used school equipment to provide for students without such devices.
The Loudoun district is expanding its technology offerings to motivated teachers who complete professional development before their classrooms are outfitted with devices. The district will furnish classrooms in 15 schools with enough laptops for all students through an effort that aims to individualize lessons.
Proponents of the programs say that when students have their own laptops — and can take them home — that easy access boosts learning.
“They have access to all the applications they’re using in school,” said Lori Cleveland, the principal of Greenbriar West Elementary in Fairfax, where all students will get their own devices. She said that even a well-equipped family might not be able to access all of the software that children use in classrooms.
Ross Bosse, who teaches advanced placement U.S. history and comparative government at Chantilly High, said the laptops will allow him to use technology more efficiently in the classroom, rather than relying on students to bring their smartphones or depend on out-of-date school equipment. He will be able to have students respond to questions in online classroom forums and see their responses in real time.
“I can have one-to-one contact with every student in the class through the keyboard,” Bosse said.
Students’ having their own laptops also means less time spent wrangling devices at school, where teachers sometimes compete for a limited supply of laptops.
“It should be that all of our students and teachers have the opportunity to utilize the technology and resources at school,” said deputy superintendent Steve Lockard. “They shouldn’t have to wait to get a cart of laptops. They shouldn’t have to wait for older or less-reliable equipment.”
But Lockard said the vast school system wanted to start small with its rollout, hoping to avoid the pitfalls that have hampered other one-to-one efforts.
Providing individual laptops is also a way to teach students responsibility. Teachers at Greenbriar West Elementary will spend two weeks teaching youngsters how to use and care for the computers. The students will return the devices at the end of the school year.
Cleveland said learning to use technology responsibly is an essential element of the curriculum in the 21st century — even for very young schoolchildren.
“We are looking to develop 21st-century skills,” Cleveland said. “Technology helps us get there.”