Henrico County officials are blazing a trail in computer-assisted education. Have they gone too far, 

Core Curriculum

In August 2001, Henrico County school administrators issued an Apple notebook computer, called the iBook, to all 11,300 of their high-school students. Next fall, the program will extend to 7,700 seventh- and eighth-graders. Sixth graders follow. The long-range plan extends to the third grade, probably by the 2004-05 school year.

As with any new program, there have been unexpected glitches and problems to overcome, but now that students are into the second grading period, it seems a good time to take stock of the iBook initiative ¥ and lay to rest some of the misconceptions that have taken root since its inception.

Colleges and universities blazed the trail in student laptops during the 1990s when universities such as Wake Forest started distributing laptops in the interest of computer conformity. By the end of the decade, public schools in Connecticut, Maine, Michigan, New York, Virginia and other states were experimenting with different versions at different grade levels. In Virginia, schools in Henry County were first to issue laptops to students in 1998, phasing in the program by two grade levels each year.

What makes last yearOs initiative by Henrico County noteworthy is its size. ONothing on this scale has been done before,O says Charles Stallard, HenricoOs director of technology. OWe are merging wireless with wired networksO for all middle and high schools in an effort that involves about 23,000 students. OItOs made the county world-famous in education circles.O

OThe direction Henrico is heading is one all school districts will head over the next few years,O says Hanover County Schools Superintendent Stewart Roberson, whose schools have begun experimenting with laptops in mobile labs. Educators around the country are watching as schools make major commitments to laptops and Internet-based education. Representatives from other school districts are coming to call on Henrico County to assess the program in light of their own technology needs and capabilities. OWeOll let them go through the pain first so we can learn how best to do it,O says a half-joking James Bynum, Richmond City SchoolsO director of public information.

Blazing a new trail inevitably involves wrong turns, stumbling and a lot of branches smacking you in the face. While it is too early for a comprehensive evaluation ¥ Henrico Superintendent Mark Edwards warns it will be two to three years before the program is working exactly right ¥ it is a good time to summarize and to expose some of the rumors that are masquerading as facts.

One hard fact: There is precious little dialogue going on. Laptops are not just new equipment, like movie projectors in the 1950s or calculators in the 1980s. Laptops bring a revolution in our system of education. If parents and teachers could communicate their problems and perspectives to the county administration and school board members, and if county administrators could explain their actions and vision to the community, the wild ride into technology could smooth out.

Perception 1

The laptops cost $18 million.

Not exactly. The total package goes beyond that when extra personnel, infrastructure, training, and other startup costs are included. Henrico CountyOs projected purchase/lease of Apple equipment and services during the five-year time-span 2001-2006 comes to $27,255,280. Of that, $6,399,120 is to purchase iMacs, which are desktop computers, for the elementary schools. So the Apple laptops plus related services total $20,856,160.

The new staff ¥ one technology trainer was added to each high school and middle school ¥ were positions already in the budget that were OredirectedO to the laptop program. Unanticipated add-ons included extra switches and servers ($880,000), extra bay stations or Oair portsO ($200,000), and a contract with Beyond Books to get the core curriculum digitized ($80,000), bringing the countyOs total cost for the 7- to 12th-grade phase to just over $22 million. Vendors are absorbing other costs.

A leasing plan with Apple spreads the payments over five years. According to Henrico Superintendent Edwards: OLeasing let us extrapolate over time. é Apple owns the machines and will probably offer them for sale at a greatly reduced priceO at the end of their four-year life expectancy. The countyOs cost per year ranges from $7 million to $2 million, a relatively small part of the $321.5 million school budget.

Perception 2

None of this was in the school budget.

Actually, the money was in the budget; nothing extra is required for the laptops. According to Ken Crush, HenricoOs assistant superintendent for operations, funds for laptops were OredirectedO from line items that are no longer needed, specifically new desktop computers, two repair technicians whose services are covered by Apple, replacement parts for old computers, and certain software. Fewer new textbooks and an anticipated drop in the demand for paper brought more savings that could be applied to the laptop package. Two technology grants from the state totaling $1.8 million were added to the pot.

Being first out of the gate has its advantages, if you can gallop beyond the inevitable barrage of criticism. According to Edwards, corporate interest in HenricoOs experiment brought benefits that saved the county boatloads of money. And Apple agreed to Opartner with the county,O and in doing so, has provided research people, trained students and teachers, and has assigned its top people to resolve problems that arise. Apple engineers worked at each high school for several weeks at the beginning of the year at no charge to Henrico.

And the deal Apple struck with Henrico resulted in a unit cost of roughly $1,000 for a laptop that retails for about 50 percent more. Cisco Systems, a leading networking company, provided several hundred thousand dollars of expertise and infrastructure free, in return for the experience in learning how to set up systems like this for other school districts in the future.

Perception 3

This should have been tested on a smaller scale so the bugs could be worked out.

Introducing laptop computers involves an earthquake of adjustments throughout the school and sends shock tremors into the studentsO homes. The more schools involved, the higher the number on the Richter scale. Not all school districts are in such a hurry.

Chesterfield County, for example, is following an incremental plan for laptops. OHenricoOs [plan] is to give everyone a laptop and move forward,O says ChesterfieldOs director of technology, Lynda Gillespie. OHowever, we did a two-year pilot program with 100 students and identified problems as they arose.O When Chesterfield takes two high schools to laptops in the fall of 2002, school officials are confident that most of the problems will have been dealt with.

Charles Stallard, Henrico CountyOs technology director and author of a new book on technology in schools, disagrees with that approach. OEasing into it wonOt work,O he says. OIncremental change is not efficient. IOve seen that fail in government, the military, business and education. There was no choice but all at once. [The education establishment] resists change.O

Perception 4

The iBooks are poorly designed and always broken.

Troubles have plagued the laptops from the start. CD trays wonOt close. Lids wonOt stay shut. Power adapters wonOt work. The software has problems. Students have no way to back up their data, so when the computer crashes or has to go in for repair, all their work is lost or inaccessible. Screens crack frequently, causing parents to pay the $100 deductible on their insurance policy to have the screen replaced. No loaners are available. So many laptops were being returned to Apple every day for repair that the companyOs turnaround time stretched from 72 hours to several weeks, causing Apple to subcontract much of the work to a local business, Capitol Mac.

Tim Hagan, a service manager at Capitol Mac who has children in the Henrico school system, said his people repaired 80 to 100 iBooks a day for Apple, or nearly 2,000 over a few weeks in October. It is obvious to the workers at Capitol Mac, Hagan says, that the majority of the damage came from student abuse or misuse.

OThe county didnOt prepare students to handle this technology,O he explains. OIn Hampton, Virginia, for example, they handed out laptops to all seventh graders only after the kids could show they knew how to perform 10 functions correctly. Apple is really going above and beyond by taking responsibility for all of these problems and repairing them under the warranty.O

The father of a Tucker High School ninth-grader who paid $114 for a new charger when his son accidentally broke off the tip of the jack, agrees. OThe iBooks are just too sophisticated for children of this age. A mature 11th- or 12th-grader heading out into the real world ¥ fine. But the county has decided that young children can handle this equipment. I donOt agree but I have to pay when theyOre wrong.O

Whatever the reasons for damage, students finding themselves without their iBook for days or weeks at a time are unable to get to their notes or do the homework, and teachers have no choice but to adjust lesson plans and assignments that require the computer. OAt least two students in every class every day have laptops in for repair,O said one teacher. ThatOs about 10 percent.

OI think we would have had larger failure rates with another unit,O counters Stallard, who says the problems have been minimal.

And help is on the horizon. Apple Care, AppleOs maintenance branch, is sending technicians into every high school over the winter to do a complete check on every single laptop, make whatever repairs on CD trays and latches, and add extra memory ¥ at no cost to the county. Middle-school teachers and parents have been assured that Apple is committed to getting it right by the time laptops are issued to their students next fall.

Perception 5

Students need more training.

When computers were passed out to high-school students in August, nothing but a cheery OHave fun!O went with them. Edwards acknowledges the miscalculation and says that middle-school distribution will proceed differently. Middle schools will begin training their students this spring, in anticipation of the fall laptops and will offer more training during the opening days of school.

A dozen or so students from each high school did receive special training during last summer to work at the Help Desks. The Help Desk is a sort of triage program for injured laptops staffed with tech-savvy students. They solve basic problems before and after school, during lunch periods and in study halls. Problems these kids canOt solve are referred to the adult technology expert (now each school has two, one for hardware and one for training). If the adult canOt fix it, the laptop goes back for repair.

William Hite, principal of Highland Springs High School, finds that the Help Desk has provided an unexpected path for success as new leaders emerge in a new field. OSome students have become leaders in troubleshooting, diagnosing computer problems and solving them,O he explains. Alonzo Coley, a sophomore, trained with a dozen other Springers for one day during the summer. An Apple representative taught them how to make common repairs. Alonzo enjoys coming in early to work at the Help Desk each morning. How good is he? OTeachers ask me questions,O he admits. AlonzoOs experience has given him an idea for a backup career when he graduates. OIf I canOt make it as an R&B singer,O he says, OIOm going to be a computer technician.O Help Desks will be used to a lesser extent in the middle schools next year.

Perception 6

The county should have picked a laptop that worked with the PC equipment most people have at home.

Longtime residents know that Henrico schools have been primarily Apple-based from the beginning. Supporting two systems, Apple and the more common Windows-based PCs, would be financial foolishness. County technology experts did test a wide variety of laptops. Stallard points out that Apple laptops were about $800 less than other models, had no protruding parts likely to break off in a backpack, and weighed half as much as the competing Dell version. OWe chose AppleOs iBook because our experience has shown that it costs significantly more to support other platforms,O says Superintendent Edwards. OAppleOs iBook is the best product available to meet our instructional needs.O

But it is obvious that laptop technology in schools spills over into the homes more than anyone anticipated. Henrico County officials have learned the hard way that parents need training too. Plans to accomplish this are underway.

OParents need extensive information about the laptops,O acknowledges Edwards, Oand we are working on Web pages with links for parents online that will improve their communication with schools and teachers, help them help their child and teach them how to monitor their childOs use of the laptop at home.O

Parents at a Tuckahoe Middle School advisory group meeting urged the school to minimize misunderstandings at home by listing the parentsO true costs. Many families were surprised to learn they were liable for more than the initial $50 insurance fee. They had to pay out $100 for repairs and $20 or so for a protective case, buy a new printer or USB cable ($60), pay for Internet access, and so forth. Because the iBooks are not compatible with the PC equipment most families own, parents have struggled to figure out how their children can use their laptops at home. Better directions about home printers and other equipment would have eased this transition, and better directions are coming.

Perception 7

The county is paying for Internet access for those who donOt have it.

Wrong. Superintendent Edwards estimates that 30 percent to 35 percent of the studentsO families have no Internet access at home. To help them get connected, the county negotiated for a Obulk rateO with an Internet service provider that permits parents to hook up to the Internet for only $7 to $9 per month. The deal was offered to all parents in the middle of November.

For Virginia Hansom, a junior at Henrico High School, Internet access at home means she no longer has to come to school early and stay late to work in the computer lab. OI take advantage of having my own computer,O she says. OI open it up right when I get home and get my work done; IOm more organized.O

Perception 8

Laptops were supposed to replace textbooks. What happened?

Last May, parents and teachers were told that one of the most important benefits of the laptop was electronic textbooks. Loading e-textbooks onto laptops would save the county money on books and lessen the burden on childrenOs backs, a serious concern for many. In June, word came down that publishers were working hard but only a few e-books would be ready by fall. By summer, only one, a history book, was said to be ready. School opened with no e-textbooks at all.

OWeOve changed our minds about e-textbooks,O says Stallard. OWeOd rather use primary documents on the Internet rather than secondary text books, and are producing our own digital content. WeOve bought a subscription to Beyond Books, an electronic version of subject matter, and are moving to curriculum based on online resourcesO rather than on static books, electronic or traditional. Some of this material is available now; more is expected as the year progresses. Math teachers, for instance, were told that Algebra II subject matter would not be ready until the fourth grading period.

School Board representative Stuart Myers explains that the decision evolved quickly as they became aware of the limitations of e-textbooks. OWe realized that there is more out there than a book on a CD,O he said. Henrico teachers and administrative staff are working with Beyond Books to create what Myers calls Ohomegrown instructional materials,O first for the basic core curriculum, then for the other high school subjects. OHaving our own people involved customizes those materials to our needs. ItOs better than buying a canned lesson plan.O Myers, whose eye is always on the bottom line, believes this technology will save taxpayer money in the long run. OWith laptops, the per-pupil cost for materials should run less than it would with traditional textbooks and paper.O

Perception 9

Teachers arenOt using them.

Henrico teachers are not hidebound pedagogues; most were excited about the technology and spent the summer creating new lesson plans. Most received adequate training. Yet excitement quickly turned to frustration as iBooks failed to meet expectations. For the first month and a half, no one could get online and all the new lesson plans were for naught.

The county reported in mid-October that extra servers had been installed. At long last, classes could get online. It happens, but not reliably, the teachers report. OI tried today to have the class take a virtual tour of a historic house but none of the kids could get online,O one told me in November. OI tried to get on an Anglo-Saxon culture site, but it was so slow the students got distracted and I had to go to Plan B,O said another. OI havenOt been able to get on the Internet yet at all,O another teacher said.

Teacher frustration is endemic. It has not abated, even though the technology problems have. ONow that we have the iBooks in place, we are frantically creating ways to use them, whether or not those ways are improvements on the established methods or even if these new methods create new problems where none existed,O wrote an English teacher. OMy biggest frustration is the lack of support from the administration regarding the use of games,O says a science teacher. OThey donOt realize how big a problem this is: ItOs not a couple students in every class playing games; itOs a couple students in every class paying attention. I use the laptops very little.O

Teachers also worry about the vulnerability of their tests and grade records, which are kept on computer. So far, one security breach is known to have occurred: A Tucker High School student is accused of hacking into the system to change grades.

Generals are often unaware of what is happening in the trenches, and their lack of understanding can lose the war. OAll the directives are going one way, top down. Teachers need flexibility to figure out how to best use the technology,O says a history teacher who believes implementation would come more smoothly if there were conduits for honest feedback.

According to principals at two high schools, classes this year are averaging one to two weeks behind schedule. One principal chastised his entire student body over the public-address system after teachers reported that first quarter grades were markedly lower than normal, a phenomenon he attributed to students being diverted by computer games, Instant Messages, and e-mails. OWe are concerned,O says a math teacher, Oabout the distraction a $1,500 toy is causing in the hands of students.O Many teachers have backed off laptops in self-defense. OI teach an AP class,O says one, Oand I have to follow a strict scheduleO to cover all the material before the test date.

In spite of their frustrations, not one of the 13 teachers from three high schools who were interviewed had given up on the laptops. OI really like my laptop now; I was very negative at first but have come to see the potential,O said an English teacher. OItOs not the technology, itOs the way it was implemented, too fast for decisions to be made in advance,O said a math teacher.

All look forward to the time when improvements in laptop durability and the system upgrades currently underway will translate to a viable program.

OI grew up in an environment where the technology was chalk,O says Edward Pruden, principal of Douglas Freeman, Oand I was skeptical about this at first. But I have really and truly come to see the potential.O

OI trust our teachers. They are the best judge of how to use [the iBooks] in their classrooms,O says School Board rep Myers. OWe want to provide them with the best tools possible, and this is one tool that they can use to supplement what they already do.O

Perception 10

The county rushed into the program without community backing.

The speed with which the decision was reached and implemented precluded any community involvement or public hearings. That may have been what school administrators intended, given the recent experience in Fairfax County. (When Fairfax school officials announced their intention to give laptops to all 65,000 students, strong opposition from the community caused them to back down.) Parents and educators disagree among themselves about the best use of technology. Some worry that laptops have been oversold, and that the high expectations of vendors and technology enthusiasts are not being met with greater efficiencies in the classroom or in higher student achievement. Others see them as having the potential to revolutionize the classroom, knocking down classroom walls and opening up the whole world to the students by taking education beyond the six-hours-a-day format.

Perception 11

The Superintendent signed the deal with Apple without the approval of the school board or the board of supervisors.

The first most people heard of laptops was on May 1, 2001, when Superintendent Edwards and Apple announced the signing of a precedent-shattering deal. School Board approval came nine days later. This unorthodox sequence of events opened questions in some minds, but School Board members were involved in every step of the process, and the contract was contingent upon their approval. The program had not been conceived when the school budget was presented to the Board of Supervisors in January. Regardless, in Virginia, county supervisors can only approve or amend the school budget total, not its individual line items, so they have little to say about the details.

Perception 12

Theft of laptops has been rampant.

Au contraire. One bit of planning that paid off big was the effort to limit theft by marking each laptop with a tracking device and talking with area pawn shops. Not one high school police officer reports more than a couple laptops stolen or lost in his school.

Perception 13

Henrico has opened PandoraOs Box.

There are as many opinions about the laptop program as there are parents, students, teachers, administrators and taxpayers in Henrico County. While Superintendent Edwards predicts a two- to three-year time span before the program is up and running, Stallard says: OWe are so far down the road in terms of problems, weOll be over the hump by the first of the year.O He calls the program Oawesomely successfulO so far. Whatever the time line, educators and parents will be watching certain objective indicators such as SOL scores, studentsO grades, SAT scores and AP test results to help judge the success of the iBooks as teaching tools.

Thus far, the potential may have been best expressed by something Eric Jones, principal of Varina High School, has observed. OI see regular students being excited and more motivated about their courses,O Jones says.

Today, Henrico County is the first district in the country to make a major commitment to computer-assisted learning. But being first should not be the only goal. As one parent put it to me: OLetOs be the first to do it right.O

Tim Hagan, parent and computer technician, notes, OAs a community, we all need to work together to make this work.O ThatOs a good idea.


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