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North Carolina officials weigh benefits, costs of computers in classrooms

Ohanian Comment:

People should remember that these millions are public money. More than 16.50% of children under 18 in both Moore and Lee Counties live below the poverty line. If we truly believe in holistic education, then we should think about the total child need. Think about it and talk about.

Ha. I wish we'd gotten info on what this sentence means: The system plans to buy less expensive computers for some students.

Does anybody believe this claim? Attendance goes up and discipline problems go down when computers are used in classes.

I would note that if you put North Carolina State University into Grants Awarded at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, 27 items pop up.

I don't want to take computers away from these schools. I just want them to be more thoughtful. This is the scariest paragraph in the article:

Wicker, who has been teaching for about 24 years, said she thinks the computers make her a better teacher because she gets immediate feedback on the areas in which the students are struggling. That information allows her to modify her teaching the next day to focus on those areas, she said.

What teachers and students need is wait time, not immediate feedback.

By Steve DeVane

SANFORD -- Two school systems in the Cape Fear region are spending millions of dollars to provide students with computers, but elected officials want evidence of the projects' worth.

Lee County schools spent about $6 million over four years to buy a laptop or tablet for each student in third through 12th grades.

Moore County schools is in the second year of a planned four-year effort to give each student a laptop or tablet computer. The initial estimated cost was $7 million, but the final cost is expected to be less because the system plans to buy less expensive computers for some students.

But like other school systems across the country, who hope computers in classrooms keep their students competitive, a debate continues about the technology's role in improving student performance. Others have concerns about the costs of putting laptops and tablets in students' hands as the technology is upgraded and changes rapidly.

The discussion of these issues will continue as legislation passed by the General Assembly in March requires school systems to shift from standard textbooks to digital textbooks by 2017. Funding wasn't included in the legislation to provide the technology, which means smaller, less affluent school systems will need to seek other funding sources to meet the deadline.

The programs in Lee and Moore counties started before the digital textbook legislation was passed.

In Moore County, the school board asked for $750,000 for the current school year's technology program. Larry Caddell, chairman of the Moore County Board of Commissioners, said commissioners agreed to give the schools half of the request to pay for the initiative. Commissioners likely will need more information about the benefits before providing more money in the future, he said.

"We would like to see what the return is on our investment," he said. "I'm hoping and praying it works. I'd be crazy not to want it to work."

In Moore and Lee counties, school officials say even though there is little data to show that students' achievement increases when they have computers, students using the devices are more engaged in the learning process. Teachers also say attendance goes up and discipline problems go down when computers are used in classes, according to school officials.

The programs in Lee and Moore counties are "one-to-one" initiatives where every student and every teacher has a computer.

The Friday Institute for Educational Innovation at North Carolina State University summarized research in 2011 about seven such programs.

The institute found that some teachers and students believe the use of laptops affects student achievement, but only some analyses of test scores support that theory. Teachers and students generally agreed that using computers increased student engagement, the summary said.

Students tended to be better prepared for the future and to develop better technology, learning and innovation, and communication and collaboration skills as a result of using computers, according to the summary.

Research into motivation, discipline and attendance in areas using computers was mixed, the institute found.

But Charlie Parks, chairman of the Lee County commissioners, said he thinks more research needs to be done on using computers in the classroom.

"We're spending a lot of money, but nobody can tell us about the benefits," he said.

Parks said county officials want to know how the money is being spent. He said state officials need to assess whether computers are worth the cost.

"I question whether we're better off having had textbooks than having computers," he said.

Lee County schools' Superintendent Andy Bryan said school officials see computers as a way to enhance instruction.

"I think we have to provide our students the opportunity to use technology," he said. "It is something that has become a necessity."

Parks said he doesn't think students' grades will go up because of computers.

"I'm not against technology, but I am against not utilizing it correctly," he said.

Bryan said Lee County teachers have been trained well to integrate using the computers in the classroom.

"Even with technology, the most important thing in the class as far as teaching is the teacher," he said.

Cindy Johnson, chief technology officer for Lee County Schools, said teachers have had at least 14 hours of training on how to use the computers for instruction.

"I've had many teachers tell me they would not go back to teaching without them," she said.

Cynthia Wicker, 66, who teaches sixth-grade science and math at SanLee Middle School in Sanford, said the computers make teaching easier.

"We've gotten so used to using them, I'm not sure I could teach without them," she said.

The computers are especially helpful for students who struggle.

"It makes a difference all around," she said.

Wicker, who has been teaching for about 24 years, said she thinks the computers make her a better teacher because she gets immediate feedback on the areas in which the students are struggling. That information allows her to modify her teaching the next day to focus on those areas, she said.

"I think that's the selling point for teachers in the classroom," she said.

Teachers are trained on how to use the computers, Wicker said.

"In this county, they've done a good job making sure everybody's ready," she said.

Wicker said broken computers aren't a major problem in her class. Students usually figure out how to correct an issue, she said.

The system didn't replace any laptops this year.

"The kids are so used to having the computers that they're used to troubleshooting," she said.

The computers also help the students collaborate.

"It doesn't take away from teaching time at all," she said. "It adds to it."

Students in Wicker's class say they like using the computers. Jakiah Carnegie said the computers help her learn.

"If I need help, all I do is click a button, and it'll teach me how to do it," she said.

Jakiah said videos that Wicker makes for the class also are helpful.

"I can't pause my teacher, but I can pause the video," she said.

Jakiah said she has been using computers in class since she was in third grade.

"It's better than having a book," she said.

Andres Sosa, another student in Wicker's class, said programs the students use help them learn various skills.

"Our teacher puts out the lesson, and we do it," he said.

Wicker said the students at SanLee seem happier since they've been using the computers.

"Our children are being successful, and I think the computers have a lot to do with that," she said.

Moore County schools' Superintendent Aaron Spence said schools need to teach students how to use computers.

"Everybody who goes to work today works with technology," he said. "In almost every industry, they'll be using technology to do that work."

Spence said schools should not just use technology for technology's sake. Instead, computers should be used to transform the learning experience, he said.

Simply handing students a computer turns the computer into a glorified notebook, Spence said.

"You can't just hand everybody a computer and say, 'Go learn,'" he said.

Spence said he is proud of the way Moore County is implementing its digital initiative. The system has provided computer tablets or laptops at several schools as pilot projects before expanding the program.

The school system's goal is to teach students how to create, collaborate and publish by using the computers, Spence said.

Moore County commissioners want to see if test scores go up using the computers, and they want to see "a measurable return" on the investment, Caddell said.

Caddell said school officials have pointed to the success of a similar program in Mooresville, but he said he wants to see Moore County students' results.

Commissioners will not settle for school officials saying they think it will work, Caddell said.

"We want to see it," he said. "Show me in writing."

Staff writer Steve DeVane can be reached at devanes@fayobserver.com or 910-486-3572.

— Steve DeVane
Fay Observer





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