Lake Washington district schools bring netbooks to class

September 28, 2011

By Christopher Huber

In 2008, when Tim Patterson first heard the Lake Washington School District’s proposal to give every student at his school a netbook for the entire school year, he wasn’t exactly enthusiastic about it.

In fact, as principal of Inglewood Junior High School and a member of the 12-principal technology advisory board, he was part of the vocal minority that took issue with, among other things, the devices’ “cool factor” potentially distracting students from the main goal: learning and retaining a jam-packed curriculum.

“I spoke against this in a pretty assertive way,” Patterson said.

But through two years of pilot programs, technology integration experiments, and receiving mostly positive feedback from teachers and students, Patterson got on board with the idea.

“This is a technology that I’ve changed my perspective on,” he said.

This fall marked the first time every seventh grader at Inglewood checked out their personal netbook for the school year — with the signed permission of their parents. They’ve only had them for about two weeks, but many students are enthusiastically taking to the new system.

“It’s a very cool and special thing,” said Sophia Bernardo, an Inglewood seventh-grader. “It’s still a little bit weird.”

It’s part of the district’s One-to-One initiative that seeks to provide one computer for every student — nearly 25,000. Administrators said it aims to help eliminate homework document formatting issues between home and school computers, as well as make instruction more efficient. Plus, they said it teaches students the technology skills they will need to compete in the future job market.

“When have instant access you get back instructional time,” said Matt Palmer, Lake Washington’s technology integration & e-learning coordinator. “They’re doing quite a bit with them.”

Inglewood’s nearly 350 seventh graders, along with all the school’s language arts-social studies and science classes, join four other schools in the district to lead the way in trying the new system out, said John Vaille, Lake Washington assistant superintendent and head technology administrator.

“In order for kids to be competitive globally, they need technology,” he said.

The netbooks — the Dell Latitude 2020 — cost up to $425 apiece and were provided through the $42 million technology levy Lake Washington voters passed in 2010. They are fully equipped with the Microsoft Office Suite and various subject-specific programs that allow students to conduct tasks from interactive, computer-based science experiments in real time to typing a book report and turning it in online. Students have also found regular use for the built-in camera, taking self-portraits for presentations or visually documenting an object in science class, teachers said.

Shannon Bleek, a seventh-grade science teacher for the past 10 years, has seen first-hand the change from students drawing unrecognizable diagrams by hand to building accurate graphs and charts fed by data the students personally put into the computer. She said she wasn’t quite sure how well the netbook program would work out last school year during the pilot program. But, with some training and plenty of practice incorporating the devices in everyday lesson planning, she was surprised by her students’ creativity and engagement.

“The best part of the netbooks is they’re so engaged. The level of engagement is significantly higher.” Bleek said during a lesson Sept. 23. “It’s way more seamless. It’s amazing how they come up with ideas for how to use these.”

Sophia said she still likes to write in notebooks, but she appreciates getting an extra few hours to tweak a writing assignment on her netbook by being allowed to turn it in online, later in the day, rather than in class.

“I like more time to turn in an assignment,” she said. “Otherwise, I kind of liked using notebooks.”

Similar to Lake Washington’s current overall ratio, the Issaquah School District maintains about a 3-to-1 student-to-computer ratio at its schools, said Colleen Dixon, Issaquah’s executive director of educational technology. It receives extensive technology levy support from the community, she said, but given that 99 percent of students have ample access to computers at home, too, the district is currently focused on installing wireless Internet networks at all schools, among other projects. For the few students who don’t have seamless school-to-home computer access, Dixon said the district offers after-school use, as well as free surplus computers to anyone who fills out a request form.

‘For those who don’t, we provide extensive access for them at school,” Dixon said. “We haven’t had a demand for (netbooks) because the access has been available at school.”

While Bleek acknowledged the potential for people to get caught up in the “cool factor” of having netbooks, after two years spent integrating them into her daily lessons and routine, she highlighted how in touch she feels with each student and their work. From her desktop computer, she can monitor every student who is logged in to their netbook, in real time. If one student does an exemplary job during an in-class assignment, Bleek can capture an image of that student’s work, freeze everyone else’s screen and display the example on each device while she explains.

“It’s changing a classroom environment,” she said.

Integrating hundreds of netbooks to school instruction also cuts down on paper use, claimed teachers and administrators.

“It cuts way down on handouts,” Bleek said.

Bleek and Sophia thought about the implications using netbooks might have on students’ handwriting and drawing abilities. Sophia said she and her classmates use them for virtually every class, with math homework seeing ever-increasing application through a netbook.

Overall, all involved seem happy with the new netbooks. As the students get used to them, administrators look to next year when Inglewood will check them out to seventh- and eighth-graders.

“It’s a much bigger leap into the future than with other things,” Sophia said.

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