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DODEA initiates pilot laptop program for students

Student with school provided laptop
Wiesbaden High School senior Andrew Hemphill, 17, gets his laptop booted up before a class at the school. Wiesbaden is one of 10 DODDS schools where students and teachers are being issued laptops they use during the school year as part of a pilot program.
Photo: Mark Patton, Stars and Stripes

KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — The Defense Department school system is issuing laptops to students in select schools, hoping the pilot program will match the success of similar programs in state schools that have made steady gains in student achievement.

Department of Defense Education Activity began issuing laptops to every student and teacher in 10 of its military schools this spring with the intent of expanding the program to all DODEA high schools and middle schools.

"The purpose is really simple," said DODEA Director Marilee Fitzgerald. "It's to employ technology in ways that improve teaching and learning through increased student engagement."

Eight of the 10 schools in the initial phase are in Europe, and the two others are stateside, at locations with at least 50 percent wireless capability, DODEA officials said. A limited expansion is planned next school year in the Pacific, where broadband and wireless capabilities are catching up to that of Europe's schools.

"Specific sites have yet to be determined," DODEA spokeswoman Elaine Kanellis said in an email.

Students can take notes on their laptops in class, access online research and digital textbooks for school projects, participate in distance learning courses, and download teacher-recorded audio and video lessons, among other uses, Fitzgerald said.

"This is a way we can level the playing field for our children," she said, bridging the digital divide between students who have computers at home and those who do not. Students sign out the laptops for the school year and can take them home.

Fitzgerald doesn't like to call the "one-to-one laptops" a technology initiative. "This is about curriculum instruction and maximizing what we can do for the benefit of the kids," she said, with the goal being gains in student achievement.

Though new for DODEA, one-to-one computing programs have been adopted by numerous school districts across the United States with varying degrees of success. DODEA officials said one-to-one programs have existed for 22 years, and six states have state-wide programs.

Mooresville, N.C., boasts one of the most successful laptop programs in the nation, DODEA officials said. The agency's director joined the long list of educators who have visited the district to observe the program, which, according to a February story in The New York Times, has quietly emerged as a national model of the digital school.

In Mooresville, 88 percent of students across grades and subjects met proficiency standards in 2011, compared with 73 percent three years earlier, according to The Times.

A study published last year of the program in Maine, which distributed laptops to all middle school students beginning in the 2002-03 school year, attributed improved writing performance on standardized tests.

The Maine Education Policy Research Institute cited results of a 2005 test that showed students who reported using their laptops in all phases of the writing process received the highest test scores, and students who reported not using laptops in writing had the lowest scores.

Teachers also reported substantial benefits from the program, indicating the laptops have helped them teach more in less time and with greater depth, and allowed them to individualize their curriculum and instruction more, according to the study.

"The use of the device needs to match curriculum and learning needs," said David Silvernail, one of the authors of the study. "The device must be a better way to teach and learn specific content or skills and the assessment must match what is learned and how."

At Wiesbaden, where juniors and seniors got laptops in March, and freshmen and sophomores received theirs in April, response from teachers and students was mixed. "I like having everything compacted into just a laptop instead of papers, binders and stuff," said senior Andrew Hemphill, 17.

He acknowledged being nervous when one of his teachers, Tracy Wegleitner, in her first year teaching Advanced Placement psychology, sociology and world history, made her classroom paperless.

But, Andrew said, "it's worked out pretty well so far."

Of her decision to phase out paper note-taking in class, Wegleitner said, "If you've got a tool that's going to allow you to do everything and take notes and keep notes, why don't we go ahead and do it?"

With publishers offering textbooks online, DODDS email database allows her to post assignments online, set up class walls and offer instant chats.

Senior Alexandria Beverly said she's not too keen on doing everything on her laptop. "Instead of paying attention to [the teacher], we're paying attention to the computer, because we're typing fast," she said, adding that it's harder to type notes than write them.

"Most of my classes, it's become more of a distraction," said senior Joseph Griffith, 18.

In Europe, about 3,600 Dell Latitude laptops were being issued this spring to every high school student and teacher at Hohenfels, Schweinfurt, Bamberg, Patch, Wiesbaden, Vicenza, Alconbury and Kaiserslautern schools, said Russ Claus, DODDS Europe deputy area superintendent.

The approximate $651 cost per student includes the laptop, batteries and charging station. DODEA is spending about $2.8 million for 4,600 computers in 10 schools.