Bye-bye books?

Posted: Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Yaakoosge Daakahidi sophomore Staci Taylor took a trip to the Capitol last Tuesday. The reason? To help advocate for the Association of Alaska School Board's request for an additional $10 million for its Consortium for Digital Learning, a one-to-one laptop program in which Yaakoosge has been participating since 2006.

Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire
Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire

"You can surf the web for your question instead of looking at a book. Everybody knows you don't just want to sit there and look at a book all day, you want to interact with it," Taylor said. "I feel that more people in different schools than just this one should have the opportunity to be able to use a computer instead of have a textbook... . Businesses nowadays are mostly based on computers."

Participation in the program recently helped win the school a "distinguished school" award from Apple for the second year in a row. It's the only school in Alaska to win the award, and only one of 35 nationally to win the award twice in a row.

Yaakoosge Principal Sarah Marino said at a recent school board meeting the laptop program has "totally changed the way that we teach and that students learn."

"Students can now access materials at their level no matter what the topic is and can share their learning back in ways that fit their strengths," she said.

It has also expanded the media in which kids can do their assignments. Instead of writing an essay in history class, for example, they might make a movie or do a podcast. They check Google maps with geography questions; they have dictionaries and calculators and word processing all in the same place.

In a recent poll, 93 percent of Yaakoosge students said the program has helped them in school, 84 percent said it has improved their research capabilities, 84 percent said it has helped them learn more than they would have otherwise, 51 percent said they were better organized, and 47 percent said it has increased their creativity and productivity.

"It gives us more responsibility. It's teaching us. It keeps us more organized, it's dependable, and it gives us more responsibility that someone's actually trusting us with a laptop," said Yaakoosge senior Robert Johnson.

"We're really hopeful this program can continue. Being in (their) fourth year, these laptops have weathered teenagers very well --however, this is kind of the end of the cycle. We're hopeful funding can be found to continue. That's our biggest fear at Yaakoosge right now," Marino said.

Juneau-Douglas High School and Thunder Mountain High School began the program for freshmen in the middle of the last school year and at the beginning of this one, though there are differences in each school's operations.

Some challenges, said Thunder Mountain Assistant Principal Kathryn Milliron and others, include training teachers in how to integrate them into the classroom.

JSD Math, Science and Technology Specialist John Wahl said while teachers are still "the content experts," sometimes students are the ones who end up pushing the teachers to learn how to use the tools.


At around $1,000 a pop, plus maintenance costs, laptops are more expensive than the average textbook. But there could be some savings as schools go more digital, JDHS Assistant Principal Dale Staley said.

Staley said the laptops could result in schools using less paper, making fewer copies, and possibly buying fewer textbooks, as most publishers are now offering the same material online.

Still, the laptops need to be replaced every four to five years.

"Typically in private industry you start replacing hardware when it's more than three years old. For schools... that's really challenging to do on a limited budget," Wahl said.

The Association of Alaska School Boards has asked the state legislature for $10 million for the program. So far, said executive director Carl Rose, they've been promised $5 million.

The AASB provides two-thirds of the funding for the laptops; individual school districts make up the rest. The Juneau School District spreads the payment out over a period of time.

According to AASB figures, the Juneau School District has purchased laptops for 605 users--455 for JDHS and Thunder Mountain at the cost of $454,123, of which $299,721 was supplied by the Consortium for Digital Learning. At Yaakoosge, the grant provided for 150 users. The total cost was $367,000, of which $262,606 was provided by the consortium.

Rose said older computers could be moved down into the elementary level as laptops are replaced.

Wahl said the district is still deciding how it would use grant money should it apply for and be granted more from AASB.

The future

The era of the textbook seems to be ending. Administrators say the future is likely to be smaller--and handheld.

"I really think when you're talking about the future, we're really looking at handheld devices," Milliron said. "Students know them very well."

Staley agreed that the future is in the handheld device, mentioning iPads, Kindles, Blackberries and iPhones.

"When you see the number of kids that are texting and going to Web sites and all kinds of stuff on their handhelds, I can't imagine not trying to provide technology to them so that they can also learn more and maybe learn it faster and better than what we have been able to provide in the past," he said.

But for now, even with laptops, "(the program) is helping them move on into (the) kind of world they're going to be faced with when they get out of school," he said.

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