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East Valley students in Spokane Valley embrace the use of take-home laptops

East Valley High School 11th grader Marco Flores uses a MacBook in Spanish class at the school on Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017. East Valley High School recently implemented a program that provides MacBooks to students. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
East Valley High School 11th grader Marco Flores uses a MacBook in Spanish class at the school on Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017. East Valley High School recently implemented a program that provides MacBooks to students. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

For high school freshman Alex Shaw, studying and completing homework assignments was a challenge without at-home computer access. But now, he’s able to turn in assignments with ease because of East Valley High School’s initiative to provide Apple MacBooks to all students.

“Having (the MacBook) is so much easier. Studying is definitely harder without it,” he said. “We use Google Classroom and the assignments are digital, so losing them isn’t a problem.”

The East Valley School Board approved the Apple MacBook lease agreement in June and in September implemented the program, which allows students to check out laptops during the school year for classroom or at-home use. The laptops will be refurbished and reissued next fall.

“Regardless of socioeconomic status, we could really let learning blossom,” said Matt Stevens, principal at East Valley High School. “By allowing (the students) access to real world scenarios and stuff they could use on the job, the introduction to technology could be beneficial to them.”

East Valley High School – the first public school in Spokane County to provide students with MacBooks – pays $340,000 annually for the laptops for all of its more than 1,100 students through a combination of money set aside in the district’s technology budget and state funds from increased enrollment in its Career and Technical Education program.

East Valley High School faced a situation of replacing outdated equipment in its computer lab or opting for the MacBook lease program, said Kelly Shea, superintendent for the East Valley School District.

The high school’s computer lab has limited hours and equipment needs to be replaced every five to 10 years, so the MacBooks – which students use in two to three classes per day – allow greater access to homework assignments and activities.

Students use Google Classroom to work collaboratively in groups, take notes, and to share, submit or view past assignments. They also can complete homework and make-up assignments at home in case of absence, Shea said.

East Valley High School Spanish teacher Jessica Ruiz said she uses education software programs Edpuzzle and Textivate to create video lessons and stories that are shared with students to complete in class using their MacBooks.

“I try to avoid homework,” she said. “The laptops make it paperless for me. My administrative load has decreased considerably.”

Teachers can use Google Docs to record and translate a lecture into a different language via text, or connect students from different countries using Skype in the Classroom to practice language skills, said Jane Van Galen, professor in the School of Educational Studies at University of Washington Bothell.

“English language learners have great resources now,” she said. “There are some great opportunities for kids to connect around the world.”

Freshman Andrew Korchemnly said he uses his MacBook for studying and completing online quizzes.

“It’s a really good idea. It’s simple to use.” he said. “Before, we would have to leave class to use the computer lab. But now, we can work on assignments in class.”

Students paid a $30 technology fee that covers defects or accidental damage to the laptops, said Shea.

“If we were to find that there’s willful or intentional damage, we would have to handle that differently,” Shea said. “There has been very few issues with machines so far. If we have a number of lost machines or broken machines, or if we are having a lot of issues with the program, we would re-evaluate it.”

With more schools increasing access to technology, there’s been some opposition to laptops in classrooms.

A study published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2016 surveyed 726 students at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y. and found laptops hindered academic performance because students could be distracted, computers may not be as effective for note-taking, or professors may interact differently with students using a computer.

However, the results don’t directly relate to classes where laptops are used deliberately in classroom instruction, but to classes involving note-taking on laptops, according to the study.

East Valley School Board member Fred Helms voted against the laptop initiative in June, stating that students “should be spending more time learning how to build and repair things.”

Shea said while East Valley High School is accepting of technology, the laptops are meant to be incorporated into classroom lessons rather than cause distraction.

“We want to make sure kids get access and the responsibility we all need to learn to use technology,” Shea said. “Technology can be used for really good reasons, but we have to monitor that to assure that kids are doing appropriate things.”

West Valley High School implemented a similar technology program to provide Google Chromebooks for students in every class. But, for infrastructure and security reasons, the school doesn’t permit laptops to be taken home.

And while the Coeur d’Alene School District is rethinking its policy regarding cellphone use in the classroom, it’s investing heavily to provide Chromebooks for every student, said Scott Maben, spokesman for the district.

Some schools choose to provide Chromebooks based on budget constraints and because they support the standardized testing program. But, not many school districts provide one computer per student, Van Galen said.

Van Galen teaches a course “New Literacies for Digital Learning,” which examines how new forms of digital media change and enhance classroom communication.

Van Galen – who is in favor of laptop access in schools – often incorporates multimedia elements in her classes and said laptops serve as a learning tool rather than the main driving force to teach concepts.

Some teachers initially are skeptical about laptop usage in classrooms, but once they get a better sense of how to incorporate it with learning, they typically embrace the idea.

“When they have adequate support and have a chance to learn the potential (of technology in the classroom) they get pretty excited about it,” Van Galen said.

East Valley High School plans to continue the laptop program, but will evaluate it year-to-year, Shea said.

“It’s about all kids getting equitable access to the things they need to enhance their learning,” he said.