Learning curve: Tablets in city schools get mixed reviews

In April, a headline in the daily paper, "Tablets in Charlottesville schools prove successful," drew snickers from some teachers, parents, and students familiar with the bold technological initiative to provide a computer for every student in grades 6-12.

Almost from the beginning, the $2.4-million initiative, dubbed BLAST– Blended Learning to Advance Student Thinking– was plagued with glitches. They started when the plan to roll out the tablets last fall got pushed back until after Christmas. And in some classrooms, the Fujitsu Q550 proved so troublesome that teachers would often tell students to put them away, according to students who spoke with the Hook.

The ambitious program also highlighted another problem: the digital divide. Charlottesville's Downtown Mall has wireless Internet– but 22 percent of city families don't have access to the Internet, according to a school division survey last year before the program was implemented. And the tablets require wifi– a broadband connection doesn't work.

"I wish they'd said, 'They work best if you have wireless in your home,'" says Sarah Gerome, a single mother who has dial-up. "There were a lot of assignments that were attached to something on the Internet."

Gerome says she was told there were plenty of public places that have wifi, including McDonalds. "You do not expect our kids to go to McDonalds to do their homework," she recalls thinking.

For Gerome, it became an issue of the haves and have nots. "I know a lot of kids who don't have adult support," she says. "There's nobody to help them. The kids who have wireless had an advantage."

A group called City of Promise recently unveiled 10 new computers in Westhaven Community Center with broadband Internet. But still no wireless.

"It's on the horizon," says City Councilor Kristin Szakos. "We're not sure what it's going to look like, but we're trying to figure out ways to get kids this basic service."

Even among households with wireless Internet, "it was a mixed reception," says Matt Bernstein, father of a rising 11th grader at Charlottesville High School and a 7th grader at Buford. "The potential is there, but I don't think it's at the stage you can say it's a glowing success."

His son at CHS became more engaged and more organized using the tablet for note-taking, says Bernstein. But that was after his first tablet froze completely and the screen went half black. "It took a couple of weeks to get a new one," says Bernstein. "That got me worried when he said he'd have to pay for the next one."

The idea that parents would be on the hook for a broken or lost $1,167 tablet gave many pause, but the school division said it would handle that case-by-case with a sliding scale of charges.

As for how many tablets had to be replaced from loss or damage of the 2,500 purchased or leased, city school Superintendent Rosa Atkins declined to speak with the Hook for this story, and referred calls to new director of technology Jeff Faust, who was unavailable at press time.

High school students were allowed to take their tablets home, but students in the middle schools had to check out the tablets in the morning and return them at the end of the day. For Bernstein's 6th grade daughter at Walker, "The tablets were big, and they were heavy," he says.

Nor did the tablets reduce the load of textbooks students carried, despite initial reports suggesting that tablets would replace textbooks.

“We can take that money from textbooks and apply it to computers to basically start moving the district away from its reliance on textbooks and the traditional paper format,” Dean Jadlowski, the former director of technology, told the Daily Progress in a May 2011 interview.

But in a FAQ on the city schools website, the question, "Will BLAST replace textbooks?" was answered, "No."

The Fujitsu Stylistic Q550 tablet uses Windows 7 and has a 10.1-inch display, protective case, stylus, and rollup keyboard. Many of the students with whom the Hook spoke expressed dissatisfaction with the rubber keyboard, which one described as "dishwasher" safe.

"I had a few problems with the keyboard," says Madeline Hunter, who was a 9th grader at CHS when the tablets were unveiled. "The keys didn't work at all." She also occasionally had dead spots on her screen, and ended up using her laptop to type her notes.

"There could be really long lines at the help desk," she says. "At first, it seemed like a good idea. Then there were so many issues. Sometimes they would hold up class trying to figure out how to use them– or we'd use paper."

"It was kind of a pain getting them in the middle of the year," says Margaret Manto, a 10th grader at CHS. "The keys would slowly stop working. I couldn't use 'shift' and then I couldn't use 'enter.'"

She notes, "I don't think [administrators] realized how much traffic would be on school servers. The first few weeks they were really slow, and it was hard getting online."

Despite the technical difficulties, Manto found that the tablet worked well in her algebra 2 class because the teacher set it up so that all the class work was done online. "Some teachers," she says, "embraced it, and others stuck with paper."

"The thing that matters more than anything is the amount of professional development a teacher gets," says Glen Bull, professor of instructional technology at UVA's Curry School. "Every technology has a learning curve to use it effectively in the classroom. Almost none of these can be just dropped in."

The $1,100-plus price tag on the tablets doesn't sound unreasonable to Bull, nor does the choice of the Fujitsu. "From my perspective, the software is more important than the specific hardware," he says.

One CHS teacher, who asked not to be identified, agrees with Bull's observations about teacher training and software.

"Every aspect of the implementation was a disaster," according to the teacher, who says some instructors built their curricula around the new devices only to find them unavailable until January.

Teachers received three days of training on the Apple iPad, a different device from what their students were using, which posed its own problems of compatibility, and three days on the BLAST program.

Because there's such a wide range of computer experience among the faculty at CHS, ranging from computer engineers to computer illiterates, the professional development for using the Fujitsu tablet was not "differentiated," an ed school buzz word, for the teachers' different technical levels, says the CHS teacher.

As for the tablet itself, says our source, "I don't think we chose the wrong machine. By the time we put on the security software to make it safe for students, we'd pretty much disabled them."

Despite the bumpy beginning, the teacher applauds the effort to bring tablets to every student. "Last year was embarrassing, but we're going to keep plugging. This year should be better."

"We've been very pleased," says School Board member Leah Puryear. "It was the right thing to do at the time. We're on the cutting edge for virtual education."

14 comments

Virtual education? Isthat like Farmville. It looks like you are learning but in the end you have nothing to show for it.

A good RDT&E guy might have helped in implementation.

When I first saw the announcement of this program I did not think it would succeed. Windows 7 tablets are far from state of the art and mainstream tablet technology, too complex, too fragile in software and hardware and overpriced.

And, as they found out, adding 2500 wireless devices to a network without properly increasing capacity is a recipe for failure.

Someone fell for a smooth sales pitch. Now the well is poisoned for a proper implementation.

@appleseed is right - this is pure gimmickrey. Low tech solutions have much less complexity which means far fewer opportunities for things to go wrong. Complex activities like instruction are extraordinarily difficult to turn into production-line algorithms.

There is a lot of buzz and drumbeats about "high tech" and "on line" in education, and here's what it's really about:

1) we think blinky lights are very sexy and we go gaga for them thinking they must be smarter/faster/better.

2) IT has resulted in massive productivity gains in much of the business world; what that really means is reduced labor costs not higher achievement. There is this hope that the student teacher ratios can be vastly increased while simultaneously lowering the needed skill level of teachers - replacing them with cheaper babysitters.

Technology is a wonderful adjunct, but not a replacement; the one are with any realistic expectation of replacement is exchanging printed texts with e-paper texts. That has real promise and the ability to deliver multi-media texts - interactive texts - is a very real enhancement. Still, that is a transition which will take years as texts are slowly migrated to the new platform.

As a Charlottesville homeowner and taxpayer (and our taxes are plenty high), I was concerned about this program from the beginning. For the price of these tablets, they could have GIVEN (not loaned) moderately priced laptops to all the kids AND bought moderately-priced desktops for the schools (to reduce the need to carry the laptops around). Our leaders tend to be so PC -- a lot of affluent kids have tablets, so they didn't want Charlottesville kids to be left behind. That doesn't mean tablets were the best computing solution, however.

Not so far back, The Hook reported on SchoolNet, the “glitchy system” purchased by the county schools that proved expensive, unreliable, and instructionally worthless.

See: http://www.readthehook.com/100248/no-school-administrator-left-behind

The Hook reporter in that story (Dave McNair) noted that “getting answers hasn't been easy” and the county school board “clammed up.” The county school superintendent and the school board are still withholding 268 SchoolNet-related emails from an FOIA request by The Hook. Two hundred sixty-eight!

In this instance of technological “difficulty” with Fujitsu (Fujitsu??) tablets in the city schools, “Superintendent Rosa Atkins declined to speak with the Hook” and “new director of technology Jeff Faust was unavailable at press time.”

You have to wonder why the superintendents of county and city schools – and members of both school boards –– call themselves “leaders.”

Anyone who’s become relatively adept at using technology knows something about becoming involved in multi-tasking (just ask the county superintendent who texts away obliviously during graduation ceremonies).

Consider the following, reported in 2008 by Christine Rosen:

“Numerous studies have shown the sometimes-fatal danger of using cell phones and other electronic devices while driving, for example, and several states have now made that particular form of multitasking illegal. In the business world, where concerns about time-management are perennial, warnings about workplace distractions spawned by a multitasking culture are on the rise. In 2005, the BBC reported on a research study, funded by Hewlett-Packard and conducted by the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London, that found, ‘Workers distracted by e-mail and phone calls suffer a fall in IQ more than twice that found in marijuana smokers.’ The psychologist who led the study called this new ‘infomania’ a serious threat to workplace productivity.”

The threat to workplace productivity is not made lightly. Rosen added:

“One study by researchers at the University of California at Irvine monitored interruptions among office workers; they found that workers took an average of twenty-five minutes to recover from interruptions such as phone calls or answering e-mail and return to their original task. Discussing multitasking with the New York Times in 2007, Jonathan B. Spira, an analyst at the business research firm Basex, estimated that extreme multitasking—information overload—costs the U.S. economy $650 billion a year in lost productivity.”

Public schools are not exempt from this cautionary information.

In his 2003 book, The Flickering Mind, Todd Oppenheimer wrote that technology was a "false promise."  That is, all too often technology is no panacea to improving learning and often undermines funding that might have
gone to reducing class sizes, and improving teacher salaries and facilities. Based on his many classroom observations, Oppenheimer said that "more often than not" classroom use of computers encouraged "everybody in the room to go off task."  He noted that a UCLA research team investigating results from
the Third International Math and Sciences Study (TIMSS) reviewed video from 8th grade math and science classes in seven different countries.  One difference stood out:  while American teachers use overhead projectors (and increasingly now, LCDs), teachers in other countries still use blackboards, which maintain "a complete record of the entire lesson."

A recent Texas study found that “there was no evidence linking technology immersion with student self-directed learning or their general satisfaction with schoolwork.”

The New York Times reported recently on classroom use of technology in Arizona, where “The digital push aims to go far beyond gadgets to transform the very nature of the classroom.” As the Times reported, “schools are spending billions on technology,even as they cut budgets and lay off teachers, with little proof that this approach is improving basic learning."

The “leaders” of county and city schools may think they are on the “cutting edge” (cough, wink), but it sure isn’t a very high level of critical thinking or research that supports their technological ventures. Maybe that’s why they fear public scrutiny so much.

Years ago my 'mentor' gave me some advice that has resulted in quite a bit of savings and stopped the techno lemming mindset that I was quickly adapting to.

"Would you purchase that if it were your money?"

Yeah, so this is what happens when you put people without any business sense in a room with salespeople. Like deers in headlights...

My son loved his tablet because it allowed him to play chess every day in class! He and a classmate logged in to chess.com in several classes and were able to play chess while the teacher reviewed endless SOL material. The teacher had no idea and my son was rescued from daily boredom.

Sometimes it is better to let someone else take the first step.....

Why did they not wait for a more affluent school system to buy it try it and see of it works...

(they would also be larger and problems would be found sooner)

for such a liberal town charlottesville sure likes to bet with other peoples money just like wall street

When the school system devised the plan to buy the tablets, it was well aware that many kids did not have Internet in their homes and that many who do do not have Wi-Fi. Knowing that the system was totally unprepared to implement this technology, it moved ahead at max speed. Now they are in the position of requiring the tax payers to pick up that cost. This was the original intent. I hope it comes out of salaries.

Most of these issues will be resolved this year. My kids used the tablets quite a bit and didn't have too much trouble. I am very pleased with the direction the school is going.

A tablet does not replace text books, an e-reader does. An e-reader does not need internet and costs <$100 per device. With windows 8 and the surface tablet coming out this year the timing was about as wrong as it could have been. If they waited a year they could have the latest hardware and software combination so students are learning on tomorrows technologies instead of yesterdays technologies. Windows 8 RT is also much more geared towards a school environment with a limited set of programs that will run and a very long battery life all while being very light. On top of that i am sure Microsoft would have provided a ton of support.

Heck, why not get each student an e-reader for books and a surface tablet (which comes with office) for note taking/web access. That would still run less than $300 in hardware and be much, much better than a heavy old school tablet running old software.

The problem is in some acquisitions that Charlottesville consult with vendors rather than consultants. The vendors call themselves consultants and then sell the product or service they can provide, not the one that is really best for the customer.