Just add stylus, rollup keyboard, and protective case.
City school administrators conducted focus groups on the tablet experience.
photo by lisa provence
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."