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A year ago, students would be told to hand over or stow all their electronic devices prior to the start of classes.

But starting this fall, Fairfax County Public Schools is taking a new approach to students’ use of personal technology.

“One of the things we’ve noticed in the last three or four years was that we had a lot of unregistered devices on our network,” said Maribeth Luftglass, assistant superintendent of the school system’s Department of Information Technologies. “We used to talk ‘5 to 1’ in terms of five students to one computer. Now, we’re talking ‘5 to 1’ as in five devices to one student.”

To prepare for the onslaught of student users, the school system has started training school-based technology staff on how to register personal devices, which will allow them keep track of users, as well as protect students from potentially harmful or age-inappropriate content such as pornography and weapon-making sites, Luftglass said.

And while the school system has, and continues, renovating schools to include more power outlets to accommodate new technology, Luftglass said students should come to school with fully-charged electronics.

Although the policy is going countywide this fall, the change is based on a model started at Rachel Carson Middle School in Herndon this past year.

“The kids had so many devices on them already. And we were policing them to keep [the devices] out of the building… But the kids had them anyway, so why not come up with a way to use them in their classes,” Assistant Principal Stacy Kirkpatrick said. Previously, the school system had a policy that students’ personal electronics would be confiscated until the end of the day, at which point they would be returned to the students.

The policy at Carson Middle started with about 30 students bringing in devices — specifically iPads and other electronic tablets. By the end of the year, the school reported about 200 students of the nearly 1,300 seventh- and eighth-graders were bringing in devices daily.

“We had more of the smaller devices than the full laptops,” Kirkpatrick said. “They’ll bring in MacBooks and MacBook Pros and use the iMovie program to do projects. So, they can use a program that they are comfortable with, which may be something we don’t provide.”

At Rachel Carson Middle, she said, the program has opened the Internet and electronics to more than just recreation.

“If you can bring these devices in, you can show the kids that they can be used for instruction and then when they take them home, they have an extra tool,” Kirkpatrick said.

Hayfield Secondary School social studies teacher Ken Halla has been using netbooks in his classroom as part of a county pilot for more than a year. He said having electronic devices in the classroom allows him to better engage his students. Halla added the policy means more students will have access to electronics in the classroom.

“There are two sides to it,” he said. “I can’t imagine the school system having the money to be able to provide a laptop, iPad or smartphone for every kid. ... I think this policy says, ‘This is the way we’re going. So bring them in.’… Here’s the downside: You have to have the bandwidth. You have to register all the computers so IT has the [Internet Protocol] address in case anyone goes rogue while on the network …

“You could have [Quick Response codes] on your door and the kids could just scan them with their smartphones and get the homework that way without having to write anything down.”

In his classroom, Halla said students are encouraged to use their electronics. However, because his Advanced Placement course students sit for a written exam every spring, he pushes for written work as well.

“You may laugh, but I actually still have my kids write their essay with pens on the kind of paper they use during the AP exam so they can get used to it and get used to the cramped hand,” Halla said. “But my World History kids write their essays on computers.”

Students will not be required to use or bring their electronic devices into a school, officials said. At schools such as Carson Middle, administrators work to provide laptops to all students, helping to narrow any digital divide caused by family income, Kirkpatrick said.

She added some teachers initially had concerns about whether or not the electronic devices will be a disruption or not, but Halla and Kirkpatrick say they are a gift.

“Embrace the change,” Kirkpatrick said. “A lot of the kids have a passion for technology. And if we can bring that passion and combine it with learning, we can get them excited about learning.”

hhobbs@fairfaxtimes.com