“Screenagers” is what teacher Steve Latter calls his students at Paul VI Catholic High School in Fairfax. But rather than accompany the term with a sneer for a generation bathed in the glow of technology, his lips quirk up in a smile.
Latter sees students’ embrace of technology as an advantage, one the school decided to bring into the classroom this year with the start of a laptop program. All freshmen and sophomores at the school — about 550 students in total — now have their own computers.
Students’ families purchased the school-selected laptop model, a tablet-PC hybrid that features a touchscreen that opens to a keyboard like a standard laptop or swivels for use in tablet form. Latter, a business and economics teacher at Paul VI who now serves as director of the laptop program, said that with the devices the school aims to bring the classroom experience into the digital age.
For students, the first few months of this new era have been a mixed blessing. While they enjoy the possibilities opened by their devices, writing notes and reading textbooks on a computer is undeniably different than working with paper.
“Even though we call them digital natives, it certainly has been an adjustment for them, going digital,” said Tom Opfer, the academic dean.
Still, Opfer said he has been surprised by just how quickly students have acclimated, using computer folders in place of bulky binders and digital sticky notes on their computer desktop in place of actual Post-its. But walking through the school and watching students use their laptops, it can be easy to forget that the school is still in the midst of an ongoing journey.
Paul VI is far from the first school to bring technology into the classroom.
Fairfax County Public Schools use a bring-your-own-device program, which allows students to register laptops, tablets and smartphones for use during school.
A laptop program is a different but far from new approach. T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria implemented their laptop initiative almost a decade ago. The school provides laptops to students for the school year.
Paul VI requires students’ families to purchase the laptops, which come with warranties, damage insurance and software upgrades through the student’s graduation. The program started with this year’s underclassmen and will continue with each successive freshman class.
While not footing the bill for the computers, the private school did worry about the effect on enrollment. The program essentially adds the $1,100 price tag of the computer to the cost of tuition, which already totals more than $12,000 for Catholic students and $17,000 for others.
When the price is broken down, according to Paul VI chief financial officer Don LaVelle, the laptop purchase will cost students less than $1.50 per school day over their four years of high school. But it still represents a large investment.
So far, though, the gamble on technology has worked out in the school’s favor, providing a boost in both applications and enrollment for this year.
“You never know for sure why people come here, but we believe that this is a large part of it,” Latter said. “We think that it’s something that people are looking for, particularly in Fairfax County.”
A bell rings, and students spill into the hallways with computers in tow, but a laptop program requires a larger commitment to technology than just the hardware. It requires campus-wide wireless Internet and it requires online textbooks, which are currently used in 50 percent of underclassmen classes.
More than all that, though, the program depends on teachers.
“The success of the program isn’t in your wireless network or the power of your machines,” Latter said. “It really comes down to your teacher adoption.”
Each teacher receives the same laptop model as students, as well as ongoing training, with the understanding that the technology will become a part of their teaching method. The laptops come with a classroom management software, which allows teachers to monitor what students are doing on their computers and to restrict what programs they are permitted to use during class.
However, it is more than a watchdog. Teachers can poll students electronically and assign digital worksheets. Two teachers are already giving all their tests and quizzes on the computers.
Latter said he understands that some teachers, himself included, dive into the technology, while others are more hesitant. And while the school does not expect every teacher to be a technical wizard, it does need all of them to make an effort.
“If at the end of the day there are a few snags — and there will be — and everybody just puts the computers away and goes back to their old ways, you might as well not have them,” Latter said. “In order to us to really have a new learning environment, it needs to become part of our fabric. It has to become a part of what you do.”