WORCESTER >> Dealing with an increasingly technology-centric culture and now feeling pressure from the state in the form of a soon-to-be completely online MCAS test, more and more schools across the state are adopting plans to put computers in the hands of every one of their students.
But in central Massachusetts, at least, the approaches to that goal vary considerably, as districts weigh the financial burden of buying hundreds of expensive laptops or tablets. Some school systems have abandoned pursuit of a so-called "one-to-one" model, in which the school department itself purchases the devices, and instead encouraged students to bring their own computers and phones.
Even among districts that have implemented or are working toward a one-to-one model, there is disagreement on which machines work best. Some school systems have gone with traditional laptops, because of their robust processing capabilities, while others have opted for the more versatile iPad. Worcester, an outlier, has decided to invest in desktop computers, which still are more powerful than either of the portable options.
According to the state's annual school technology report, virtually all districts have at least some policy in place aimed at equipping students with a computer; the latest survey, taken in 2014-15, found that 77 percent of high school students were given a computer to use, while 93 percent of responding districts had a "bring your own device" policy. The latter approach in particular surged in popularity from the year before, when only 39 percent of school systems told the state they had such a policy.
While the state education department has encouraged schools' investment in classroom technology, it hasn't established any requirements as far as what districts should have in place and when, said Ken Klau, director of the department's Office of Digital Learning.
"We do anticipate that technology will increasingly be adopted" by school systems, he said, adding the state in particular recommends districts direct resources to portable devices and wireless infrastructure.
With the introduction of the MCAS 2.0 next spring, the state's latest iteration of its standardized assessment, some school officials see that encouragement as more of a mandate, however.
"We're being pressured to do this," said Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, referring to the new MCAS's eventual transition from the existing paper-based format to a fully online one, which is forcing many districts to quickly purchase more computers. "At the same time, we're having to make critical (budget) decisions about basic programs. It's a real stress point for districts that have not traditionally had good resources."
While none of the nearly dozen districts contacted said they expect to have any difficulties administering the new test, when the online version will only have to be taken by fourth and eighth graders, some officials admitted they have not been able to afford a concerted move towards the one-to-one model.
"Definitely, the cost is the number one" impediment, said Brett Kustigian, superintendent of the Quaboag schools, which he estimated have closer to a two-to-one computer to student ratio currently. "In our operating budget, every year it seems to get tighter and tighter, and there seems to be less and less for technology. It's easier to cut technology than it is to eliminate a job."
Part of the problem is that, compared to building upgrades and other one-time purchases schools make, technology can be a risky investment, some school officials said.
"You want to make sure you get your money's worth, that you'll get something that lasts not just physically, but philosophically," said Gregg Desto, superintendent of the Dudley-Charlton schools, which he estimated have a three-to-one computer ratio.
"Technology is always changing," said Northbridge Superintendent Catherine Stickney, who also has no immediate plans to pursue a one-to-one model in her district, which instead has adopted a "bring your own" policy. "It's a matter of, 'do we want to restrict ourselves, and our students, to one kind of platform?' If we get iPads, we'll have to be Apple."
Some school leaders also have pedagogical concerns with investing heavily in technology that still might not have a defined role in the classroom.
"If you're just buying iPads and using them to do flash cards, how does that move you forward?" said Bob Walton, the information technology director for the Worcester schools, which also has yet to plunge into one-to-one but is allowing high school students to have greater access to their smartphones during the school day this upcoming year. "I don't think the education side (administrators) are scared of it, I just don't think they've identified an issue it's going to solve."
Sue Fan Foo and Kirby Wycoff, professors in Worcester State University's education department, agreed that computers need to have a purpose before they can be effective in the classroom, and that teachers especially need training to utilize them effectively.
"I think teachers have to really understand that (technology) is a tool," said Foo, who added she's noticed a growing recognition in K-12 education that computers aren't automatically going to improve instruction.
Worcester State recently purchased iPads to help get its teaching candidates used to integrating the devices into their lessons, for example, according to Wycoff.
At local districts that have had one-to-one models for more than a year now, there is growing confidence that the investments are paying off, even if there's not yet any statistical evidence in metrics like MCAS scores.
"The testing piece is tricky— the state has made so many changes over the last few years," said Shrewsbury Superintendent Joseph Sawyer, referring to the state's brief flirtation with the PARCC test, which was once a potential MCAS replacement, over the last couple years. "What we do see is higher levels of engagement from our students."
After starting its one-to-one initiative four years ago, Shrewsbury just last year completed the rollout of a district-provided iPad to every student in fifth through twelfth grade. In nearby Auburn, the school system has had a similar program for the last three years that has given an iPad to sixth- through twelfth-graders, with similar results, said the district's assistant superintendent for teaching and curriculum, Kathleen Lauzé.
"We're definitely seeing a difference in student engagement," she said, adding school administrators will be watching closely in future years to see if that translates to improved academic outcomes as well.
Whether those outcomes are ultimately worth the cost is another matter. Both Shrewsbury and Auburn have largely paid for their one-to-one initiatives through their own budgets, but some other districts are either already or planning to pass some of the cost to families directly.
In Leicester, where the public high school is starting the first year of its one-to-one Chromebook initiative, that cost shouldn't be too onerous; Superintendent Judy Paolucci said families will be charged $50 for the devices, but that the district has also scrapped its parking fee to soften the blow.
The Wachusett schools, which are planning to introduce a one-to-one Chromebook program at the high school a year from now, are considering a lease-to-own system, Superintendent Darryll McCall said. But at around $180, the devices are "pretty reasonable," he said, which is one of the reasons, along with their sturdy construction and Google-based operating systems, that they tend to be the preferred laptop of school districts.
In Fitchburg, the high school has tackled the cost problem by introducing batches of Chromebooks each year towards its one-to-one goal, Superintendent Andre Ravenelle said.
"We've been going at it for the last four to five years, adding them by the hundreds," he said, adding the district pays for the devices with funding that comes into the city from out-of-district students who attend Fitchburg through the school choice program. "We're pretty close now with the freshman class."
Ravenelle and other school officials pointed out those purchases also are not being made in a vacuum; investments in technology have reduced the need for traditional materials like textbooks, for example. Some said the ability to control what technology students are using is valuable as well, and one of the reasons they opted against a "bring your own"-type policy, which can create inequity between students depending on what device they own, if they have one at all.
But the larger inequity that's emerging across the state as districts introduce technology in piecemeal fashion is troublesome as well, some officials said. Mirroring existing demographic-caused inequalities, some of the more ambitious early adopters of classroom technology have tended to be suburban districts with ample resources, which are also the ones that tend to already have better test scores and graduation rates.
"It's a big concern," said Klau, who added the state is expected to release new guidelines for districts on how to approach the issue of investing in classroom technology. Part of the state's advice, he said, will be that schools ask their families what kind of Internet access their children have outside of school, and to possibly develop hybrid one-to-one, "bring your own device" plans that will best accommodate their needs.