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New year, new computers: District 207 requiring kids to buy Google-powered laptops this year

Park Ridge, 8/19/13--(l to r): Sophomores Emily Kafkes and Sarah Kohnke, along with Sarah's senior sister Samantha, carry their boxes of school supplies down the hall. Maine South High School students picked up their school supplies Monday, including freshmen and sophomores who were issued Chromebook computers.   | Jon Langham/For Sun-Times Media
Park Ridge, 8/19/13--Freshman Jack Gentile checks out his Chromebook computer. His older brother, a junior, is reportedly not happy that he's not eligible to get one for himself. Maine South High School students picked up their school supplies Monday, including freshmen and sophomores who were issued Chromebook computers.   | Jon Langham/For Sun-Times Media
Park Ridge, 8/19/13--Ray Shammo peers over his freshman daughter Rachel's shoulder as she logs her new Chromebook in at the school library. Maine South High School students picked up their school supplies Monday, including freshmen and sophomores who were issued Chromebook computers.   | Jon Langham/For Sun-Times Media
Park Ridge, 8/19/13--(l to r): Freshmen Anna Ebacher and Stacey Sremac, along with Stacey's senior sister Amanda, check out Anna's new Chromebook computer as she sets it up at the school library. Maine South High School students picked up their school supplies Monday, including freshmen and sophomores who were issued Chromebook computers.   | Jon Langham/For Sun-Times Media
Park Ridge, 8/19/13--Maine South High School staff members, working in front of a stack of about 800 new Chromebooks, issue one to each freshman and sophomore student as they enroll. Maine South High School students picked up their school supplies Monday, including freshmen and sophomores who were issued Chromebook computers.   | Jon Langham/For Sun-Times Media

The high stacks of notebook computer boxes lining an area of the Maine South High School library gave the first indication that this year’s back-to-school book sales weren’t going to be like those in years past.

In addition to picking up boxes of traditional textbooks Monday in anticipation of the first day of classes on Aug. 26, incoming freshmen and sophomores were handed a brand new Samsung Chromebook.

It’s the first year of a program rolled out by Maine Township High School District 207 that intends to make the notebook computers as much a classroom tool as textbooks, pencils and paper once were.

The Chromebooks, say school officials, will allow students to download textbooks and share written materials immediately with their teachers through Google’s Chrome operating system. Teachers will monitor students’ use of the computers as part of the program.

The devices, which freshmen and sophomores are required to purchase at a cost of $319 each, have generated over 100 questions on an online FAQ forum at tinyurl.com/207ChromeFAQ set up by the district earlier this year.

Questions, fielded by Hank Thiele, chief technology officer for District 207, range from whether “loaner” computers will be available if a student’s Chromebook requires repairs (there will be) to whether the devices are insured if they break beyond repair or are stolen (parents are encouraged to purchase insurance) to whether AP-level textbooks are available for download (many are not).

“When there’s something new, there are always questions and there’s going to be some level of apprehension and we understand that,” said David Beery, District 207 spokesman. “Hank and his staff have worked really hard to anticipate questions and provide answers. … We think a lot of the apprehension really will subside once we get into this.”

As they received help in logging on and setting up a new password from trained student “tech geniuses” and faculty members, student and parent reactions to the Chromebook were mixed Monday morning, ranging from an eagerness to replace heavy textbooks with downloaded materials to concerns about cost, Internet speed and even student health.

“I personally approve of it. I wish (the technology) would have occurred in my day,” said father John Wzork as his son Michael, an incoming sophomore practiced logging on. “I really didn’t like the weight (of textbooks) the students sometimes had to carry around.”

Michael, however, was not as enthusiastic.

“I don’t like them,” he said. “I feel I would be easily distracted with a computer.”

Rohini Venkat, a senior who was not required to purchase a Chromebook this year, voiced a similar opinion as she assisted her younger sister, Anjali.

“I think it’s an unneeded distraction,” she said, adding, “I like the feel of an actual book.”

The girls’ mother, Shyamala Venkat, however, enthusiastically welcomed the Chromebook.

“We love it. They are on the computer so much as it is, so at least they will be doing schoolwork on it,” she said.

Replacing several heavy textbooks with the lightweight Chromebook was a common positive refrain among both parents and students alike.

But mom Yvonne Papciak voiced concerns about the potential long-term affect that looking at a computer for so many hours a day might have on her students’ eyes.

“They’re on the computer all day and then they’re on the computer at home. I don’t know if it’s really good for their vision,” she said. “I think it’s a good thing because it saves on paper because they don’t have to print the textbooks, but then again, the textbooks they are loading on the computer are as about as expensive as they were on paper. I thought it would be a little bit cheaper because you don’t have an actual physical book.”

Mother Angela Fishman, a physical therapist, was quick to point out students who were hunched over their Chromebooks during Monday’s initiation, saying negative effects on posture were a concern to her, as was the potential for easier cheating.

Her son Zack expressed doubts about how well the devices would work in the classroom.

“Maine South is notorious for bad WiFi, so I’m not sure how it’s going to work out from that sense,” he said.

Thiele stated that network upgrades performed at all three District 207 schools have improved speed and connectivity.

“They work on a faster, more reliable WiFi than computers in the past did,” he said of the Chromebooks.

School districts like Leyden High School District 212 and Niles Township District 219 have already outfitted their students with Chromebooks, and District 207 also researched their usage in schools across the country, Thiele said.

Students who need help navigating their Chromebooks or require repairs will be able to stop into the Chrome Depot support area that each school will have, Beery said. Student volunteers are also available in the library to assist during free periods.

In response to concerns about the ability to pay for the Chromebooks, especially in families with multiple children, the district has a payment plan available that is divided into 5 payments over the course of the year, Beery said.

The district also expects to fully fund Chromebooks for the roughly 1,000 low-income students who qualify across the district. The cost to the district is estimated at $334,000, Beery said, and the devices will have to be returned when the students graduate, unlike the Chromebooks purchased by parents.

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