School goal: netbooks for students

By Johanna Seltz
Globe Correspondent / December 2, 2010

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Dedham school officials are proposing to give every incoming high school freshman a brand new netbook computer, taking a page from other public school systems around the country.

And, if all goes well, succeeding freshmen also would get the small computers until all members of the student body had one.

“As technology becomes more pervasive, it’s the next logical step for students to use netbooks to do their assignments, read their textbooks,’’ said Tom Ryan, chairman of the Dedham School Committee. “Eventually we’ll replace a backpack full of books with a netbook. That’s the direction we want to see things go.’’

It’s the direction many other school systems are taking, from Newark, N.J., to Nashville. Maine provides laptops to all seventh- and eighth-graders, and about half of its high school students, too. New Hampshire is developing a similar program, as are a group of schools in Western Massachusetts.

The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education doesn’t keep track of how many schools provide computers to individual students, or provide state money for them, a spokesman said. But several communities are looking into it, and a middle school in Dorchester has been providing laptop computers to its students for several years.

“It’s a natural evolution from what we have now,’’ said Don Langenhorst, who as technology director is spearheading the initiative for the Dedham public schools.

Langenhorst said the goal is to improve student achievement by taking advantage of modern technology.

“If I have a question today, I either ask my phone or I pull out a mobile device — a netbook, an iPad, or a laptop. I believe the access to these resources is critical for us to be successful in what we’re trying to accomplish with students,’’ he said.

The Dedham School Committee unanimously endorsed the plan last month, voting to ask the town to spend $80,000 from its capital fund to buy the machines for the approximately 200 incoming freshmen.

Students would pay a $100 annual technology fee to help cover the cost.

“We’re hoping [the netbooks] will last the four years a student is in high school. Then they would be depreciated, and our hope is the students would walk out with the machines’’ at graduation, Langenhorst said.

The school system is still working out the logistics of its pilot plan, he said.

The current thought is for students to log onto the school’s computer system. “That’s one way we could be assured the machines we own would be accessed through a safe and secure way,’’ Langenhorst said.

The schools would have to figure out what to do, though, for students whose homes don’t have Internet access, he said.

Langenhorst is less concerned about finding ways to keep students from abusing the computer use, wandering into unsavory sites, or spending class time checking Facebook.

“These are current issues, and we have a systemic digital citizenship [education] built into our program,’’ he said. “Part of our charge is to develop good citizens, and today a lot of that [happens] online. So we work on developing good digital citizens, teaching proper behavior online.’’

Training teachers how to best incorporate the computers into their classrooms is part of the plan, Langenhorst said.

Some research shows students do better academically and are more engaged when they have individual computers.

Boston College researchers, for example, found that middle school students in Berkshire County who were given laptops improved their writing and research skills, and did better on the English-language achievement tests. The study also reported that students were more enthusiastic about their work.

Martha Stone Wiske, who directs the Education with New Technologies website at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, cautioned, though, “that it’s not the technology, but the [quality] of the educational experience that affects learning.’’

Doing boring, routine “work on a netbook might make it a little more interesting for a while, but not for long,’’ she said. “Figuring out how to take full educational advantage of portable, digital, networked technologies is a process that requires ingenuity, risk-taking, and thoughtful assessment of results.’’

Dedham’s proposal “sounds like a potentially transformative approach,’’ she said, “but the final results will be influenced more by creative thinking about how to promote ambitious teaching and learning than by the technology itself.’’

Johanna Seltz can be reached at