Montgomery County unveils initiative to put 40,000 laptops and tablets in schools


Arlington second-grade teacher Heather Blake works with Jamestown Elementary students as they use iPads to make book reports. Montgomery County wants to roll out 40,000 tablets and laptops for students. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

Montgomery County plans to launch a major technology initiative in its public schools in August, providing 40,000 laptops and tablets to students as part of a project that will expand quickly in coming years, officials said Thursday.

The school system at first will provide Chromebook laptops to students in grades three, five and six, and to high school social studies classes. By 2017-2018, Montgomery plans to have 100,000 devices, including Android-based tablets for younger students in kindergarten through second grade.

The effort is a move to bring technology into learning and teaching and to fuel digital collaboration and creativity, by the use of devices that the school system provides and those that students would be allowed to bring from home for instructional purposes.

Montgomery, with an enrollment of 151,000, is Maryland’s largest and fastest-growing school system. The project is not a one-to-one initiative — programs that assign a device to each student — but a combined approach that officials see as more affordable and sustainable.

Schools Superintendent Joshua P. Starr said the effort reflects the state of education in the 21st century and takes advantage of a range of opportunities for enriched instruction that digital devices provide.

“This is not about technology,” Starr said. “This is about teaching and learning and enhancing that experience for kids.”

Key to the county’s plan to provide access to mobile computers is a cloud-based learning platform where student work can be stored and shared, something that will make an important difference for classroom learning, said Sherwin Collette, chief technology officer for Montgomery schools.

“Many student work products are not started and ended in a class period,” Collette said. “They may not be started or ended in a week. They need to be able to work on it and build on it, and work collaboratively on it.”

Laptops and tablets that are district property will be kept in secure school cabinets and would not go home with students, officials said.

Collette said the project is not about rushing to acquire tablets or laptops, which many other school systems have already obtained, but rather is a substantial effort to modernize Montgomery’s schools. “At the end of the school year, we will have one of the largest implementations of mobile technology into instruction in the nation,” he said.

Funding for the technology push — about $15 million for the first year — has been included in the school system’s operating and capital improvement budgets, and officials said they expect to receive additional funding from the federal E-Rate program, which provides money to support the use of technology in schools and libraries.

Schools officials plan to present the technology project’s details to the Montgomery County Board of Education at its meeting scheduled for Tuesday. A technology purchase contract cannot proceed without board approval.

Montgomery officials said they are working with Google to develop the plan, which is slated to use Google Apps for Education as a secure, cloud-based platform for students and teachers.

Officials said Thursday that the project builds on the school system’s ongoing technology efforts, which include equipping schools with wireless networks and interactive whiteboards.

The initiative steps away from the desktop computers that have been in schools for years. Now, instead of students’ heading to a school’s computer lab for an assignment, the technology will be in classrooms and will be integrated routinely into lessons.

Susan Burkinshaw, a PTA leader active on countywide issues, lauded the initiative as a move toward a more digital world.

“I think it’s awesome,” she said. “I think it will open up a lot of doors for them.”

Burkinshaw also said that, with some families lacking technology at home, “it’s great that more kids will have access to it in the classrooms.”

Starr, too, said the initiative “will certainly be a benefit for kids who don’t have technology at home.” But he said “all kids in the grades and classes where we’re rolling it out will benefit.”

Montgomery’s initiative comes as other school systems have sought to provide more devices to students. In the Washington area, students in hundreds of schools already have access to tablets. Prince George’s County, for example, has purchased more than 4,500 iPads for select classrooms at more than 60 high-poverty schools. Fairfax County invites students to bring their own devices to school, another increasingly popular approach. Most schools in Arlington have a one-to-one pilot program, with plans for expansion next year.

In Montgomery, the project will start with devices provided to students in 67 schools, most of which are next in line for technology modernization in the county’s capital budget, with remaining schools receiving devices throughout the school year. About 30,000 devices will go to elementary and middle school students in the three designated grades, and 10,000 will go to high school social studies classes.

Montgomery officials said staff members and students will be assigned secure accounts that will be monitored and designated for educational purposes. They said they are working with Google to create an environment that will comply with district privacy standards and federal privacy regulations.

Nine Montgomery schools participated in a pilot program using mobile technology and cloud-based learning platforms last school year. “There were lots of lessons learned,” Collette said, adding that those experiences will have an effect on the school district’s plans.

The 40,000 devices will be purchased through the Maryland Education Enterprise Consortium and the National Joint Powers Alliance, which help school districts take advantage of lower purchase prices for technology.

Through that arrangement, the school system invited 20 vendors to bid on the project. Bids came back from six vendors, and district officials said they are recommending that the Board of Education approve a $15.03 million bid from CDW Government.

Donna St. George writes about education, with an emphasis on Montgomery County schools.
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