Chromebooks in the classroom: Toy or transforming how our students learn?

What happens when you make sure every child has a computer? In Allendale Public Schools, they discovered it led to educational transformation.
In Allendale Public Schools, the educational experience of 2,200 students is centered on having their own connected device. They're using Chromebooks—thin, Google-based laptops that leverage cloud computing and storage—in every classroom, and most take theirs home at night. And perhaps the most amazing thing about this high-tech learning environment is that to these kids, it's not even that amazing.

"They've gotten very used to it," says Paul Mulder, director of technology for Allendale Public Schools. And while having their own device in school is practically old hat for students now, he says, "it's really improved their technology skills and what they're able to leave our halls with in terms of life skills."

The concept of 1-to-1 computing is simple: put a connected device in the hands of each student. Though these initiatives have been around since the 1990s, they certainly aren't active in every district in Michigan. But for those who do have 1-to-1 initiatives, the impact on students and student learning has been clear. Just like the kids who now expect technology to be a part of their education, Mulder says there's no going back to teaching any other way, for Allendale at least.

"All we need is a power outage to remind us how good it is," he says. When one occurred he had teachers approach him and say, "We hardly remember how to teach the way we did before we had all this."

Why 1-to-1?

Having a device in every student's hands doesn't just change the way they submit assignments or access resources, it transforms the nature of their education to better match a transformed world.

"Information is always at their fingertips. Gone are the days where the teacher focuses just on recall," Mulder says. That is, no one needs to memorize how many battles were fought in the Civil War when that information is available in a matter of seconds online. "What it allows and fosters is the ability to dig deeper and to get at some more significant learning."

That means critical thinking, analysis, problem solving, writing and creativity. Digital tools also make classroom time more efficient. Rather than repeat a lecture six times, teachers can direct students to a video and use the extra time for one-on-one instruction or other classroom activities.

"There's been some significant changes to how our classrooms are operating as a result," Mulder says.

How 1-to-1 works

While each school's 1-to-1 initiative may operate a little differently, Allendale Public Schools puts devices in the hands of every student from third grade through their senior year. Initially, the devices remain at school, but beginning in seventh grade, students are able to take the devices home. When the initiative started in 2009, it covered fourth through 12th grade, and used full laptops. Chromebooks replaced the laptops in 2014 and third grade was added last fall. While the laptops lasted longer, the less expensive Chromebooks—at about $250 each—are expected to last three years before a new batch of devices are needed.

1-to-1's biggest challenge

The biggest challenge to 1-to-1 initiatives is no surprise: cost. Allendale Public Schools' program happened to coincide with their plans to build new facilities, so they included money in their bond request to launch the initiative. The bond passed and they were able to purchase the equipment, which went beyond just the student devices.

"The devices are the obvious thing people look at," says Mulder, "but it's really more of a 21st century learning initiative."

Teachers are also provided with laptops, and classrooms are equipped with projectors, interactive whiteboards, document cameras and more. "We created more of a multi-media capable classroom," he adds. "If you just do the device without addressing what the students are going to do with the device, you're not going to gain that much."

Maintaining the devices is no small investment either. Allendale Public Schools operates a full-time help desk in both the middle and high schools. But the biggest challenge is funding when it's time to buy new devices. The district funded the most recent purchase with a portion of a building sale, but the plan for the next expected device refresh is undetermined.

Outcomes worth the effort

They'll figure it out, because the program is worth it. Though it can be difficult for schools to measure just how effective any one particular initiative has been, Allendale Public Schools' program was the subject of a study by its neighbor Grand Valley State University.

GVSU studied classrooms for two years, including years prior to and after middle school students started using the devices. Researchers found students used technology, either with or without a teacher, more than twice as often after having the devices. And education outcomes pre- and post-device were impressive. Among the results were students' demonstration of creative thinking jumping from 38.7 percent to 87.5 percent, and critical thinking skills from 30.7 percent to 80.6 percent.

Teacher responses were positive as well, saying devices made student feedback quicker and assessments easier. Most telling, fewer than 2 percent of teachers said the devices were being used to teach similarly to what was being done with paper and pencil.

"That is," says GVSU Researcher and Professor Sean Lancaster, "nearly all teachers are using computers to do something more meaningful than what can be done with paper and pencil."

While those outside results are compelling enough, Mulder says the outcomes are obvious from his side of the 1-to-1 initiative as well. "We know that it's making a difference," he says. As public schools seek to find ways to prepare students to succeed in an increasingly connected world, how could it not?

This story is part of a series on online education in Michigan. Support for this series is provided by Michigan Virtual University.

Photography by Autumn Johnson