Beaufort County schools to let tablets go home, will add usage fee

sbowman@beaufortgazette.comJanuary 19, 2014 

Starting next school year, Beaufort County public-school students will have something more than books and binders to take home in their backpacks. They can take their school-issued tablets with them too.

The next step in the district's tablet program will start with middle school students. The district will charge each student a $20 usage fee for the tablets at the start of next school year.

"Allowing students to take their mobile devices home lets us create a 21st-century learning environment that extends beyond the walls of our schools," district technology services officer Ross Hendricks said.

"We've done a good job in providing students with access to technology while they're in school, and now it's time that we provide them with that same access when the school day ends."

The district recently decided to expand the program that started a little more than a year ago. Starting next year, the district will move the iPads currently at the middle schools and Whale Branch Early College High School to students in grades three through five.

The middle-schoolers will then get Windows-based Dell tablets, according to director of educational technology Chrissy Robinson. The devices will be paid for with about $4.3 million already approved by the school board.

Elementary students won't be allowed to take their devices home immediately, superintendent Jeffrey Moss said. Since the tablets will be new to students in those grades, the district wants to make sure that teachers and students are comfortable using them in the classroom before they leave the building. Moss suspects that might occur halfway through the year.

Allowing students to take the devices home will strengthen the district's partnerships with after-school organizations such as the Neighborhood Outreach Connection and Boys & Girls Clubs, Moss said.

"It truly becomes anytime and anywhere learning," Moss said.

Hendricks said usage fees are common and will help cover the maintenance from daily wear-and-tear.

The district is considering an opt-out policy for parents who don't want their children to bring home the devices or who don't want to pay the fee, Hendricks said.

School board member Laura Bush said the district will work with families who need help paying the fee, so that students who don't have access to such devices at home can get it.

"I am not against a fee," Bush said. "That would show buy-in and ownership."

Hendricks said the district is not worried about students damaging the tablets -- which have cost the district more than $5 million.

"Our experience has shown us that students take good care of their devices," he said.

The students at Whale Branch Early College High School have had their iPads for several years with few problems, according to Hendricks.

That meant the district could use money originally intended to repair and replace iPads to purchase new devices, Hendricks said. Now, every middle school student at the participating to schools is assigned an iPad, and teachers no longer have to hand out and take up the devices every class period.

There's no hard proof the devices improve local test scores, but a district survey showed that students were more engaged and turning in more work.

Some educators hope the devices will soon replace students' books and binders.

"Technology has revolutionized not only the way teachers teach, but how students learn," Hendricks said.

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