FPD rolls out tech program, issues student laptops

Macon school issues laptops to students

jmink@macon.comMarch 17, 2014 

If there is one item Matthew Feagin knows he’s taking to college with him, it’s a tablet -- just like the one he uses in high school.

Feagin is one of several students at First Presbyterian Day School who are now using school-issued tablet computers around the clock. They use them in their classes to take notes and complete assignments. They use them in between classes to study and email teachers. They use them after school for homework, and some even used them during recent snow days.

As schools across the country make sweeping technology upgrades, the Macon private school has equipped all students in fifth- through 12th grades with tablets this school year for the first time.

“We’re always looking at what’s the best way to teach and help our kids learn,” said Barry Shealy, the school’s assistant headmaster and curriculum director. “So much content is now electronic, and we felt like we needed to give students access to that.”

While it’s been an adjustment -- and has required serious infrastructure changes and new student fees -- it has been helpful, teachers and students say.

Teachers post assignments, upload classroom documents, create videos and open discussion forums for students. Some teachers integrate the tablets, which have connectable keyboards, into classroom work, assigning electronic homework and exams.

Cynthia Huggins, a math teacher, now delivers her lecture slides digitally instead of requiring students to copy notes them from the board. Students also access electronic resources, such as math videos, and they often email questions to Huggins.

The e-mail system is a benefit, Huggins said, because when students send her questions, she can respond by showing them how to work a problem.

“That’s kind of hard to do over the phone,” she said.

The new program was overwhelming at first, but Huggins is adjusting and continually developing new ways to use technology in her classroom.

“One of the most positive things I see is more accessibility,” she said. “More accessibility to the curriculum, more accessibility to other students and teachers, and then to resources on the web.”

High-tech snow days

The equipment came in handy for some classes during snow days earlier this year.

For example, Shealy, who also teaches calculus, posted an online video, explaining a concept his students were studying. Olivia Taylor, who was working on calculus homework, watched the video when classes were canceled for her and other students during severe weather.

“I was trying to stay on track as much as I could,” said Taylor, a senior.

For students such as Taylor and Feagin, the tablets allow them to keep their notes organized and handy. They no longer have to search for lost homework or stuff overflowing notebooks in lockers and backpacks.

Everything they need is digitalized in their tablets.

“It’s definitely kept me more organized,” Olivia said. “At first, it was definitely an adjustment period, but once I got adjusted, I really liked it.”

And teachers say that students seem to be more organized with their personal computers.

“When you’re constantly handing out papers, they get lost in their binders or the binders get lost,” Huggins said.

And it’s not just older students who are benefiting. Beginning in preschool, classrooms for the younger elementary students are now equipped with iPads, Shealy said.

Still, new technology does not come cheap. Schools across the country are weighing the benefits against the cost of such devices, and private schools tend to have a little more financial leeway than public schools.

This academic year at First Presbyterian Day School, parents started paying a $425 technology fee per student, which supports the entire program -- from equipment to infrastructure work.

The program is a significant change, and it required “a huge amount” of infrastructure upgrades, Shealy said. The school also hired extra technology staff.

But the cost and work is worth it, Shealy says, especially as colleges and employers require more advanced technology skills. Even though students cannot keep the tablets after they graduate, the hope is that they are more prepared for the future.

“The one thing I know I’m taking to college for sure is a tablet that has the same capabilities that this has,” Feagin said, pointing to a sleek, black laptop. “There’s no way I could go back.”

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