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5 Questions to Ask About High School Laptop, Tablet Initiatives

Ask if your teen’s school has detailed plans for its one-to-one program and if teachers are prepared to use devices in the classroom.

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Parents should ask for detailed information about how individual laptops or tablets will be used in their high schooler's classroom, including which apps and software they'll use.

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With technology at their fingertips, there’s no limit to what students can achieve. That was the message President Barack Obama had for students in Japan last week, and one he continues to echo at home.

Schools across the U.S. are taking this to heart, ramping up technology access by providing laptops, tablets or netbooks for every student from kindergarten through high school.

When done well, these initiatives can transform the classroom into a collaborative, innovative space. When done poorly, these initiatives can crash and burn, with teachers unsure of how to best use the technology and students bored in their seats.

Below are five questions parents should ask if their teen’s school is rolling out a one-to-one initiative.

[Learn how to decide if your child should attend a STEM high school.]

1. Why is the school implementing individual devices? There are a number of reasons a district might make the move, including to save money on textbooks and paper or gain an advantage in a district where schools compete for enrollment.

These are valid reasons, says Hans Mundahl, director of technology integration at New Hampton School, a private school in New Hampshire, but the driving force should be the students.

"The most important reason for starting a one-to-one tech initiative is that the program will improve teaching and learning," Mundahl says.

Schools should set a mission statement for their tech program, including what they hope to achieve, and communicate their vision to students and parents, he says.

"If the school can't articulate clearly – and without too many buzzwords or hype – why they are making the move, then the program will not be successful," Mundahl says.

2. What training will teachers receive? Most schools already have computers available for their students. In fact, five years ago, 97 percent of public school teachers said they had at least one computer in their classroom every day, according to a 2010 report by the U.S. Department of Education.

But moving to one device for every student changes the purpose technology serves in the classroom, and not every teacher will be comfortable with that shift, says Doreen Barnes, technology integration coordinator at Forest Hills Public Schools in Michigan.

"If we don’t know what to do with it … what we’ve bought is a really expensive paperweight," Barnes says.

Teachers should be trained in advance not just on how to operate the device, but how to use it to enhance their instruction, says Susan Fitzell, a former special education teacher and author of "Using iPads and Other Cutting Edge Technology to Strengthen Your Instruction."

Fitzell suggests parents ask the following: Do teachers know to build students' creative, collaboration and problem-solving skills with the individual devices?

Training should also teach educators how to use data tools to track student progress, provide more rapid feedback and tailor their lessons, Barnes adds.

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3. Will there be a pilot? Rolling devices out to every class and grade level at the same time is a major red flag, says Mundahl, from New Hampton School.

"I've found the way to build a successful program is to start with a clearly articulated mission and then test it out in a series of small-scale pilot programs," says Mundahl. “This allows the school to learn what works and doesn't work for them."

For example, using tablets in an English course may not work if students write essays and longer papers on a regular basis, says Barnes, from Forest Hills.

Introducing devices incrementally also helps schools gauge whether teachers have enough training. New Hampton learned this through an unsuccessful venture into interactive white boards.

"Teachers weren’t using them and we couldn’t figure out why," he says.

This time around, New Hampton School started with teacher training and small-scale pilots in 2010, and phased devices in over several years. The school is now in its second year of a one-to-one iPad program and was recognized as an Apple Distinguished School for 2013-2015, a designation awarded to schools that meet the company’s vision of exemplary learning environments.

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4. What about security? One of the chief concerns parents have with technology is protecting the security and privacy of their teen.

Forest Hills Public Schools use the devices as an opportunity to teach students to be good digital citizens – ones who are mindful of what they share and how they treat people online, Barnes says. The district also uses Google Education accounts, so students can only email teachers and fellow students from their school accounts.

Parents should ask what filters and controls the school puts on devices, Barnes says, though Fitzell suggests those settings should strike a balance so they don’t impede student learning.