Williston Northampton School to issue portable Microsoft computers to every student and teacher in September

Originally published Monday, August 12, 2013 in the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

EASTHAMPTON — When classes start next month, students at the Williston Northampton School will have something new to put in their backpacks: A portable Microsoft Surface Pro computer.

The school has purchased 650 of the touch-screen “laptops in tablet form,” as Microsoft describes them — enough for every one of Williston’s 543 students and 85 teachers, and a few in reserve.

The tablets, which sell for about $800 apiece, have been customized with school-approved software and equipped with USB ports to connect to keyboards, printers and hard drives, said Andrew Shelffo, Williston’s chief information officer, who oversees technology at the school.

Students will be able to write papers, check their grades, share documents, access research websites and, yes, even play games on their portable tablets. The 2-pound Surface Pro computers come with a stylus, so users can handwrite as well as type notes on the 10.6-inch screen.

Williston administrators say the new tablets are part of an ongoing effort to use technology to boost learning at the private school.

“We’ve already had teachers who are pretty innovative in using technology in the classroom,” said Head of School Robert Hill. “This will help us continue that.”

For the scope of its investment, Williston has been named one of Microsoft’s Innovative Schools. The title is given to schools participating in the company’s 10-year Partners in Learning program aimed at inspiring new ways to use technology in K-12 education.

In exchange for showing it has made computer technology widely available to students through software, cloud computing storage and email, Shelffo said Microsoft gave Williston a discount on the price of the tablets and provided training for teachers.

The company will also be monitoring how students and teachers at Williston use the new computers.

“We’re told we are one of the first schools in the country to go to a one-to-one device,” Shelffo said. “Our kids and teachers are going to be coming up with ceative uses.”

Allison Martin, a spokeswoman for Microsoft, confirmed that Williston is one of the company’s Innovative Schools. She said further questions about the program could best be answered by a review of the Partners in Learning Program’s website, www.pil-network.com/schools/innovative.

At Williston, the search for a device that could be used schoolwide goes back about five years.

“That’s when we first began thinking about the type of devices we wanted our students to be proficient on,” said Shelffo, who lives in Northampton and serves on that city’s School Committee. “We asked ourselves, ‘What device do we want to be able to put into their hands?’”

The tablets offer teachers new ways to teach students organizational and writing skills, and more opportunities for students to work together on assignments, Shelffo said. Anticipating the move to portable devices, Williston recently completed a $100,000 upgrade of its wireless infrastructure so both groups could have easier access to the Internet.

Kim Evelti, a math teacher who has recently been named associate academic dean at Williston, said she’s been using a portable tablet for years in her work with students.

“I don’t like to write my notes on paper because I can lose them,” she said. “On the tablet, I can edit my notes and then give them to my classes.”

Evelti said many schools are struggling to get beyond the “laptop cart” model of technology, where computers are available only in the classroom or library. But allowing students to bring their own computer devices to school can also be problematic.

“As a teacher, working with different devices gobbles up more of your time,” said Evelti, whose duties as dean include academic technology. “Our main goal is to remove barriers to integrating technology into the classroom. Giving a consistent device removes a whole lot of those barriers.”

Evelti said Williston learned from an experiment launched three years ago, where middle school students were allowed to take laptops home with them. Having portable devices made it easier to check on homework assignments and communicate with teachers, she said. And there were few if any problems with laptops getting lost or broken.

School parent Shannon Greenwood, the mother of two children at  Williston and one recent graduate, is enthusiastic about the new devices.

“I’m really happy the school has decided to move forward on consolidating technology that students and teacher use,” she said. “I know from my own kids that when they’re all on different laptops, group projects can be hard.”

When asked if the new Microsoft computers also make it easier to accept an annual $500 technology fee Williston began charging school families this year, Greenwood said, “Yes, definitely.

“Since this is a residential boarding school, a lot of parents have the expectation that they will have to purchase a specific type of computer for their children,” added Greenwood, who is past president of Williston’s Parent Association. “This is something people have been hoping for.”

In addition to distributing new computers, Shelffo said Williston will be rolling out new lessons in “digital literacy” this fall, to alert students to the do’s and dont’s of online communications.

“We’ll be talking to them about how to behave on Facebook and what their digital footprint is for college,” he said. “This is an important part of their lives.”

Reprinted with permission of the Daily Hampshire Gazette. All rights reserved.

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