The hum of electronic devices will be louder than the scratching of pencils in Wilmington schools this fall.
Each Wilmington Area School District student — kindergarten through grade 12 — will have his or her own personal electronic device this year. According to school officials, this is a first for any district in Lawrence County.
In addition, the district is one of only 500 school districts worldwide to be designated a Google Reference District, an honor bestowed by invitation only and which showcases the district as a leader in using technology for education.
The technology one to one or "1:1" rollout provides every student from kindergarten through fourth grade with an iPad tablet for daily in-school use. It provides a Chromebook laptop computer to every student grades five through 12, which they can take home at night.
This is a big change from the last few years, when the district had a limited number of Chromebooks with which classes had to take turns using during the school day.
Superintendent Dr. Jeffrey Matty said Thursday that the district has been saving money for years to launch the program, and thus it will not be a financial burden to provide all the devices. The program already began with a "soft rollout," in the spring in which the laptops were provided to fifth- and ninth-graders.
High school Principal Michael Wright said the 1:1 arrangement makes it possible for teachers to make an assignment for students to access on the computer then take it home and complete it. While they are working, they may communicate online with other students, and teachers can even check student progress on an assignment from home in the evening.
Wright said that the digital access will not replace actual textbooks, but in many cases, an online text will be provided.
Matty said the 24-hour access provides students with "a lot more than Google searching." He added, "It will transform our mindset and make technology an expected tool." He said the access to the computers encourages students "to use STEM thought processes or activities in every classroom."
The new set-up also makes it possible for teachers to personalize lessons by adding remedial and enhancement software programs.
Students will be able to participate in educational opportunities they could not have without the computer; for example, virtual "labs" in different subjects. Even gym students will benefit, said Matty, explaining that one physical education teacher plans to make use of the Chromebooks to let students track their fitness statistics.
Another new technology being tested in the district this year is a "virtual reality" cart to be shared by different classes. By putting on these glasses and using the devices, students may, for example, tour a museum, or the Great Wall of China or the human heart, Matty said.
He said that providing this level of technology to district students is a "global equity issue" that will put them on par with their counterparts throughout the world.
"We are changing our mindset and rebranding Wilmington to be a cutting-edge school," he said.
The nuts and bolts of the program includes charging parents a $25 fee that covers insurance, and students receive instruction on the basics of "good digital citizenship," which covers such topics as proper online behavior and online safety. Controls are also in place with Matt Maine, the district's technology manager, explaining that all use of the school's devices goes through the school's filter and dangerous sites can be blocked or social sites such as Facebook and Twitter disabled during school hours.
Maine said that the Google Reference District is not something a district can apply for but is a direct result of Wilmington's focus on digital education.
He explained that districts are "noticed" by Google which then invites them to apply. He said Wilmington received its invitation in January or February and followed it by completing a lengthy application and agreeing to fulfill their requirements.
Why Wilmington? "I guess we caught their eye," Maine said, explaining it could be because of the district's intensive use of Google products including the Chromebooks and applications such as Google G-Suite and Google Classroom, a virtual classroom that teachers for grades five through 12 can use.
He said one requirement of the membership is that the district has to give tours to teachers and administrators from other districts who want to view the digital program. In exchange, the district also gets "Beta Access" to new products but the school must agree not to share these with the public.