Twenty school districts in South Dakota are in the midst of a technological revolution.

More than 500 teachers and 5,000 high school students will participate in the Classroom Connections pilot project scheduled to begin in fall 2006. The project, funded by a $4.2 million donation from Citibank to the state, will involve schools implementing one-to-one laptop initiatives.

Classroom Connections was created by Gov. Mike Rounds, and is part of the state's 2010 Education Initiative -- a 10-year roadmap defining South Dakota's educational goals and objectives. The project seeks to incorporate technology into high schools, and enhance students' 21st-century skills.

Beyond the Basics

In addition to enhancing students' 21st-century skills, which include critical thinking, problem solving, research, writing and communication, Rick Melmer, secretary of South Dakota's Department of Education, said students will also learn team-building skills and develop an interest for project-based learning -- which are vital qualities in today's technologically competitive job market.

"We want to prepare our kids for [a] future we know will include technology. We feel the only way to do that effectively is to make sure students have access to technology 24/7," he said. "We spent most of the last several years focused on basic skills through No Child Left Behind [Act], and we think that the next generation of skills are necessary to take those basic skills to another level."

Melmer is not the only proponent of the one-to-one laptop initiative with high expectations of what technology can achieve academically, and of how it can mold future generations.

Joe Graves, superintendent of the Mitchell School District, is on the same page. "We're hoping that the laptop initiative will boost achievement and will create much more technologically literate students, so that when they leave us they are able to do more," he said, adding that laptops will allow students to become self-directed, life-long learners.

Preparation

As with anything new, there are always reservations when implementing technology into classrooms. Despite being alluring learning and research tools, laptops can be distracting. To address this and other potential problems, teachers will undergo five days of intensive training at Dakota State University. This training will focus on machine usage, classroom management and curricula building.

"There's going to be some problems," Graves said. "There's going to be inappropriate use. There are going to be students doing things with computers that they are not supposed to be doing. So we're going to ask parents to help us control that, and we're going to do our best to monitor it."

In addition to facilitating ongoing professional training, participating school districts had to demonstrate faculty commitment and community involvement, as well as the financial ability to participate in the pilot -- since the state only compensates one-third of the implementation cost.

Final Grade

The school districts participating in the pilot have selected Gateway as their laptop vendor, and will spend about $1,207 per laptop. The price includes hardware, software, warranty and teacher training. For every $2 spent on the machines, school districts will receive $1 from the state's incentive fund. Nonparticipating schools, however, are also guaranteed the same price. As with textbooks, laptops will be distributed to students at no cost at the beginning of the school year and collected at the end.

School districts are also responsible for creating wireless access points in classrooms so students can roam freely throughout campus using their laptops, as well as negotiating such contracts with various vendors.

To ensure the project's success, students' and teachers' performance will be measured throughout the pilot by Technology and Innovation in Education, a Rapid City-based nonprofit think tank that provides assistance through professional development and leadership on educational issues.

Performance will also be evaluated based on student responses, the length of time spent on the laptops in the classroom and the variety of ways in which the laptops are used.

Graves said he believes the 2010 Vision for Classroom Connections will be successful because students and faculty are ready for the next step and are excited about it. He said there is no question that the project will be successful, but the challenge will be the extent to which that success can be documented.

The Classroom Connections project also aims at reducing the digital divide, and will involve schools with various locations and diverse demographics.

"Our goal is to provide all kids with that opportunity," Melmer said, "and we look forward to doing that this fall."

Karen Stewartson  |  Managing Editor