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Originally published Saturday, September 9, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Getting Started

Laptops to help students, teachers

All students enrolled in Shoreline's public secondary schools now can have a Macintosh laptop for use at school and at home during the school...

Special to The Seattle Times

All students enrolled in Shoreline's public secondary schools now can have a Macintosh laptop for use at school and at home during the school year.

This program is possible because Shoreline residents passed a bond measure enabling the school district to purchase and support the laptops. Parents can opt out of the program, but very few have.

For this family's eighth-grader, the excitement of receiving a laptop makes returning to school not so bad.

In fact, laptop pickup and parent meetings started in late August, so kids could arrive on the first day with laptops in their backpacks, ready to get started.

They'll be using these computers to do research, write papers, develop presentations, submit homework and communicate with teachers, among other things. However, they're directed not to use them for social communication, games or other nonacademic activities. That includes no visiting MySpace.com or chatting online with friends, for example.

Besides these directives, the students must accept responsibility for taking care of their computers, which means no food fingers near the keyboard and no leaving the laptop around to get stolen.

Shoreline's program does provide parental control software so concerned parents can limit their kids' time on the Internet at home or monitor what sites their kids are visiting. (Alternatively, clicking on the Internet's History tab can reveal that information.)

Luckily, the laptops are insured so that a stolen or accidentally damaged one can be replaced by paying the $100 deductible fee. During the district's pilot program at Kellogg Middle School last year, fewer than 10 laptops were lost or stolen out of 900 used by students.

By the way, Kellogg was one of 16 schools nationally to win the Intel and Scholastic Schools of Distinction Award for its laptop program. This year, the rest of Shoreline's middle and high schools begin the program.

Einstein Middle School principal Bill Dunbar notes that the amount and range of good-quality educational materials accessible by computer has increased considerably in recent years. Also, teachers have become more competent using technology and more aware of the expanding educational resources/materials available.

He adds that part of the job of a secondary school teacher with 120-plus students is to challenge and engage each of them, though they come with very different academic competencies and abilities. Fortunately, today's technology-based curricula can be more individualized, enabling students to learn at their own speed and level.

In addition, the vast amount of visual and audio information available online can expand and enhance the learning experience tremendously. From watching video footage of a volcano erupting to viewing a museum collection or historical site while listening to a curator talk about it, technology can enrich and strengthen the learning process.

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"At Einstein, we've spent the last couple of years finding the best technology-rich content, tools and materials, and teachers have been developing them into curricula they can use in their classrooms," Dunbar explains.

He adds that teachers who are still unsure about using technology in their lessons are encouraged to choose one, two or three things they can teach using effective online tools and/or materials, and then gradually add more.

I ask how much the kids already know about using computer technology, and he answers that most have learned to use productivity software such as word processing, database and presentation applications; most know how to search for information on the Internet; and many can keyboard with reasonable speed.

Shoreline students learn these basic computing skills in elementary school, but for those who haven't, there are elective courses available in middle school to catch up. Many have also acquired computing skills at home, since about 80 percent of Shoreline's families have at least one computer with Internet access at home, according to an informal parent survey.

The same survey noted that Shoreline families believe it's important for kids to acquire technology skills while in school because colleges and employers now expect their students/employees to be competent using basic technology tools.

As a Shoreline parent, I'm wondering whether the kids (and my child in particular) will be reading increasingly more text on a computer screen rather than a textbook. I support the laptop program, but do worry about them reading text on a computer screen for long periods every day and every homework-filled night.

Dunbar says there is no plan to replace course books with scrolling text screens, but I still worry a bit about excessive screen time. We'll see how this all unfolds. At the moment, I'm excited to see how my school district, my child's school and my child will develop.

Last year's laptop pilot program reported several positive outcomes for both students and teachers, including new abilities to:

• Access current information and multiple perspectives.

• Access rich and dynamic subject content with audio and video elements.

• Access vast resources.

• Increase assessment options (teachers).

• More easily continue working on school assignments at home (students).

• Stop having to schedule lab time or classroom computer turn-taking at school (teachers).

This year, teams of technology integration specialists will be helping teachers integrate technology into their curricula.

Shoreline's director of instructional technology, Jim Golubich, speaks to parents in the video shown on laptop pickup day. He concludes:

"Technology is not a substitute for good teaching. It's a means for Shoreline's high-quality teachers to expand their talents with additional resources and options to better meet the needs of all their students. These tools complement and expand — not supplant — the existing repertoires of effective classroom strategies that are already practiced on a daily basis."

Write Linda Knapp at lknapp@seattletimes.com; to read other Getting Started columns,

go to: www.seattletimes.com/gettingstarted

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