Jeff Faust, Director of Technology for Charlottesville City Schools, gave the Charlottesville School Board an update on plans to purchase 3,000 new laptops for students and staff. Credit: Credit: Josh Mandell, Charlottesville Tomorrow

Charlottesville City Schools plans to purchase 3,000 new laptops this summer, allowing all students and staff to have their own devices in the upcoming school year.

Charlottesville launched its 1-to-1 student device initiative, Blended Learning to Advance Student Thinking — also known as BLAST — in 2011. The division spent $2.4 million then to roll out 1,900 Fujitsu tablets for students in sixth grade through high school. 

Charlottesville ran a pilot of Chromebooks — laptops running Google’s Chrome operating system — with 300 sixth graders at Walker Upper Elementary School in the 2014-2015 academic year. Walker students and teachers reported that the laptops were more durable and easier to use than the tablets.

Charlottesville has spent about $1.2 million since 2015 to purchase and service 2,200 Lenovo Chromebooks. Faust said these devices are nearing the end of their useful lives after three years of daily use and transport by students in third grade through high school. 

At the Charlottesville School Board’s meeting on Thursday, technology director Jeff Faust said that the total three-year cost of 3,000 new Chromebooks would be $1.23 million to $1.56 million, including warranties, software, licensing and setup costs.

Faust said the division plans to issue a request for proposals from technology providers in April. The School Board is slated to vote on a contract in June. 

Faust said the Chromebook purchases would be made with funds designated for technology in the division’s budget and would not require an additional appropriation from the School Board. 

Charlottesville’s adoption of Chromebooks and Google Apps for Education reflects a national trend. Chromebooks represented nearly 60 percent of device shipments to American K-12 schools since 2016, according to a report by Futuresource Consulting last year.

Faust said that since BLAST was introduced in 2011, city schools have increased their internet bandwidth and made their networks more secure. He said Google now claims that its email filters only miss one in 100,000 spam messages.

“That’s a huge change for us, because that’s one of the ways that those malicious pieces of code get in and wreak havoc.”

In a recent survey of 300 Charlottesville students, 96 percent reported having wireless internet access at home. Faust said he hoped the division could provide portable hotspots through school libraries to ensure that students who lack Wi-Fi at home can use their Chromebooks effectively. 

“I don’t want to overpromise here, because I don’t have hard numbers in my hand yet,” Faust said. “But if, within those numbers, we can put those hotspots in the library to check out, … I am committed to making that happen.”

Faust said Charlottesville teachers and administrators are encouraging active use of technology instead of passive consumption of information. 

“When we talk about active use, we’re talking about creating — whether that’s coding, making video, making audio, or designing, collaborating or communicating through technology,” Faust said. 

“I would love to get a sense of how many students maximize the use of all the different tools that are available to them,” said School Board member Lisa Larson-Torres.

Faust said Charlottesville students have been extremely active on Screencastify, a screen video recorder for Google Chrome that can be used to make tutorials and interactive slide presentations.

“I think we are right on the edge of something pretty amazing, when we’re looking at the upticks of people who are using creative tools and making things,” Faust said. “We’re getting to this point where we are just on this creative cliff, in a good way.”

Fre Halvorson-Taylor, a student representative on the Charlottesville School Board, said Charlottesville High School teachers sometimes fail to use the Chromebooks to their full potential.

“As a student, I have experienced technology misuse or abuse by certain teachers,” Halvorson-Taylor said. “It can be used as a replacement for face-to-face learning, and hands-on learning.”

School Board member Amy Laufer asked Faust what city schools were doing to prevent students from accessing inappropriate or distracting web pages on their laptops.

Faust said school networks block searches that include words on a national registry of unsafe search terms for students.

“The best defense for students who are in class is the person in the room who can help them understand that’s not what they are supposed to be doing right now,” Faust said. 

Faust said it was virtually impossible for a filter or an algorithm to determine effectively whether online content is educational.

“If we, as a technology department, were charged with blocking everything that wasn’t educational, that would open up a conversation that would be uncomfortable for a lot of people,” Faust said. “When we talk to our students, they already feel like we block way too much.”

Halvorson-Taylor noted that the division’s current blocking of internet searches including the word “sex” could prevent students from accessing resources about safe sex.

“There are certain things at the high school level that may be both ‘inappropriate’ and educational,” she said. “I would encourage you to ask students — what do you need this computer for, what do you use the internet for, and how we can actually help you, rather than necessarily protect you.”

Faust said he planned to convene a student advisory committee on school technology at CHS next year. 

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Josh Mandell

Josh Mandell graduated from Yale in 2016 and has been recognized by the Virginia Press Association with five awards for education writing, health, science and environmental writing and multimedia reporting.