Charlottesville elementary schools look to balance online, traditional instruction

Third-grader Sam Farmer celebrated with a fist pump when he solved a tricky multiplication problem at Greenbrier Elementary School. “Yes! Take that,” he exclaimed.

While playing an educational computer game, Sam traversed a virtual landscape and solved dozens of math problems in order to cast spells and capture magical creatures. He played the game on his school-issued Chromebook, a laptop running Google’s Chrome operating system.

Charlottesville City Schools expanded its “one-to-one” device program to elementary schools last year, assigning each student in third grade and above their own Chromebook. While middle- and high-schoolers take their computers home with them, elementary students leave theirs in their homerooms.

The Chromebooks have opened up new possibilities in city elementary schools for “blended learning” experiences, which combine in-person instruction with online activities.

“[An online game] certainly does not replace quality instruction, but this technology can help support it,” said Kellie Keyser, Sam’s teacher at Greenbrier.

There are 19 students in Keyser’s class, but the Chromebooks make it possible for her to work with much smaller groups of children. In a recent math lesson, students rotated through three stations. Some played math games on their Chromebooks while others solved problems on a paper worksheet.

With the remaining four students, Keyser demonstrated place value concepts with plastic shapes — squares of 100 cubes, sticks of 10 cubes and single cubes.

“Teaching in a small group allows me to group students by ability or needs on a certain skill, allowing for every student to have their needs met,” Keyser said.

Charlottesville bought 2,200 Lenovo Chromebooks from CDW-G, an Illinois-based technology provider, for $1.2 million in 2015. The district is phasing out the 1,900 Fujitsu tablets that it purchased for $1.9 million in 2011. Some teachers and students were frustrated by the tablets’ slow processing speeds and fragile screens.

The Chromebooks have faster start-up times, and can function smoothly for months without being restarted. They also have proved to be more durable than the tablets.

“Students are better supported … it’s a friendlier environment for them to get their work done,” said Jeff Faust, director of technology for the division.

Greenbrier’s principal, Pat Cuomo, said the Chromebooks create engaging, hands-on learning experiences for students.

“Rather than being passive learners, students are able to actively work in a collaborative and digital environment right from their classroom,” he said.

Stephanie Moore, assistant professor of instructional technology at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, said keeping laptops in the classroom eliminates the need for students to go to a separate computer lab, which can disrupt their learning.

“If you learn something in that lab, you don’t necessarily connect it to what you’re learning in the classroom,” Moore said. “It’s disconnected physically, so it also becomes disconnected cognitively.”

Cuomo said he has received no complaints from Greenbrier parents about the expanded Chromebook program. However, two parents contacted for this story with children at other elementary schools did express some concerns about the prominence of the Chromebooks in their children’s education.

Students at Burnley-Moran Elementary start using Chromebooks for classroom activities as early as kindergarten.

Lakeshia Washington, the mother of a Burnley-Moran first-grader, said a better balance of online and on-paper activities in school would make homework feel like less of a chore for her daughter.

“[Students] are introduced to all this technology at school. But then they have to go home and use a paper format for homework assignments, and it’s foreign to them,” Washington said. “I am aware that things are changing, but I also want my daughter to be able to learn things without a computer or the internet.”

“I’m not a big fan of computers in elementary schools,” said Jamie Leonard, the mother of a second-grader at Venable Elementary. “There is a lot of research about limiting screen time within this age group … I haven’t seen any data on why using computers as educational tools is beneficial and necessary,” she said.

Faust said he trusts teachers to only use the Chromebooks in instances when they can enhance student learning.

“We don’t want to see every kid on their computer all day, every day, with the teacher sitting at their desk. That’s bad instruction,” he said. “[The Chromebooks] should be used when appropriate, and put away when not.”

Keyser said she restricts her students’ use of the Chromebooks during free time at Greenbrier. “I always get many groans when I tell my students they cannot use the Chromebooks during indoor recess on rainy days,” Keyser said. “Although the computers are a great resource, there is still a place for board games, drawing and Legos.”