Having school-issued Macbooks for a year, students and staff react to the change. (Ben Hobbs)
Having school-issued Macbooks for a year, students and staff react to the change.

Ben Hobbs

The verdict is still out

Although reviews over the MacBooks are generally positive, is District oversight too much?

February 27, 2020

Staying on course with the changing tide in education, the Blue Valley School District pivoted in the summer of 2018 to provide all students, sixth grade and above, with their own laptop. Each high school student received an Apple Macbook Air and each middle school student was given a Google Chromebook, leveling the technology playing field for students across the District. But, with the MacBooks being District-owner and issued to students, it isn’t a far-fetched belief that student use of the District-issued laptops is monitored. Which begs the question: is it?

The majority of the Northwest student body seems to think so. According to a recent survey of 129 students conducted by The Express, 25.6 percent said they were very worried the Blue Valley District could be monitoring student activity, along with 48.8 percent adding they were relatively disturbed by this possibility.

Freshman Claire Doherty, who first received her MacBook at the start of the school year, harbors similar fears and said no one knows the District’s observation capabilities.

“I know they check your search history and send it to parents or whatever. And I know that they block a lot of stuff and they do check a lot of things for sure,” Doherty said. “They could probably use a lot of stuff that they tracked to their advantage, like if you get in trouble or something.”

Despite popular belief, Director of Blended Learning Brad Moser dispelled these worries and said the application Securly is the extent of the District’s monitoring capabilities.

Mandated by the Child Internet Protection Act (CIPA) to block access to inappropriate content, Moser said the BV District employs Securly as a filtering system in order to achieve this. In addition, since the MacBooks are transportable, Moser said the District needed an application which would be active anywhere a student travels.

Responding to the search limitations, sophomore Lindsey Farthing hasn’t been much of a problem so far, except when trying to do homework.

“I think that they’ve been pretty good. I honestly thought [the District and Securly] were going to block a lot more than they did,” Farthing said.

“But, sometimes it’s really annoying when you’re trying to do homework and then you try and click on websites and they’re blocked.”

If a search violates the permitted content, Principal Amy Pressly said Securly notifies the administrative team at the school which the student attends, leaving it up to them to decide whether to act upon it.

“There are some keywords that Securly has set and so anytime a student gets on one of those keywords, all four administrators, Securly itself and then somebody at District office get that notification,” Pressly said. “During the school day we monitor those.”

Depending on which grade level a student who triggered a Securly alert falls in, that grade level administrator is responsible for figuring out the intent of the search. Pressly said she and her fellow administrators have improved at deciphering each search, as well as teachers have begun letting the admin team know when a class activity could trigger an alert. Even with the improved communication, Pressly said the administrators have received up to 20 notifications a day, and when acting upon each alert, that can become time consuming.

If a student repeatedly triggers Securly alerts, Moser said it isn’t outside the realm of possibilities for that student to get their MacBook taken away. The District would like to avoid this reality at all costs, he said.

“We want to make sure our students all have access to the tools that [are] needed to be successful in the classroom,” Moser said.

In spite of the watchful eye of Securly, Moser said students should feel safe that they aren’t being monitored.

Damaging a laptop or charger

According to Moser, the BV District has an insurance policy covering all expenses related to either damage done or misplacement of a MacBook or power adapter until the end of the 2019-20 school year. For the 2020-21 school year and beyond, Moser said the District has yet to decide if it will continue to self-insure the laptops or switch to a system where students are responsible for covering the cost of a replacement, similar to the systems already in place in the school libraries.

If the District chooses to go the route of instituting a pay for a replacement plan in the future, this could prove costly for students as a new Apple MacBook Air starts at $1,299.00 and a new power adapter costs $79.00, according to the Apple website.

One year in, there have been 134 reported issues related to the MacBooks at BVNW, according to BVNW Technology Integrations Specialist Nicholas Deffer. The issues range from broken screens to missing power adapters. If there’s an issue with a MacBook or power adapter, a student must explain what happened to an administrator and get signed permission prior to receiving a replacement.

Reactions

A year to the day after the first batch of BVNW students received their MacBooks, principal Amy Pressly said teachers and students alike have yet to figure out how to truly harness the capabilities of the District-issued devices in the classroom.

“We wanted to use them to make sure that we’re truly enhancing what the kids are learning [and] how they’re learning in a way that they couldn’t if they didn’t have their MacBook,” Pressly said. “So, I think we’re just in the process of really making that change. I think it’s probably a three to five year shift before we will see a true blended situation here.”

Part of the hold up, BVNW Technology Integrations Specialist Nicholas Deffer said, is due to teachers trying to adapt to a new learning platform. And although a well- intended move by the District, Deffer said the feedback he’s received over the MacBooks has been mixed because of this.

“People are really quick to jump to the negative,” Deffer said. “There’s a learning curve to it. And so, as long as people are willing to accept that, they are moving forward with it.”

After losing the foreign language lab during the District’s ransomware attack at the beginning of the school year, when a virus wiped out the lab’s desktop computers, spanish teacher Kari Hillen dubbed the MacBooks a saving grace.

Previously using the foreign language lab for speaking and listening assignments, Hillen said the department would have had nowhere to go for the three languages offered at BVNW: Spanish, French and Latin, if not for the MacBooks. And, although requiring a little bit of trial and error at first, Hillen said her classes are back on track.

In addition to the success Hillen has had so far with the MacBooks, she also serves on the Blended Learning team at Northwest. Comprised of five teachers: Hillen, Deffer, Laura Deffer, Keri Schumacher and Hannah Werth, the team serves to aid the staff in the switch to a Blended Learning platform and provide new ideas on how to utilize the laptops.

Despite the assistance offered, some teachers have still run into problems. One such case includes a portion of the science department. Since the MacBooks aren’t touch screen, department chair and chemistry teacher Nanet Sula said the laptops aren’t equipped to meet the needs of the chemistry and physics classes.

“The reason we weren’t real happy with it in our classrooms is if we truly want the students to use it as notetaking and all that, not having a touchscreen makes it very difficult for a chemistry student to take complete notes,” Sula said. “You can’t type a unit cancellation problem very easily [on a MacBook].”

Due to the incompatibility of the MacBooks to the subject matter, Sula said the science department ordered a classroom set of draw pads for Physics classes as well as three additional ones for the three chemistry teachers to maintain productivity in the classroom.

For complaints fielded from students, Deffer said most of the negative feedback is tied to problems with the functionality of their issued laptop. Nine times out of 10, he said, this can be fixed by restarting the device.

Many have found the laptops to be helpful, though. According to a recent survey of 129 students by The Express, 93 percent answered that they were satisfied with their MacBooks, using them for a variety of reasons in addition to school work.

Junior Declan Franey said he prefers his District-issued laptop over his personal one at home.

“It’s definitely helped a lot. I feel like I can barely remember not having it. It’s just a very organized place for all my notes and especially during Halftime, [as] I’m always doing work,” Franey said. “It’s very helpful.”

In spite of mixed reviews, Deffer said he is hopeful the kinks will be worked out in due time.

“When you look at the resources that we have, I think that it’s moving in the right direction,” Deffer said.

Pressly seconded Deffer’s thoughts and said as teachers and students continue to adapt, the strides made in the near future could be unrecognizable compared to to the hiccups endured currently.

“I tell people that 10 years from now we’re going to look back on what education used to look like and [be] amazed,” Pressly said. “I can’t tell you what that 10 years out is going to look like; I just really believe that 10 years from now it’s going to look different.”

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