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Maryland District Approves Big Chromebook Adoption

Maryland's Montgomery County Public Schools will buy 40,000 Chromebooks and other digital devices for students, embarking on what is believed to be the country's largest K-12 computing initiative featuring the popular—and relatively inexpensive—new laptop computers.

"Our community has been asking MCPS to make more technology available in the classroom, and I am excited to begin ramping up our efforts to provide students with 21st century learning spaces," said Superintendent Joshua Starr in a statement released by the district last week, in advance of Tuesday's unanimous vote in favor of the initiative by the 151,000-student district's board.

The $15 million price tag for the first year of the program is being funded through a mix of operating and capital dollars, as well as federal subsidies for wireless infrastructure. The aim is to give 30,000 devices to students in grades 3, 5 and 6 and dedicate 10,000 devices for high school social studies classes during the 2014-15 school year. A total of 67 schools would be involved during the program's first year. Additional grades and high school subject areas will receive devices in subsequent years.

Chromebooks—notebook computers that cost roughly $300 apiece, run on Google's Chrome operating system, and do not support traditional software programs but do make use of apps—will be the primary device for grades 3-12, while Android-based tablets will be used in grades K-2. 

MCPS students will not be permitted to take the devices home.

In addition to new hardware, the MCPS technology initiative will rely heavily on Google Apps for Education, a suite of cloud-based suite for word processing, email and other functions that encourage collaboration among users.

The district and the Mountain View, Calif.-based online services giant are working "to create a closed, secure environment that will fully comply with MCPS privacy standards and federal regulations," according to the June 10 statement from MCPS.  MCPS students and staff will only be able to use their new devices to communicate with other authorized MCPS account holders.

Google has found itself in hot water in recent months following admissions that it was data-mining the email messages of the 30 million Apps for Education users around the world—in part for advertising purposes. The company now says it has stopped that practice, and a Frequently Asked Questions document released by the Montgomery County district offers assurances around student data privacy. Some observers remain unconvinced, however, that Google is not continuing to build user profiles of students based in part on the content of their email messages, an issue that the company has declined to directly address.

Beginning this school year, the district's new devices will be used to administer new online assessments aligned to the Common Core State Standards.

Maryland participated in the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, a consortium that now includes more than a dozen states plus Washington, D.C. 

According to a memo prepared for the MCPS board, the district needed 20,000 new mobile devices in order to comply with Maryland's PARCC online assessment requirements and to successfully make the shift from the state exam formerly in place. 

Students and staff will be able to use their personal devices to connect to MCPS's upgraded wireless networks.

An effort to install wireless access points, controllers, and other equipment for all schools without adequate wireless networks was begun in September 2013 and is expected to be completed this summer.

To ensure the sustainability of the new infrastructure, the district expects roughly $2 million per year in funds from the federal E-rate program, which provides subsidies to cover schools' and libraries' telecommunications costs. Earlier this month, the FCC, which oversees the E-rate, approved an overhaul of the program that would prioritize wireless networks to the tune of $2 billion.

Laptops, tablets, and Chromebooks are increasingly ubiquitous in U.S. schools. A recent survey by Irvine, Calif.-based nonprofit Project Tomorrow found that one in three public and private school students in the United States now use a school-issued mobile computing device.

While Apple's iPad remains the dominant digital device in the U.S. K-12 market, adoptions of Chromebooks, now produced by a number of manufacturers, including Acer, Dell, HP, and Samsung, have surged. 

The MCPS initiative will eventually involve the purchase of 100,000 devices. Nine district schools piloted the technology last school year.

The first batch of 40,000 devices are to be obtained through a combination of statewide purchasing consortia that aim to help school districts buy technology at discounted prices.


Follow @BenjaminBHerold and @EdWeekEdTech for the latest on ed-tech policies, practices, and trends. 

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