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Lawrence school board approves switching from MacBooks to iPads for high school students

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Post last updated at 10:41 p.m. Monday, Jan. 23:

Despite commentary from students and faculty that switching from MacBooks to iPads would cause concerns about equity, efficiency and students’ ability to succeed, the Lawrence school board on Monday voted to approve the technology transition.

With a 6-1 vote — all board members voting in favor of switching to iPads, except for board member Kelly Jones — the district will switch from MacBooks laptops to iPad tablets for high schools next year. 

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The board approved financing iPads, iMacs, professional development hours, and AppleCare+ from Apple Inc. in the amount of approximately $3.22 million. The cost will be paid out of the capital outlay budget, and AppleCare+ will cover repairs to the iPads. 

The district’s driving force behind the switch is budget constraints. There are 20 to 25 broken MacBooks per week across the district, according to David Vignery, director of technology. With iPads, the district will be able to avoid the extensive repair costs that come with broken MacBooks.

Vignery anticipated that the switch will save the district almost $4 million over three years. 

Currently, each Free State and Lawrence High School student is issued a MacBook. Switching from MacBooks to iPads, including the trade-in value, would provide the district between a projected $1.2 and $1.4 million in savings next year, according to Vignery’s presentation Monday.

With the iPads, each student will receive a case with a trackpad and keyboard as well as an Apple Pencil, Vignery said. 

Regardless of savings, some board members and public commenters during Monday’s meeting expressed that iPads presented the possibility of huge equity issues. 

Becca Craft, Free State junior and Monday’s student board member, said using iPads will be difficult for many students, especially those in special classes and activities.

Becca Craft, left, Free State junior and Monday’s student board member, shares concerns about the district’s plan to switch from MacBooks to iPads for high schoolers. (Screenshot / USD 497 YouTube)

“As a high school student, I’m a bit apprehensive about transitioning over to iPads, but I am open to it,” Craft said during the meeting. “I guess my main concerns would be if it would have an impact on students’ abilities to achieve excellence, especially [in] things like debate and journalism where students really do need to have their devices, specifically a MacBook, outside of class time just because so much of the work for that — and really photo and video, too — takes place outside of the classroom.”

Barb Tholen, who teaches journalism at Lawrence High School, said she didn’t see how it would be feasible for her to check out laptops to 30-plus students during a class period, then check them back in at the end of class. She said it can take up to 20 minutes for a student just to log into a computer they haven’t logged into before.

“We understand the budgetary concerns, but we’re not quite sure how to execute this without it making our lives really, really difficult,” Tholen said during the meeting. “And the more difficult our lives are, the more difficult it is to manage our classrooms; the more we know our students are going to not benefit from us being able to focus on them the entire time.”

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Craft also shared that as she heads into her senior year next year, she worries she and her peers will struggle with the increased amount of writing-based tasks, such as college application essays and AP class essays. She said this might affect their ability to be set up well for postsecondary success. She noted foreseeable access gaps, as well.

“I guess I’m still just a little concerned about there potentially being an equity issue of some students being able to receive the devices or have access at home to the devices that are gonna best service them for the tasks they’re doing, and then if they aren’t able to have that then they won’t be able to achieve the same level of success as their peers,” she said.

Feedback collected prior to Monday’s meeting from students and staff who participated in a pilot program and tested out iPads between October and December was vague. Vignery said he met with students and staff taking part in the pilot program and then distributed 40 iPads to each high school and encouraged testers to tell their teachers or email him when problems arose. 

According to Vignery, math classes responded they liked the touch screen feature as well as the ability to draw, write, chart math problems, and present in class using the iPad. English classes, however, had a “general unwillingness” to try the iPads because they preferred to keep their MacBooks, he said. There was no data provided to quantify how the pilot program performed.

Teachers of specialized classes, such as coding, journalism, video and photography, were the only ones who said the iPads would not work in their classrooms, Vignery said. A possible “hybrid” scenario was included in his presentation to accommodate those specialized classes. Even with some sort of hybrid model, though, Vignery said it will most likely not be viable to allocate laptops to all students who need to check one out.

Zach Saltz, Lawrence High CTE and media teacher, said during public comment that this will put teachers in tough positions.

“We think this is a huge equity issue,” Saltz said during the meeting. 

“We know what’s gonna happen. We know that some students are gonna be able to afford MacBooks on their own and they’re gonna bring them into the classroom, so what happens to the students that can’t afford that?” he said. “What happens to the students who wanna check out a device for the night, but because we only have a certain amount allotted, that supply has been exhausted? Do we privilege students who are expert practitioners in the field and are studying for college entry course exams, or do we preference students who are just learning a new skill?”

Prior to the vote, Jones raised concerns about the “digital divide,” and what students who don’t have access to laptops or desktop computers at home will do if their iPads are not sufficient to complete their assignments. She said her experience teaching at a university shows her students aren’t using iPads — they’re using laptops.

“I wonder about the district’s responsibility to utilize those dollars to keep up with that reality of the cost of this component of education so that our students can have equity in terms of access to the devices,” Jones said.

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Vignery said the district looked at other devices as well. He said some Windows laptops may be cheaper, but the cost to equip them with programs and systems the district uses would substantially increase the cost. Some districts use Chromebooks, but he said that without internet access, Chromebooks don’t have many capabilities.

“It’s internet-based only,” he said of Chromebooks. “You don’t put apps on a Chromebook. You put extensions, but that’s different.”

Vignery during his presentation repeatedly said students are “digital natives” and said they will be able to adapt to whatever technology is presented to them.

“I taught technology for 17 years before I became an IT director, and I taught with many different devices,” Vignery said. “The constant that I had was my curriculum, and I was only as good as my curriculum because the device was just the tool that was in my classroom to allow us to enhance that as we went forward.”

The district must order the iPads by next month to be able to distribute them by fall, Vignery said. 

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Maya Hodison (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at mhodison (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

— Lawrence Times reporter Mackenzie Clark contributed to this article.

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