Community weighs in on Urbana Chromebook program

By Casey S. Elliott -

Urbana City Schools community members largely believe it is important to have technology in students’ hands, according to survey results about the district’s 1:1 Chromebook program.

But the majority of the 66 respondents say they think the cost is a barrier for their family.

The district’s Chromebook Initiative seeks to put the technology in the hands of students in grades 6 to 12. The school board elected to expand the program for incoming sixth and ninth graders next school year at its April board meeting, but delayed setting pricing options until receiving survey responses.

The program currently offers different payment options, ranging from paying $150 up front to own it; $175 ($25 up front and $150 at the end of the year) for the device to own it; to $50 per year for four years to own it. There’s also an option to pay $50 a year to use it at school, but not own it, if parents have comparable or better technology at home. And students in the fee waiver program can use the devices at school at no cost.

Parents asked the school board to consider lowering the costs for families that have technology already and don’t need the Chromebooks, or to request a small fee to just use them at school. That led to the creation of the survey for feedback.

Survey results

The survey results, compiled by Director of Technology Integration Kelli Marsh and Director of Technology Kurt Hanson, indicate 62 percent of respondents felt the cost was a problem for their families; though 56.1 percent of respondents felt technology is important in the hands of students.

The majority, 57.6 percent, said they preferred to pay the $150 up front at the beginning of the school year; 13.6 percent said they preferred to pay the $175 by the end of the first year to own the Chromebook. At the other end of the spectrum, 12.1 percent said they preferred to pay $35 a year and not own the Chromebook. That fee would help cover the cost of the management software the school uses. Another 12.1 percent said they wanted to not pay anything for them, whether their child was in the fee waiver program or not.

The survey shows 37.9 percent of respondents said families with multiple children needing Chromebooks should pay for the first Chromebook on the payment plan and get a 50 percent reduced cost on additional Chromebooks. The next largest group (36.4 percent) said they should pay for the first Chromebook on a payment plan, with additional units being 25 percent off. Fifteen percent said there should be no price break for multiple children, and the rest of responses range from some fees to no fees, or it should be provided by the school since it is a public school district.

For families with adequate technology at home and don’t want Chromebooks, 40.9 percent of respondents said they should pay the $35 fee and keep the Chromebook for the student at school. The next highest vote, 39.4 percent, said there should be no cost to those families, while 19.7 percent said they should pay the $50 cost to use it at school but not own it.

The survey found 36.4 percent of respondents said Chromebooks should only be used in junior high and high school. The next highest voting group, 24.2 percent, said use it for high school only.

Seventy-two percent of respondents said current security measures at the district are sufficient – antivirus, advanced firewalls and efforts to remove spam from reaching students; 15.2 percent said they are not worried about their child’s online security. The remaining responses range from not agreeing with the choices presented to having concerns about schools tracking the devices.

Almost 41 percent of respondents said the Chromebooks should be used at school with no restrictions on the time to be used during the day; 25.8 percent said students should not use them more than 50 percent of the class time. Another 22.7 percent said they should only be used in certain subjects.

Survey participants submitted comments about the program, and those comments range from praise to opposition.

“Students are learning 21st Century Skills that will prepare them for college or the work force,” one responded wrote. “Education must stay current so our kids are competitive in the future.”

Other comments indicated other school districts are using this technology and it is good for Urbana to offer it, too.

“Learning is still learning through books,” one response stated. “You are using the term 21st century learning as a scare tactic for parents to approve what you WANT at the cost of the parent. Even though we do not qualify for a fee waiver program does not mean we can afford the cost of the chromebooks. It will put a hardship on my family. A hardship that I did not choose and that is not necessary for my children to learn and excel in academics. This was not chosen by parents, only by upper members of the school system. We should not (be) forced to pay for something we didn’t choose. As a public school you are required to cover the cost of anything you require for learning.”

Other respondents questioned all the screen time their kids would get in school, and some mentioned some residents do not have internet access to make this beneficial.

Chromebook recommendations

Marsh and Hanson recommended, based on the survey results, to implement the $35 fee to use the Chromebook at school and to consider a reduced cost for families with more than one child participating. They also recommend holding events after hours to see how the technology is being used, along with a “Technology” section on the school’s website to explain the Chromebooks and provide more information and examples of use at the school.

The school board’s Curriculum Committee may meet again to discuss the survey responses and decide what to recommend to the full school board for the Chromebook program. Superintendent Charles Thiel said a decision about costs needs to be made in July so it could be rolled out in time for the upcoming school year.

A Curriculum Committee meeting has not yet been set, Treasurer Mandy Hildebrand said.

By Casey S. Elliott

Casey S. Elliott may be reached at 937-652-1331 ext. 1772 or on Twitter @UDCElliott.

Casey S. Elliott may be reached at 937-652-1331 ext. 1772 or on Twitter @UDCElliott.