Providence schools may go paperless

Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, February 16, 2012

Kindergarten students may soon be learning arithmetic on iPads, as part of a new “paperless classroom” initiative sponsored by the Rhode Island Department of Education. 

The idea of paperless classrooms is gaining traction as state textbook costs swell to $3.9 million annually, according to a report submitted by the Special Legislative Commission to Study the Purchase and Use of Textbooks in Public Schools.

The Rhode Island Department of Education announced a $470,000 grant Jan. 18 “to support the redesign of a school that will use technology to transform education.” All public and charter schools are eligible to apply for the grant, but only one school will receive the funding and function as the pilot school for the paperless classroom program. 

The chosen school will launch the initiative this fall. The program includes digitalized curricula and a “one-to-one” policy, in which every student is paired with an electronic device such as a laptop or an iPad. State Rep. Joy Hearn, D-Barrington and East Providence, who co-sponsored the bill to create the commission and served as co-chair of the commission, lauded the Department of Education for adjusting to the “changing educational landscape,” according to RIDE’s Jan. 18 press release.

Teachers and educational administrators converged to learn more about the possibility of going paperless at the Innovation Powered by Technology Conference, hosted Saturday by the University of Rhode Island.

For educators, cost is one of primary concerns regarding the program’s full-scale implementation.

“You’re looking at a time of budgeting when it may be constrictive,” said Javier Montanez, principal at the Dual Language School at Lima Annex. 

But Dave Fontaine, professor of educational technology at University of Rhode Island and member of the commission, said cost is actually “one of the tremendous benefits.”

“When you incorporate digital content and digital textbooks, you end up saving a lot of money,” he said. “Even in the course of one year, if the cost doesn’t break even, by the second year you’ll certainly be making a profit, or at least saving a significant amount of money.” This is largely due to the ease of updating electronic material, Fontaine added.

Fontaine admitted that a major obstacle to the program is staff training and development. But training staff to work with the technology is a one-time cost, while textbooks require routine spending because they need to be updated every few years, he said.

Educators are also concerned about technological infrastructure to support electronic curricula. “We’d have to be very conscious to make sure that the students and parents and families at homes also have access to the information,” Montanez said. 

Mari-Ellen Boisclair, principal of Anthony Carnevale Elementary School, said she understands how an interactive technological classroom would especially benefit the large population of special-needs students at Carnevale.

While both Montanez and Boisclair expressed interest in the program, neither educator had heard of the grant prior to speaking with The Herald.

The paperless classroom initiative was launched when the Rhode Island General Assembly passed a joint resolution in March 2011, sponsored by Hearn and Sen. Edward O’Neill, I-Lincoln, North Providence and Pawtucket. The resolution established a special legislative commission co-chaired by the two legislators to “study the possibility of bringing electronic learning to Rhode Island classrooms,” according to a General Assembly press release.

The 15-member commission met for the first time in May 2011 with several explicit objectives — to reduce textbook costs, provide students with devices that would allow them to access information, eliminate the growing problem of 40-pound backpacks and conserve the natural resources used to print and distribute textbooks, according to the commission’s report.

Several months passed as the commission held hearings with public agencies, private eBook distributors, education officials and existing paperless programs in other states.

“It was exciting,” Fontaine said. “We started off with what we thought was going to be a simple goal, of simply trying to study the option of moving hard copy textbooks to digital textbooks. What happened was that we found that our mission expanded as we began going through our research. We began calling in experts in the field,” he said.

Among these experts was Jeff Mao, learning technology policy director for Maine. Mao described Maine’s decade-old “one-to-one” Learning Technology Initiative, in which all seventh and eighth grade students in the state are provided with an Apple laptop computer. Maine’s program has been “very successful,” according to a report published by the Maine Education Policy Research Institute. According to the report, 75 percent of teachers find that laptops are beneficial in helping their students meet state learning standards. 

After “lots of discussions, lots of complication and lots of networking,” Fontaine said the commission submitted its report to the state legislature in November, recommending the implementation of a similar program at a Rhode Island school. This pilot school will function as a “statewide model” until the paperless program can be scaled up to a “grander version.” 

“It’s going to be a major shift in education,” O’Neill said.