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Loaned laptops make learning more efficient for Mars students

| Saturday, Oct. 5, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
Mars Area junior Tyler Grove uses his district issued laptop in an accounting class Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013. At the start of the school year, the district began issuing the computers to all high school students
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
Mars Area junior Tyler Grove (front row, center) uses his district issued laptop in an accounting class Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013. At the start of the school year, the district began issuing the computers to all high school students
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
Mars Area junior Nick Ollio uses his district issued laptop in an accounting class Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013. At the start of the school year, the district began issuing the computers to all high school students

Last school year, Nick Ollio mostly took notes by hand. This year, he's using an app called EverNote for note-taking and archiving.

“I'm writing much better notes. I can see them on my phone. If a friend is sick, I can just email him notes I took. Last year, someone needing notes would have had to copy them all by hand,” said Ollio, 17, a junior at Mars Area High School.

Ollio is one of 1,032 students at the high school who this year received a laptop from the school district to use at school and at home. Students use them for the year and are charged a $57 insurance fee.

Students and staff say the laptops make assignments and learning more efficient. Students lug fewer textbooks because they are now on the computer. Teachers use a single email system with standardized addresses to communicate with students.

“Students need these skills to be successful in the global marketplace. We are slowly phasing out traditional printed textbooks. First- and second-graders — by the time they get to high school — may not even take books home with them,” said Matt Friedman, the district's assistant superintendent.

Friedman says use of the laptops levels the playing field among students.

“They are theirs to use 24-7. No student should have problems accessing a computer to do schoolwork,” he said.

Friedman has worked in several school districts and says the inability of some students to access technology can be frustrating for students and educators.

“Not all students have computers at home, much less a laptop. Some families just have one computer and a lot of people who need to use it,” Friedman said.

Last school year, Mars Area allowed students to bring computers, iPhones and iPads to school, in contrast to many school districts that ban students from bringing cell phones into school.

“They are important for education and learning,” Friedman said. “We decided there was no reason to keep them out of school.”

In the past, students at Mars mostly did computer work in computer labs or at computers in the school's library.

“Technology was kind of separate before. Now it's right in the classroom,” said Todd Colson, principal of Mars Area High School.

Labs are still used for classes such as engineering and robotics that require special software, Colson said.

One month into the school year, students have noticed the difference.

“Lots of times, there were no computers available in the library. The laptops make it a lot easier to get work done,” said Tyler Grove, 16, a junior.

Like other students, Grove is now turning in assignments electronically. For his accounting class, he also uses Aplia, an online homework assignment and coursework system.

The district spent about $300,000 on the laptops, without any special grant or additional state funding, district officials said.

The laptop program will eventually be expanded to include all students in the district.

Rick Wills is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7944 or at rwills@tribweb.com.

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